Re-introducing history in Nigerian schools: a new curriculum that fosters nation-building is needed  ̶  Prof Olutayo Adesina

The learning of history by students in Nigerian pre-tertiary education institutions was essentially discontinued in 2009 by several examining bodies which merged elements of the subject with government and civics to form social studies. As a consequence, a large number of young Nigerians today appear to lack a keen sense of history in respect of many events in the nation or other countries.  This situation has alarmed many and led to strident calls for the re-introduction of history as a standalone course in the Nigerian pre-tertiary education system. Recently, the Nigerian Government endorsed the teaching of history once more in the nation’s schools. In this exclusive interview with The Chronicle of Education, Professor Olutayo Adesina, the current Head of the Department of History at the University of Ibadan, explains a number of issues associated with the development. The full text of the interview, as conducted by our higher education reporter, Anu Oyeleye, is presented below.

Please, introduce yourself to our teeming readers.

I am Prof Olutayo Adesina, presently the head of history department, University of Ibadan and a member of the Historical Society of Nigeria. I had my university education, master’s degree and PhD at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife and joined the University of Ibadan in December 1993 as a lecturer II. I rose through the ranks to become a professor of History in 2007.

I think that congratulations are in order concerning the recent decision of the Federal Government that the study of History be re-introduced as a standalone subject in all basic and secondary schools throughout the country. What role, if any, did the Historical Society of Nigeria play in achieving this pleasant outcome?

The Historical Society of Nigeria was the first professional association in Nigeria: it was formed in 1955. The Society was there when the nationalists wanted to free the country from colonialism. It was in existence at the post-independence period, it was present during the oil boom days when things were collapsing and also when the country began to retrogress. Since the Society was in some form of decay, the association also experienced setbacks which were one of the factors that led to the travails of history as a subject in Nigeria. But sometime in the 1980s, attempts were made to revamp the Historical Society. For the resuscitation we must thank people like Professors Ochi, Akinwunmi Ogundiran, J. F Ade  Ajayi and many others who came together to impress it on the Government that history was a discipline that must be brought back. Several times Professor Ade Ajayi, as a member of the Historical society, led delegations to the Aso Rock to ensure that the Presidency know about the dangers of the lack of teaching of history to nation-building. The Historical Society was quite active in ensuring that the subject was brought back. With Professor Ochi, Akinwunmi and ultimately under Professor Ogbogbo as President of the Society, they achieved their desire of ensuring that the Government listened.

Also, all professional historians at different levels, at different for a, on radio stations, discussion groups emphasized the need to bring history back as a discipline. They all contributed their own quota to the re-introduction of the subject. I personally featured on several radio programmes canvassing for the re-introduction of the subject. Also, there were men and women of good will who also joined the advocacy. Professor Wole Soyinka cried out several times, some journalists also clamored for the re-introduction. There were several opinion articles on the matter. All these people have recognized that the lack of teaching of history contributed to the present state of apathy among the youths. We have bred a generation of youths that does not care about who we are. They do not care about the past, present and the future. We have succeeded in raising children that are not Nigerians. They lack the orientation, attitudes and do not take cognizance of ideals and values: no nation grows without an identity.

How and why was the study of History as a standalone subject discontinued in Nigerian secondary schools before now?

There are two principal reasons for the discontinued study of history. First is what I would call State intervention. This happened at the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that was adopted in 1986. With the adoption of SAP, the government and the society at some point felt that subjects like History were no longer useful. The idea then was to focus on subjects which they felt were scalable, professional and could create jobs. The emphasis then was on disciplines they felt could give Nigerians hands-on-experience. But with a subject like history, they didn’t see any reason why the study of the past should be relevant to any forward looking Nigerian during that period.

It wasn’t that there was a decree annulling history but the subject was shoved into irrelevance; then, subjects that took some of the functions of history were created. They introduced social studies which took some part of history, government and civics. And so, with a subject like social studies, students were no longer compelled to offer a subject like history. Also, the Government deliberately stopped recruiting history teachers. Once that was achieved, history was no longer an option. Ultimately, government as a subject became effectively the alternative to history. Students also had more interest in government because it was more contemporaneous, softer and easier than history.

The second reason why history was relegated was that teachers of history themselves did not domesticate history. History is a very difficult subject and so to be able to teach effectively, teachers need to be able to understand generational changes. They didn’t try to make history interesting and more relevant to the new generation. You can’t teach young generations the same way you taught 1970’s students. The new generation then was made up of teenagers and their assimilation capacities were different from those of the students of the 1970s who were much older. So, the teachers of history were partly to blame for the continued lack of interest by students in the subject.

Please, sketch the importance of the study of History to a nation like Nigeria.

The study of history is expected to produce the total man. The total man in the sense that history teaches, the discipline is didactic in nature and if you don’t understand and learn from history you would make the same mistakes over again. So, history is used to understand humanity, the society, human relations, ethos, values and ideas. History is a subject that allows you to understand man in its totality. It is important for young people to have a sense of history. It is that sense of history that would enable us to build a better society.

Given that the study of History as a standalone subject was discontinued for some years now, are there adequate resources, such as competent teachers and adequate text books, for resuming the teaching and learning of the subject in Nigeria as now being proposed?

One of the dangers I see is that the Government has not adopted an approach where there could be some form of test and measurement in determining whether the re-introduction would serve its purpose. You introduce a subject, you should test the curriculum and see the reaction of students to it. Then, you can go back to the drawing board to evaluate and possibly eliminate things not needed and re-introduce new elements.

