Conversation on Humanism, Irreligiosity, and Education in Nigeria with Dr. Leo Igwe — Session 2

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He holds a Ph.D. from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria. In this educational series, we explore Nigeria through Dr. Igwe’s expertise.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When you mention an ineffective education system, what are the main weak points?

Dr. Leo Igwe: First of all, in many rural communities, there are no schools to attend. Children who want to learn cannot learn. Other children trek several kilometers to attend the nearest schools where there may not be enough teachers or classrooms.

In some of these schools, children learn under the trees, in make-shift structures. Many classrooms have no desks or benches, and children sit on the floor to take lessons. Where the schools are available, there are no qualified teachers.

Many teachers are poorly paid. Their monthly salaries do not come regularly. In many cases, teachers retire into poverty because they receive very little as a pension — that is if the pension is paid. The condition is worse for those who teach in private schools.

For instance, some teachers in private schools in Ibadan in South West Nigeria are paid as low as 50 dollars a month. Some of these teachers are not paid during the holidays and they are not entitled to any pension. Now I ask: what kind of knowledge would such teachers impact?

So generally, the morale of teachers in the education system is low. Even in situations where there are schools and qualified, well-paid teachers, these teachers are compelled to teach in accordance with certain religious ideologies and traditions.

Education is largely by rote learning and memorization of what is allowed to be taught in the classrooms. There is very little going on in terms of research, experimentation, and exploration of new frontiers of knowledge.

There is a disdain for cutting-edge ideas. The place for creativity, innovation, and invention is marginal. Merit is not always rewarded. Originality, adventurous, and independent thinking are not encouraged, especially when such ideas are perceived to pose a threat to religions or the authorities.

So, education as a facility that would lead people out of ignorance is not the case. The education system has failed to provide the impetus that is needed for national development and renewal.

Jacobsen: How can individual Nigerian parents work to improve the education for their children?

Igwe: Parents can help improve the education of their children by ensuring that children continue to learn even when they return from school. Parents should not rely solely on what the children are taught at the school.

They should make sure that the homes are continuing education centers. Parents should also lobby for the improvement of the quality of education in the schools. They should pressure the government to employ more qualified teachers and pay them well.

They should get the government to build and equip the classrooms, and ensure that there are learning aid materials for children. Parents should understand the importance of separating education and religious indoctrination.

Too often religion has so much influence in the educational system due to pressure from parents. Parents should realize that what is taught in classrooms need not be compatible with what children are told at home or at their churches and mosques; that education is not the handmaid of religion.

In fact, parents should know that religious interference in schools undermines the education, growth and development of their children.

Jacobsen: How can we inculcate critical thinking and science training in the young Nigerian population?

Igwe: By encouraging critical thinking, rewarding scientific discovery, and investing in scientific research; by Africanizing and Nigerianizing, not westernizing, critical thinking and the scientific method of acquiring knowledge.

Too often it is mistakenly said that critical or scientific thinking is a Western value. No, it is not. Critical reasoning is a human property. Scientific thought is a human value, and not an exclusive heritage of any culture or race.

Nigeria must make inculcation of critical thinking skills part of its curriculum and ensure that the subject is taught from the primary to the university level. As a society, Nigeria needs to show that it values those who question ideas and demand evidence, those who inquire, investigate, and examine beliefs.

Nigeria should honour its adventurous thinkers and get the young ones to know that acquiring critical thinking skills is a venture worth pursuing. Nigeria cannot instill critical thinking when it makes criminals of those who criticize religions, and does not guarantee freedom of expression. The country must ensure that critical inquiry is applied in all areas of human endeavor.

So, critical thinkers must be protected and defended, not penalized, prosecuted, jailed, or executed. Nigeria should invest in science, in the training scientists and in scientific research. Nigeria should fund scientific experiments, set up science laboratories, and celebrate excellence in scientific research. Young Nigerians should be encouraged to choose science subjects and to become scientists.

Jacobsen: Why is the religious ideological filter so pervasive and damaging to society, rather than positive and beneficial?

Igwe: Religious ideology is pervasive because it thrives on fear and ignorance. It recruits easily and is not mentally demanding. Blind obedience is the main obligation and qualification. Apparently, religious ideology is for the intellectually lazy, for minds not inclined to diligence, rigor, and adventure.

For minds that are closed and are unfree, but more especially in Christianity and Islam, this ideology manifests in its insidious forms because, backed by powerful political and financial interest groups in the West and the Middle East, their influence is potent and pervasive.

The ideology has been on a rampage as evidenced by the political and militant demands for Sharia law in northern Nigeria, the hijab crisis in schools across southwest Nigeria, and witch persecution in many parts of the country.

The ideology is damaging by any stretch because it holds the Nigerian mind hostage and prevents it from unfettered expression and intellection. Religion enslaves the mind. Ideologies that spring from it colonize the intellect.

The people even the highly educated are afraid to think freely and openly exercise their minds. They are afraid to challenge the religious dogmas. They are reluctant to condemn acts of bloodletting committed in the name of religion.

Many Nigerians are unwilling to think outside the box of their religion, their god(s), or their holy book. Unfortunately, in pursuant of these competing versions of the faith ideology, Nigerians have inadvertently turned their country into a proxy battleground where the cold war between Christianity and Islam rages endlessly at Nigeria’s and Nigerians’ expense.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Leo, my friend.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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