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Why Study The Classics In Modern Nigeria?

Posted: Nov 2, 2015 at 5:53 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Jonathan E. Ifeanyi

A few months ago, I visited the University of Ibadan, and upon entering Dr Olakunbi Olasope’s office in Classics Department I encountered a certain paper which I saw there on a table and which Dr Olasope generously gave to me. The paper, published online with the title ‘On Rainbows and Butterflies: The Classics, the Humanities and Africa’, was written by Michael Lambert of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Lambert, a ‘white’ South African classicist, was a visiting scholar to the University of Ibadan in 2012, during the annual Constantine Leventis Memorial Lecture. But he wrote the paper as a sort of negative testimony of what he saw at Ibadan after he had returned to South Africa.

“The purpose of teaching the Humanities and, in particular, the Classics, in a postcolonial African context, has been the subject of intense debate within South African and African universities”, writes Lambert in his interesting paper. “In this paper, I contribute to this debate by considering how the University of Ibadan in Nigeria has appropriated the classical tradition in a post-colonial context, and what classicists in South Africa can learn from the Ibadan exemplum.”

He then cites Mahmood Mamdani, currently Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda, who “has argued, in a keynote address on the importance of research in a university, that the market-driven model dominant in African universities has nurtured a ‘consultancy culture’ which has had a negative impact on the quality of postgraduate education and research”.

On that point, Mamdani writes:

“Today intellectual life in universities has been reduced to barebones classroom activity. Extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels. Workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem. All this is part of a larger process, the NGO-ization of the university. Academic papers have turned into corporate-style power-point presentations. Academics read less and less. A chorus of buzz words has taken the place of lively debates.”

Mamdani goes on, says Lambert, “to suggest that the most important question confronting higher education in Africa today is ‘what it means to teach humanities and social sciences … in the post-colonial African context.’ ‘What does it mean,’ he asks, ‘to teach humanities and social sciences in a location where the dominant intellectual paradigms are products not of Africa’s own experience, but of a particular Western experience?’ As an antidote to the consultancy culture, which results in information gathering in order to answer pre-packaged research problems, Mamdani makes a plea for the return to what he calls ‘basic’ research, which, as the above question illustrates, is ‘to identify and question assumptions that drive the very process of knowledge production.’ Illustrating the fact that Africa, not Europe or North America will have to produce the bulk of Africa’s postgraduates, Mamdani cites the case of Nigeria, which had

one university with 1 000 students at independence, but thirty years later, in 1991, had 41 universities with 131 000 students. The sheer weight of numbers alone demonstrates that the colonial model of ‘first degree in Africa and postgraduate degree overseas’ is simply no longer feasible or desirable for the majority of African graduates; Africans must develop their own postgraduate programmes for Africans which may well engage with Western intellectual paradigms, but must ceaselessly interrogate them. …Whilst Mamdani does not directly refer to the study of the Classics in his paper, I would like to tease out some of the implications of Mamdani’s arguments for us, as classicists here in South Africa, by focusing on my experiences in 2012 at the only Department of Classics at a Nigerian university – the University of Ibadan.”

Lambert then gives us a brief history of Ibadan Classics, seeing something “important” only during the years of Professors Ferguson (a European) and Thompson (an African), both of whom “appreciated that, if the study of the Classics was to survive in post-colonial Nigeria, Africa had to have an important place in the degree programme. As early as 1962, the year in which the University attained its autonomy, a compulsory course on Africa in Classical Antiquity was included in the degree programme. Furthermore, in the sixties, less emphasis was placed on the study of Latin and Greek and more on what we call Classical Civilisation courses, especially on courses which focused on the interaction of the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean basin with Africa and the Near East”. But, by 1994, (ironically when Prof. Thompson was still in charge!), the Department of Classics had started concentrating “on developing its own post-graduate programme and

producing a brace of home-grown doctoral graduates, who have shaped the current generation of classicists at Ibadan.” Lambert takes a critical look at the contents of the theses (both Masters and doctorates) written by scholars at Ibadan, the topics of which, according to him, “reveal the extent of the comparative emphasis at Ibadan”.

After this, Lambert even takes a critical look at the number of teachers as well as students at Ibadan. He writes:

“With eleven members of staff and a plethora of courses on offer which would be the envy of many a European or American university (let alone a South African one), one would imagine that the student enrolment is very high. This is not the case. Of the 20 000 students at Ibadan, about 2 500 are enrolled for degrees offered in the Arts Faculty (12.5%). About 100 students in toto are enrolled for courses in Classical Civilisation and Classical Languages. However, this number is more than trebled by students from outside the Department of Classics and the Arts Faculty (e.g. Law), who enroll for courses in Latin for Lawyers, two courses in Roman Law, a course on the Historical background to the New Testament and courses on the Classical tradition in English and French literature.

“When I commented on the relatively small number of students in relation to the staff complement, some of the staff members responded that Ibadan was not interested in ‘massification’ and that they strongly believed that the smaller the class, the better the quality of education….So how has Ibadan done it? As in South Africa, the teaching of Latin has disappeared from Nigerian schools. The University of Ibadan is the only university in Nigeria which has retained its Classics Department. Why?”

The reasons listed by Lambert are simply funny. Firstly, he writes, “the Department promotes itself very well and has an enviable public profile which extends way beyond the university gates. In the marketing brochures publicising the work of the department, the classicists argue that the study of Greek and Latin, as well as the study of Greek and Roman cultures in their complex totalities, ‘are excellent tools for work, further learning, insight into oneself and the development of skills’; the study of the Classics, argues the author of the departmental brochure, equips ‘the student, through comparative Classical education with better appreciation of the values of his/her socio-cultural, political and economic environment’; the objective of the department is ‘to produce competent and meticulous graduates with the capacity to carry out critical analysis for relevant careers which require sound and balanced judgment, such as administration, journalism, banking, teaching, law and the diplomatic service.’ ”

Secondly, he says, “the Department keeps track of its alumni and lists the graduates in Classics who have distinguished themselves in many different fields: educational administrators, top civil servants, foreign service personnel, leaders of commerce, banking and industry, lawyers, creative writers, journalists, radio and television executives. At the Leventis Memorial Lecture which I gave, the chairman of the session was the pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Council of the University of Lagos, Dr. G. Onosode, himself a graduate in Classics in the 1950s, who also happens to be one of the richest men in Nigeria.” Personalities like Onosode (may his soul rest in peace!) and not the academics at Ibadan, he seems to imply, sustain the existence of Ibadan Classics with their money! “It is clear that Dr. Onosode’s patronage of the Classics Department and his prestige in Nigerian society at large reflect one of the features of Nigerian politics—the

network of patron-client relationships which seem to underpin and oil (I suspect that this is the most appropriate word) the functioning (and in some cases the dysfunctioning) of Nigerian society”, he writes. “Certainly, in his impassioned address to the audience, largely composed of delegations of schoolchildren, at the Leventis lecture, his defence of his classical education resonated at times with what British colonials claimed about the value of a classical education in their pursuit and administration of their empire. This extraordinary alliance of the Classics and big industry underpins the Leventis Lecture itself; Constantine Leventis (1938-2002), who read Classics at Clare College, Cambridge, made his millions in Nigeria and Ghana establishing factories which manufacture bottle tops and make beer (‘Continental Breweries’). The Leventis Memorial lecture is held in his honour…”

Thirdly, he says: “…apart from this productive marriage with the captains of industry (dead and alive), the Department maintains a healthy link with local schools which could provide the university with students. Schoolchildren were bussed in for the lecture in their droves; they were encouraged to ask questions (by Dr Onosode) after the lecture (and some did) and I had to have my photograph taken with each school in turn after the lecture…”

Fourthly, he writes: “…the Department not only maintains links with schools, but also fosters a lively student Classical Association called ‘Hoi Phrontistai’, which is run by the students who elect their own executives. This association presides over the Classics Press Club, the members of which write articles, poems, songs and jokes usually about campus life, which are published every week on the departmental notice-board. In addition, the students run an orientation programme for first years, an oratory competition and an interdepartmental debating competition. In addition, Classics students have their own football team which, apparently, is a force to be reckoned with. The session I had with the students was very ably chaired by the head of ‘Hoi Phrontistai’.”