I think the Government should have set a time to work on the curriculum, to do some pilot projects before fully re-introducing the subject. They need to identify the purpose which the history curriculum should serve. If you read the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte when he became the emperor of France, you would see that he did something similar. They identified how they could use history to raise new French men and women. They had a national purpose. What is Nigeria’s national purpose? I am not saying we do not have some form of vision in the constitution or some paper work. But, is it engraved in the minds of Nigerians. The curriculum should reflect the kind of Nigeria we want to build. If you introduce history now in secondary schools and you also don’t focus on primary schools, where you need to catch the mind of the pupils at the early stage, then we are committing the same error that led to the discontinuation. I would recommend that Government should focus on primary schools, organize some pilot projects and assess the impact before moving forward. I have seen the curriculum after the re-introduction and I think it is the same things we have always done. There are no new elements that can bring significant impact.

To achieve maximum effect, we also need to retrain the teachers of history. If you bring back the kind of teachers who taught history as at the time of the collapse, we would still be making the same mistake. Then, it was just about cramming dates, which is not the kind of history that is useful. I think we need to consider certain realities in the re-introduction of the subject. So, my opinion is that we do not have adequate, right manpower, orientation for accurate teaching of the subject. I am calling for the re-training of history teachers before the re-introduction of the curriculum.

How should the nation continually build capacity for the teaching of History in her secondary schools?

To improve the capacity of teachers, there should be constant workshops, not only methodological workshops for teaching but content workshops to ensure that we are all on the same page. Because, Nigeria is a multi-cultural society; we need to ensure that we are all on the same page and we do not teach divisive history. For example, currently, an average Ibo teacher in teaching civil war would likely refer to the killings of the Easterners as pogrom which can promote division. We can only be on the same page if we all have a sense of direction and we know where the nation is going. In Nigeria now, we have MASSOB, OPC, Miyetti Allah and others; in this kind of atmosphere there has to be some form of guidance in the teaching of history.

The Historical Society of Nigeria is likely to play a pivotal role in determining a modern History curriculum in the country. What kind of History do you expect to be taught? Would it be the History of the British Empire and its colonization of Nigeria or something principally indigenous?

Every history is necessary, most especially now that we live in an interdependent world. One of the reasons we are experiencing problems in Nigeria is because we don’t understand how other countries live and think. And for someone to make head headway in life, you must not only understand yourself but others. If you understand yourself and you don’t understand your contemporaries, adversaries and your fellow people all over the world, you are not likely to develop effective ideas, strategies in handling issues.

If you read the history of Nigeria alone, it would not be adequate for the kind of world that we live in. Yes, we must give Nigeria history some form of pre-eminence but it is equally important to teach other aspects of history. However, in teaching history we must also emphasize analysis and interpretation. This has been lacking; what we used to teach were narratives. We need to teach history in a way that shows the implication to the society. This generation is more interested in the search for meaning rather than causation. Analysis and interpretation are much more usable now than the narratives earlier taught in schools.

The discontinuation for some time now of the study of History in secondary schools in Nigeria must have had the adverse knock-on effect of declining numbers of persons wanting to pursue degree programmes in History at the tertiary education level. What is the state of enrollment of candidates into History degree programmes in Nigerian universities such as the University of Ibadan?

The effect of the retrogression started affecting tertiary institutions too. I remember that in 1998, the history department in the University of Ibadan had only one candidate that applied to the department through JAMB, and the option was for the university was to close down the History Department. This was not just a UI scenario, it happened in other institutions as well. But to address that, we adopted an entry requirement approach that was at variance with the old requirements. The old requirement stipulates that only students who did history at O’ level can apply to the Department but we decided to admit students who did government or economics. At that time, we admitted a new breed of students who had no background knowledge on history as a subject. We the teachers started teaching students from the basics. This approach increased the number of candidates because there were students who could not make law and other disciplines. The only problem that arose from that was that we had students who were in history but were still interested in other disciplines.

What are the chief goals and objectives of the Historical Society of Nigeria?

The Society was principally to advance the cause of history. The Society was to ensure that we raise Nigerians that are not only competent in the teaching of history but in the understanding of history. The Society was to help create a citizenry that understood how to use the past to chart a pathway for the present and future. If you don’t know where you are coming from, you are not likely to know where you are going or the purpose that your going there will serve.

Where do you expect the study of History in schools at all levels to be in the next five years?

Now that the subject has been re-introduced, we are likely to have a new generation with a keener sense of history and a keener sense of understanding of their position in the society. With the understanding of values and ideas, things would begin to change a little. Americans are proud of their heritage and I hope that by the next five years we would have the kind of Nigerians who know what it means to be humans, Africans, Nigerians and are proud of their heritage. Also, we would have a generation that knows what it means to stand for something. It is when history is taught properly to children that they begin to understand the sense of values.

Concerning the study of History at all levels of education in Nigeria, what would be your advice to governments, parents and prospective students?

The way things stand now in Nigeria, I’m not sure we need to advice parents about anything. They have seen the ripple effect in the society. They have seen that they are breeding children that have no respect for cultural values. So, I believe parents are now more interested than we historians in curbing these excesses. I would only advise that they complement the efforts of history teachers in integrating the right values and ideals of the society in the minds of their children.

For the Government, there has to be some pilot studies to assess the reactions of students to the curriculum. They should not just adopt the current content wholesale without some form of modification. They need to test the curriculum and ensure that it is the right thing we need. They also need to know that the professionals they consulted in formulating the current curriculum do not have experience teaching primary school pupils, most of them are university teachers. I advise that Government should work together with those who would teach history at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The curriculum should not just be meant for producing credits to gain admission and jobs but to produce a citizenry that has a sense of identity and understands what it means to be a true Nigerian.

I would advise the students to see history not as a subject that would fetch marks but as a subject that would make them better citizens.


Thank you for talking to The Chronicle of Education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.