Thursday, September 24, 2020

UB should revamp the beleaguered Humanities

The excitement of graduating has clouded many from seeing the relevance of certain academic programmes, or lack thereof, in present day Botswana and indeed the wider world. The privilege of walking the hallowed halls of university, the parties and unbelievable freedom that are part of student life further compound the paralysis.

Further, with their brains flying at half mast, those that should be revamping such programmes are yet to see the need to do so. Perhaps they will, once they have sorted out the more pressing parking lot issue and the Jubilee Anniversary Celebrations have ended.

The truth of the matter is that the University of Botswana humanities programme has hit rock bottom. The humanities may have been the vein of higher education for centuries but not any more. A chap called Peter Vale, writing elsewhere on the same subject, says that the fall from grace of the humanities “follows several decades of thinking which has stressed the importance of economic growth as the only panacea for society’s ills”. I do not agree with this view entirely, by the way.
To stoke the fire even more, the current UB humanities program, which has never had a radical makeover, is akin to Michael Jackson’s famed moonwalk dance. It gives you the impression that you are going forward when in fact you are sliding backwards.
I would go on to say that the current format of the humanities at the UB will soon become as powerless as an O’Level Certificate when used for seeking employment. There was time in our history when an O’ Level certificate, or even a good Standard 7 pass, were tickets to a powerful job. At the time, university was not even considered an attractive option by some of those who had passed with first or second-class grades!
Thus this weekend I stand to upset some people with my views. They will say I am wading into a subject of which I have no practical experience. “The fellow has never taught anywhere,” they might say. “Neither is he an academic or a University of Botswana bureaucrat.”

That is fine by me. One need not be a cook to realise that a meal has been badly prepared.

How times have changed? I recently met a young man with a first class BA in English, desperate either to be fully employed or to gain a scholarship to pursue Masters and then Doctoral studies. Had he done his BA some 10 years ago, the university would have readily employed him as a Staff Development Fellow. Alternatively, he would have been quickly absorbed by another strand in the job market. Alas, it seems that his age has only served to conspire against his ambitions. But the quandary he and many others find themselves in should serve as a wake up call to those vested with running higher education. The fact is that they need to revamp it.

If graduates in the social sciences, which offer courses believed to be more suited to the rigours of the economy are struggling to find jobs, what more of their colleagues in the humanities? There was a time when a degree in the humanities could earn you a job even before the final results were out. Options were aplenty with the unquestionable one being the classroom, of course. A humanities graduate from the University of Botswana could easily find a job in media, diplomacy, public or corporate administration etcetera without even having to pursue further studies in such fields. They would be thrown into the deep end and simply learn to swim. Not any more, especially in light of the fact that the country is now producing graduates in these areas and others. I am, therefore, aware of people with first degrees in the humanities, who have had to adapt to new career paths by pursuing studies in law, business, human resources management, finance, journalism and others.

However, while a colleague who is a human resources practitioner in a financial institution has pointed out to me that the best relationship managers that he has come across are those with humanities qualifications, it must be pointed out that they joined such institutions when it was a lot easier for humanities graduates to do so.
The time has come for the University of Botswana to overhaul is education system, especially the humanities to make them more relevant to the dictates of our times. It has now ceased to be enough to hear the refrain that the humanities create a more rounded individual who may be able to change jobs at will if they wish. Graduates in the humanities must survive and for them to do so, they must be prepared adequately. We should by now, have reached a situation where students are able to major freely in subjects such as English Literature and Economics (if the intention is to create an empathetic economist) or some business subject, History or Philosophy and Law, Theology and Political Science, Archaeology and Chemistry or Biology and so on. Other universities are way ahead of the University of Botswana in this respect.
Given the joblessness that has besieged Botswana, one cannot expect an unemployed African Languages or History graduate to have the skills that would enable them to start, at least a small-scale business by which to sustain themselves. Conversely, I do know some social sciences graduates who studied accounting or economics even as minor subjects and have been able to start businesses without having to wait for a job from Government or some company. Fair enough, some of them may not be making significant profits or even breaking even, but the entrepreneurial zeal is there arising from their studies. Perhaps the challenge of realigning timetables amongst faculties is too much to contemplate for the people at the old Gaborone airport.

I hear that these days, humanities graduates are now being appointed teachers at primary school level. This in effect places them in direct conflict with those that are pursuing Bachelor’s degrees in Primary Education, for instance. It should also be borne in mind that humanities and education students at the UB compete for the same pie with those in colleges of education. The fact that humanities graduates can no longer get jobs easily in their traditional domain of secondary school teaching is testimony to the fact that teacher demand in certain subjects has been met and surpassed.

The Faculty of Humanities must therefore set itself apart by the courses it offers. It should let the Faculty of Education and Colleges of Education concentrate on teacher production while it provides its students with more attractive options. My view is that were it not for the lack of choice and for simply wanting to be seen to be attending university, the Faculty of Humanities, in particular, would have fewer students given the dour catalogue of courses it offers currently.

I might add here that the Government is not being prudent by funding students to go and study the humanities in the form that they are in at the University of Botswana. Political expediency should not blind Government from demanding, as a major funder of the UB, that it gets into gear by re-engineering some of its courses. It is plain unhelpful to concentrate on increasing student intake at the expense of a quality and relevant education.

If the argument, as alluded to above, is that a graduate in the humanities is less mechanical in his or her approach to relations and is also conceptually robust, then it would make sense to extend this “quality” to someone studying accounting by allowing them to combine it with a humanities subject if they so wish. Economic growth is certainly not the only solution to our problems as those referred to by Vale seem to suggest. We also needed to be an empathetic nation and that sense can be transmitted through the humanities. That is why we need to start providing students with the benefit of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences depending on the combinations that they would have chosen.

Of course, those who wish to continue along the traditional path of the humanities would still have the option of pursuing single majors in African Languages, Theology and others as would those who do not want to dilute their social or natural sciences pursuits. While it is valuable to know the classical works of folks such as Homer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Marechera, Lamming, Head, Blake, and Chomsky, the Botswana of today also desires that such knowledge be coupled with some technical competencies. Even running a tuck shop requires certain levels of entrepreneurial skill. There are businesses that used to do well ages ago but have since folded because their proprietors behaved like the proverbial ostrich. They failed to adapt.
If new thinking is not embraced, our streets will one day be oversubscribed with PhDs in English, History and so on. What we must realise is that it is not enough to communicate fluently or to have “rounded” thinking as we are often told. One also needs to know how to tighten nuts and bolts.
To extend the argument slightly, lest I be accused of picking on the humanities, I also do not see why it should be difficult to pursue a BSc or BA in Mathematics and Economics or in Public Administration and Law.

Therefore, while the social sciences and natural sciences too can be revamped in terms of allowing for more subject combinations, the situation is much more urgent for the humanities. The University of Botswana is out of sync with reality.

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