After all this, he writes:

“So far I have answered the question ‘How?’ but not the question ‘Why?’ Any classicist worth his or her salt has been so grounded in the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that we never take anything at face value. Consequently, I set about trying to find out whether there were any noticeable fault lines in the very public discourse about the success of Classics at Ibadan. Was there any dissonance between the public rhetoric in brochures, booklets, journals (and in what members of the Department told me) and what was really happening in the lecture halls and examinations? I looked forward to my talk with the students.” With no staff members present, Lambert set about interviewing students, and in the process discovered that “Uppermost in their minds was the following question: was the departmental propaganda, which claimed that a study of the Classics could result in employment in all sorts of professions ranging from banking to law, true?

What did our Classics graduates do?”

Lambert also had a discussion with some postgraduate students and, according to him, “there were serious complaints about the library’s inadequacies, despite the Leventis donations and Dr Onosode’s patronage. Furthermore, a doctoral student, who teaches in the department, mentioned that she was having problems with research methodologies as no-one in Classics knew anything about them and there had been pressure from the Social Sciences, in particular, for Classics students to frame their research proposals within broader epistemologies…”

Not still satisfied, he then approached “one member of the department whom I did not meet until my last evening there. He had been on the staff since 1975 and had taught every member of the current department.” Interestingly, this was a ‘white’ lecturer—from Western Europe. According to Lambert, “Initially he seemed very wary of me, but he responded honestly to my questions. There was no departmental propaganda from him, but a cynical stream of Afropessimism, which was somewhat depressing, but (I suspect) a necessary corrective to the Utopian propaganda I had been fed. Apart from his criticism of the university as such, he did not think that the standards at Ibadan were as high as they used to be, although he was clearly proud of what the department had achieved. …On the wider question of why study the Classics at all, he did suggest that he suspected that an education in the Classics simply helped to perpetuate the intellectual and

political élite which dominate all features of Nigerian society.”

Lambert was still not entirely convinced that he had received convincing answers to the question ‘Why study the Classics in modern Nigeria?’ According to him, “In response to this question, another doctoral student who is working on Roman patron-client relationships and godfatherism in contemporary Nigeria (this is very typical of Nigerian dissertations in the Classics), argued as follows: the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome are universally admired—that is why we call them ‘Classics’; in comparing African problems with those confronted by the Greeks and Romans and the solutions they offered, he was suggesting that African problems are also worthy of respect and analysis. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans can help us as we look back at the past and see what experiments they made and how they failed or succeeded. As a corollary to this, he commented on the fact that the top universities in Africa and in the world all have Classics departments.

Ibadan is the top university in Nigeria; Ibadan must keep Classics. In many ways, his discourse meshed with that of some members of the department who had been to conferences abroad or had taken up postdoctoral fellowships at distinguished universities such as Brown, Austin (Texas) and Oxford, and had worked at the British School at Athens. Discourses about the study of the Classics in Nigeria clearly connected with similar exclusivist discourses about the value of a classical education at élite institutions like Brown and Oxford.”

Concluding on his findings, Lambert tells his fellow South African classicists: “There is much that we here can learn from the Classics Department at Ibadan, especially about how to market the discipline within a complex web of relationships between academic staff and the university administration, between the staff and alumni, between the staff and classics students, between the classics students and ‘others’, between the department and local schools. What impressed me was that not once did I hear the Eurocentric/Afrocentric debate or ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ mentioned. No student, for instance, had heard of the Bernal ‘Black Athena’ hypothesis. When I outlined the contours of the Eurocentric/Afrocentric debate here, the former head of department muttered: ‘Oh please, we went through that in the sixties.’ Nigerian classicists at Ibadan have truly made the Classics their own; when they point to leading industrialists or

distinguished administrators who have had classical training, they are pointing to fellow Nigerians who are worth emulating, not British colonials or their clones. I am not saying that Nigerians have depoliticised the Classics—teaching the Classics is obviously embedded in the power relations between hierarchies which control Nigerian society –but they have decolonised the Classics and appropriated what they find meaningful.”

