Wednesday January 15 2014

Practical skills alone will not bring fundamental change

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

The government recently launched the Skilling Uganda programme, whose focus is to equip young people with the practical skills that can be a source of livelihood. Considering the current unemployment crisis and the irrelevance of much of what has passed for education over the decades, this is a highly laudable programme. Moreover Skilling Uganda can make up for the failures of the Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education programmes, since the graduates of these programmes, even when half-baked, can be equipped with practical skills in carpentry, bricklaying, motor-vehicle repair, agriculture, etc, from which they can hew livelihoods.

A recent study found that the vast majority of our Primary Seven pupils don’t have the numeracy and literacy levels suitable for Primary Two. Even so, these pupils can be equipped with some practical skills that can usher them into employment or self-employment.

But there is a real danger that our need for practical skills may overshadow our equally important need for scientists and intellectuals. The word science has so often been misused in private and public discourse that some may even argue that skills and science are the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that one can make a chair, or lay bricks on a building, or fix a defective plumbing system, or do electrical wiring, or repair TV sets doesn’t mean he is a scientist.

The fact that one can interpret architectural or structural drawings and erect a building doesn’t mean he is a scientist. The fact that one can assemble the parts of an automobile doesn’t mean he is a scientist. The fact that one has memorised and can recite the laws and equations of Newton and Einstein doesn’t mean that he is a scientist.

Scientists are those people actively engaged in the extension of the frontiers of knowledge, not those that are mere consumers of knowledge. Scientists are the people whose theories are studied in science classes, not those that merely teach or study these theories. In the 50 years of independence, we have obviously produced thousands of engineers, doctors, statisticians, surveyors, science teachers, technicians, and so forth, but whether we have produced any serious scientists is a question for debate.

The word intellectual has also been grossly misused. People are considered intellectuals just because they can quote or plagiarise Socrates, or Shakespeare, or Voltaire, or Russell, even though they themselves have never said anything original and worth quoting about contemporary or timeless realities.

Our education system, so focused on examinations and certificates, has been criticised for not inculcating skills, but it hasn’t been criticised for not producing scientists and intellectuals. And when you scrutinise history, you realise that both Africa and Europe had craftsmen in the pre-colonial centuries.

The people that caused the huge leaps in Europe were not the millions of tinkers but the tens of thinkers. The word theory is now unpopular amongst our leaders, but, with the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently assert that one man with a theory contributes more to civilisation than a million men with practical skills; that Africa lagged, not because she lacked skilled people, but because she lacked scientists.

It may be argued that scientists and intellectuals are born, not made. But the problem isn’t so much that our education system has failed to convert some average minds into great minds, but that it has converted some great minds into average minds. If you carefully study our society, you realise that originality and innovation are most prevalent amongst the little children who have just joined primary school. By the time they go through all the rounds of rote learning, their fires of originality have been snuffed out and their focus is on fitting in the system rather than changing it.

Practical skills are important to resolve the current unemployment crisis, but unless we begin to nurture scientists and intellectuals, we should not expect a fundamental change in the condition of Africa.

Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist.