President Museveni recently revived the old STEM vs. humanities/liberal arts debate when he said there would be a salary increase for only science teachers.
This view held by Museveni that science, technology, engineering (STEM) are more useful to development than modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, anthropology, geography, law, and the creative arts, to name a few, is widespread around the world. From the USA to China, versions of it thrive.
There has been sharp criticism of this. In Africa and the developing world, it is seen as largely political; i.e. autocrats and corrupt rulers don’t like critical thinkers, those nuisance lawyers, philosophers, sociologists, and writers who push back against them. In Uganda’s case, critics who see only political cynicism have said if Museveni believed it, he would have filled the Education ministry with scientists, which he hasn’t. The long-serving Education minister, First Lady Janet Museveni, is as far away from the kind of scientist her husband is touting as one can be, they note. Nor, unlike his Chinese counterparts who share this view, the majority of Museveni’s ministers aren’t engineers and scientists.
Yet, he still has a point, except that he is looking for it in his right pocket when it is in his left pocket. This science vs. humanities argument has some strange elitist – and even racist – elements to it. In parts of the world, some scholars and policymakers have argued, controversially, that science is what is necessary for societies in their “primitive” stages, so they can get clean water, build roads, and the technical infrastructure to get them to a higher level. When they are at that higher perch, now you can teach the humanities to create the cadres who record and steward a society’s civilisational achievement; the painters who capture its glories; the musicians who channel its finer inner self; and things like marriage counsellors who help couples struggling with the pressures of modern life that are fracturing matrimony.
A version of this in the colonial period was that the native needed only basic scientific knowledge to learn to handle tools (change the white official’s car tyres), help bolt in the rails on the railway line and be a nurse. It was considered a waste to teach us music, painting, and other things related to high culture because we weren’t sufficiently evolved for it. To this day, there are still places where an African classical pianist or wine taster would too novel to be believed.
The valid point the President should be making is that the bigger problem with the liberal arts education in Uganda today is that it hasn’t evolved, not that it is less useful. And he should say the same for science. Many science students will study and memorise the Period Table of Elements, and pass their examination with flying colours.
However, there is no difference between that science student, the literature student who will list William Shakespeare’s 38 plays and their plots, or the Law student who will floor you with the 50 world-altering judgements in the Commonwealth of the last 250 years.
If the science student, however, is being taught, and then his schoolwork is geared toward finding which element in the periodic table can be used to make a new type of battery; then she will have done equal service to the students of history and culture who are finding in practices from centuries past, the methods Africans used tame the advance of the desert of Sahel, and to preserve their mangroves – and applying them to the present. In the study of colonialism, new approaches are today mining insights into WHY Africans were conquered, and where they triumphed, in
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.