I’ve tried to compare all these charges to what I found in James Tatum’s “Letter From Ibadan”. Tatum, professor emeritus of classics at Dartmouth College, USA—and interestingly a product of the University of Texas—was also a visiting scholar to Ibadan during the annual Constantine Leventis Memorial Lecture held at the University of Ibadan in 2008. Upon returning to the United States, he too wrote his own “testimony” for all who have eyes to see. But, though throwing a few challenges to classics scholars at Ibadan, Tatum’s slight criticism—a mature one indeed—was mainly against the Nigerian government and not specifically against Ibadan classics scholars.

In his ‘Letter From Ibadan’ Tatum relates his encounter with the “evangelical Christians” at the University Guest House where he stayed, who are simply “everywhere in the western part of Nigeria where the Yoruba live, just as Islamic fundamentalism is in the northern part where the Hausa people are”. These “evangelical Christians” stocked his lodgings “with morally improving evangelical fiction, dramas in which the chastity of young men and women is cruelly tested but ultimately saved, and proselytizing tracts.” But he later found a good book, ‘History of Nigeria’ (Cambridge, 2008) by Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton, and, after reading the “candid account of the kleptocracy that has steadily impoverished Nigeria since it gained independence from the British in 1960”, in brief, the history of corruption in Nigeria from the military era till the present dispensation, Tatum writes: “This is the unavoidable world that

surrounds the 1032 hectares of the University of Ibadan and its Classicists.”

Again, contrasting Bimbo Okulaja’s piece with that of Mohammed Haruna, both of which were published in The Guardian, Mr. Okulaja—guided by Obama’s inspiring rhetoric—being overjoyed about the emerging of the first Blackman to rule the most powerful nation on earth, while Haruna had a more critical comment on what Obama’s election might actually mean for Africa in his column “People and Politics” in the same issue of The Observer, Tatum writes:

“It seems to me that Mohammed Haruna’s argument is also a good demonstration why the mission of the Arts College at Ibadan is as crucial for the future of the country as any other part of the University. He is nothing if not critical, and while he writes about the news of the day he isn’t constrained to simply repeat it. One of the most characteristic effects of studying such seemingly impractical subjects as Classics or philosophy is the way they can make you more detached, more critical. Liberal education can impart the useful illusion if always not the fact of having some kind of critical distance from the accidents of time and place you happen to have been born into. As Nietzsche puts it, you learn how to regard things with hostile calm.”

Thus Tatum, unlike Lambert, looks at the problem confronting Ibadan classics from a wider perspective. For him, it is not just a problem peculiar to Ibadan classics but simply “the Arts College at Ibadan”; and for him, also, if currently things are not functioning properly in this Arts College at Ibadan, and in classics department in particular, then the government, and not the scholars, is chiefly to blame. He is 100% right. No matter the efforts made by scholars, if the government is not supportive—and the Nigerian government is never supportive of the arts and humanities—their efforts will simply amount to futility. That has indeed been the case in Nigeria, where once a Head of State—Chief Olusegun Obasanjo—declared that philosophy is completely irrelevant. Tatum threw more light on this problem—which is simply a global one—in the chat I had with him some years back and which I later published as an article in Daily Independent late last year. (See the piece here:

http://dailyindependentnig.com/2014/12/ibadan-school-classics-question-relevance/ and here: http://eaglereporters.com/2015/01/20/ibadan-school-classics-national-question-nigeria/). His answers to my questions reveal a scholar who, unlike Lambert, sees classics as simply a world discipline and never an African one!

How then, do we respond to all the charges, questionings and assertions of Michael Lambert? Certainly, he has made some useful points, such as the assertion (by Mamdani) that intellectual life in universities has been reduced to barebones classroom activity; that extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels, and that workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem, etc. He is equally right in his complaint about the small number of students at Ibadan Classics (though it’s certainly none of his business if the staff members are much), compared to other departments, students of which come to classics department to study various courses.

On his assertion that the University of Ibadan has retained its Classics Department firstly because “the classicists argue that the study of Greek and Latin, as well as the study of Greek and Roman cultures in their complex totalities, ‘are excellent tools for work, further learning”, etc., and that “the objective of the department is ‘to produce competent and meticulous graduates with the capacity to carry out critical analysis for relevant careers… etc., there is a sense in that, but of course Lambert as an actor tries to make a fun of it. I will shortly return to that.

On his assertion that the department has been retained secondly because it keeps track of its alumni and lists the graduates in Classics, rich men (such as Dr G. Onosode) who donate books and other items to the department, he is simply a perfect comedian. For instance, throughout my undergraduate days at Ibadan the name of Gamalie Onosode was popular in the department only as a product of the department who had distinguished himself as a business man and never as a patron of the department. If the truth must be told, the books donated to the department which I witnessed within those years came from the United States, precisely from classical scholars from the USA, Prof. Tatum’s colleagues. Prof. Folake Onayemi, the then head of the department, was always sceptical about inviting the likes of Onosode to the department. Lambert visited Ibadan in 2012. Well, I don’t know whether things had changed by that period.

Lambert’s assertions that thirdly the Department maintains a healthy link with local schools which could provide the university with students need not be responded to. It is amazing, however, to see our critic declaring in the same paper that “As in South Africa, the teaching of Latin has disappeared from Nigerian schools. The University of Ibadan is the only university in Nigeria which has retained its Classics Department”. So we ask: if the teaching of Latin has disappeared from Nigerian schools—even as it has in South Africa from where Lambert came—is such maintenance of “a healthy link with local schools” not necessary, then? Of course, such “a healthy link” is part the campaigns being done by the department to remedy the ugly situation, or at least to see if it can be remedied!

On the question of Ibadan classics students being concerned about what to do with their discipline, it must be pointed out that this attitude is in no way peculiarly an Ibadan phenomenon but simply a global one, neither is it peculiar to classics students but virtually to all students of the arts and humanities, and even many in the sciences. As Tatum stated during our chat, “the question of what is “practical,” “useful,” and “money-making” is just as pressing here (in the US) as it is in Nigeria.”

Lambert’s main challenge to Ibadan scholars—namely that they “have decolonised the Classics and appropriated what they find meaningful”—may be a good one, but—I fear—his advocacy for what I may term “African Classics”, ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ and the like only betrays a shallow-minded scholar with a mere superficial understanding of classicism. Classics is, first and foremost, a purely European discipline. Greek and Latin, the two ancient languages of all classicists, are purely European languages. All the works of the Greek philosophers, historians, poets, dramatists, rhetoricians, lawyers, and scientists which classicists study are purely written in these two languages. In other words to be a classicists you simply can’t do without these two languages—if you are not well grounded in them, then you are simply not a classicist. There is absolutely no debate about that, and that Ibadan scholars recognise this fact with all

humility doesn’t in any way make them less scholarly than their South African counterparts. It doesn’t make them intellectual morons. On the contrary, it proves they are well grounded—at least as far as this point is concerned—and more mature, than their South African counterparts. It is true of course that such a picture of classics presented above describes neither the ancient Mediterranean world nor the modern discipline of classics, but such ancient history is just a branch of the same discipline. Classics is—essentially—the study of the languages, culture, history and thought of the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the study of the civilisations which flourished in and around the ancient Mediterranean Sea—a world characterized by extraordinary ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity.

On Lambert’s charge that Ibadan scholars’ theses “reveal the extent of the comparative emphasis at Ibadan”, well I think even my own undergraduate thesis (entitled ‘The Concept of Eternal Return’: Classical and Modern Perspectives) contradicts him! What does this title have to do with Ibadan?

Lambert’s advocacy for an “indigenous knowledge system”, “African Classics” and the like is also related to his emphasis on a “truly African university” which, in my view, also betrays his superficial understanding of the very nature of a university, which is universal and never African!

