Wednesday August 20 2014

Mr President, your diagnosis of Uganda’s devt challenge is wrong

By James Ocita

The August 18 issue of Daily Monitor in the article, “Arts courses are useless – Museveni”, reported President Museveni as having given vent to yet another bout of his favoured rant against humanistic courses in Ugandan universities. Speaking at the launch of a Shs5 billion modern laboratory at Ndejje University on Friday, Museveni reportedly urged institutions of higher learning to refocus their attention to teaching science disciplines.

Museveni’s long-held view is that humanities are useless purportedly because graduates of such courses are not equipped to solve any national problem or effect national development. Granted, it would not hurt for Ugandan universities to train more students in sciences than humanities. Whether the country would develop faster as a result is a totally different matter.
The question of why Uganda’s youth unemployment continues to skyrocket is to be resolved not by tallying the demographics of students who yearly graduate with humanistic degrees but addressing underlying structural problems, among them our education system itself, which is partly responsible for this cancerous thinking of the divide between the humanities and the sciences as an either-or affair.

The ideal that any university should strive for should be to train students in both humanities and sciences. What a student later chooses to specialise in would then be a result of careful consideration not half-chewed biases.
The fact that humanities and sciences need one another should be obvious. After all, what would sciences accomplish without imagination, which is better honed by liberal arts? Where would sciences take us without an understanding of where we want to go? Indeed, where would sciences be without humanities? Similar questions, of course, can be asked of humanities but for now let me defend the liberal disciplines against intellectual barbarism.

It was the Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow who in a 1970 essay, Culture Now, wrote that artists are like prophets for their society. Bellow affirmed an age-old truth: “No community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death.” “Art”, Bellow continues, “is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.”
I believe Mr Museveni’s undergraduate career was well-spent in acquiring knowledge. He should, therefore, be able to understand that humanities can, and indeed do, guide national development. Over and above these, humanities enable us to appreciate our cultural specificities and chart our national destinies as part of the greater human civilisation.

A leader capable of steering his country to development ought to have a correct diagnosis of that country’s problems. It would be simplistic to think that Uganda’s problems would, as in Museveni’s thinking, simply resolve themselves once universities train more scientists. Most of the challenges that Uganda face result from the complacency caused by the survivalist political mindset of the NRM government. One clear case of is the recent farce of how agricultural officials who boast at least four years of university training, have been discharged of their duties in favour of army officers with two week-certificates.

Museveni’s misdiagnosis of our country’s developmental predicaments poses a greater danger to the country than an army of unemployed humanistic graduates walking the streets and who are now being made to carry the blame for the “worthless” degrees they possess. The fact that youth unemployment is still a big problem 28 years into Museveni’s rule can be blamed squarely on the President’s utter obliviousness of what is wrong with the country.

Dr Ocita is a lecturer, Department of Literature, Makerere University.