On his question ‘Why Study the Classics in Modern Nigeria?’ we answer: Classics is worth studying in modern Nigeria for simply innumerable reasons. Classics, the oldest non-vocational university subject and the widest course in the university system, is simply the very background of virtually all learning in the university system. It is crazy, then, to question why it should be studied whether here in Nigerian or somewhere else (although we can understand why Lambert is raising his question). To discard it is to discard knowledge, pure and simple. Hence it sounds insulting to hear of the so-called “pressures from the social sciences” “as no-one in Classics knew anything” about the “research methodologies…”, etc. As Lambert himself puts it: “…how many of us find ourselves teaching classical literature, mythology, philosophy, religion, history, politics, art, architecture, not to speak of gender, sexuality, medicine, film studies,

Greek and Latin, sometimes all in one week?”

Of course some have fallaciously argued that there are no practical reasons for studying classics, but they couldn’t be more wrong. True, you won’t come away with the practical ability to mix chemicals safely, design a house, or understand the workings of the human mind, but you will be able to analyse complex information and relate it to the modern world. You will be able to assess the failings and successes of leaders and political systems. And your subject will include a range of subjects—art, literature, history, science, Jewish, and eastern studies and philosophy—which can all be used to develop understanding of today’s multicultural society. If you persevere with a language, you’ll also demonstrate commitment and show off your translation skills—not a skill common to other students outside specific language degrees. No!

Now on the question of getting a job, it has been said (usually by classics professors) that a degree in classics will not prepare you for a specific job, but will, in fact, prepare you for life. And there’s some truth in that. While a career in academia is certainly high up on the list of job options, classics graduates have been known to go into law, medicine, education, science, business, journalism, heritage and the diplomatic service. It’s the invaluable soft skills (commitment, leadership, communication, teamwork) that you will get from this degree that will put you in a good position for just about anything, anything. As Tatum puts it, classics, which connects with all other kinds of learning in the humanities and the Arts in endless ways, is worth studying for just one course or for as long as a career. “As we point out in the Dartmouth classics website”, he writes, “the great majority of our graduates go into anything but academic work.

Classics has a lot to do with the formation of the self—or at least it can have that potential. Everything depends on the teachers you have, the time you have, the brains you have, the pressures from family and society to be a responsible, self-supporting adult, the political and social world you’re in.”

But, however, “There is nothing guaranteed about what you would get out of studying classics”, he writes. “It’s possible to emerge as much a fool from courses in Greek and Latin as it is from Economics, Political Science, or any other “practical” course of study…”

Tatum rather sees the problem confronting the classics as simply a global phenomenon and never—as Lambert seems to imply, albeit somehow unconscious of that—something peculiar to Ibadan. “Today”, writes Tatum, “more generally, all humanistic learning is currently under attack, in the EU, the UK and the USA as much as anywhere. Classics programs are being shut down, budgets cut back, faculty positions eliminated. The general level of public education is a great concern and there are powerful, global forces that are pressing to have an ignorant or barely educated electorate. Illiterate would be best of all, or, as global industrial policy making desires it, a work force no more educated than it needs to be to whatever level of skill is required…”

Again, “In the book ‘The World We Have Lost,’ a British historian Peter Laslett points out that the modern notion of a society in which everyone is educated at least to a certain level, and a wage earner, is a great exception to the general history of the human race. Serfs, peasants, uneducated and easily exploited, slaves and slavery—all of these have been highly desirable for the self-chosen masters of the world forever and ever. Feudalism in whatever guise it appears is always a potential status quo ante to which we can return—to which some are returning, even as I write. Think of the deliberate destruction of the American middle class (economic category, not British class). In Mexico, by contrast, there has been a determined effort to create a robust and expanding middle class, and with some success…”

Classics scholars at Ibadan, just like their counterparts in other parts of the world—Europe and America in particular—are making concrete efforts to ensure that this ugly trend is arrested; but they need to do more, and they should not allow the likes of Michael Lambert to be a distraction.

Ifeanyi wrote in from Lagos