• Sunday, June 23, 2024
businessday logo


“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse (1)

“Good afternoon my co-debaters”: How a popular Nigerian school tradition is distorting national discourse (1)

“…And that is why I believe this name Adeniyi is better than gold. With these few points of mine, I hope I have been able to convince you that a good name is better than gold!”

(Wild audience applause)

Sometime in late 2004, I sat in my high school assembly hall during a debate session, watching an exchange between two Year 9s on the topic “A Good Name is Better Than Gold.” Tunde Adeniyi (name has been changed to protect his privacy) who was arguing “for” clearly did not understand the topic. Whereas the expression in question uses the word “name” to mean “reputation,” he thought it literally meant the thing that appears on your government ID.

Of course in the absence of such basic understanding about the topic he was supposedly arguing in favour of, Tunde basically had nothing to say that was worth hearing. He did however manage to say that nothing in very many words, impressively filling five minutes with empty bluster, dramatic voice modulation and vigorous gesticulation of the Patrick Obahiagbon variety.

Apparently this went down very well with the audience because when he signed off with the “mic-drop” line above, the hall went wild with applause and people chanting his name.

“Tunde! Tunde! Tunde!”

Our hero with the “good name” did the triumphant walk to his seat, lapping up the adulation of his teenage audience.

Up next was Anthonia (name also changed) to argue that gold was in fact, preferable to a good name – whatever that was. In contrast to Tunde, Anthonia was less expressive and more methodical, putting out her points lucidly and arguing them convincingly. I would have almost found myself agreeing with her were it not for the fact that the entire crux of her argument was, you know, completely insane. In which human culture – including Nigeria – is gold valued over a good reputation?

It was as if I was back there that afternoon, sitting in the back of the hall and fiddling with my top button while listening to Tunde and Anthonia duke it out in the most pointless, pedestrian and mind-numbing debate of all time

What exactly is the point of all this, I kept wondering.

15 years later, I had all but forgotten this incident when I put up a Twitter thread on the subject of Nigerian school debates.

I will write something this week about how the Nigerian secondary school “debate culture” has harmed our ability to process information logically and argue sensibly. We literally just hold opinions for the sake of being “for” or “against,” with no wider context or thought to it.

While reading through some of the responses, I suddenly had a flashback to this episode at Grange School in 2004. It was as if I was back there that afternoon, sitting in the back of the hall and fiddling with my top button while listening to Tunde and Anthonia duke it out in the most pointless, pedestrian and mind-numbing debate of all time.

Here we were young teenagers in a country just five years into its democratic era with a plethora of social and economic themes ripe for valid, stimulating discussion. Instead, we had to do this thing called “debate” where one side was “for” and the other “against” a statement that is accepted as true in basically every known human culture. It was like debating whether 2+2=4, only that the dude debating in favour didn’t know what numbers were, and the girl debating against was a borderline sociopath.

Read also: ASUU strike: FG gives committee 3 months to renegotiate workable terms

It might seem trite to draw a link between this seemingly harmless Nigerian school rite of passage and the deterioration of our national discourse, but please stay with me as I embark on a journey that begins in 1770 in the German city of Stuttgart, taking a detour through the coastal West African town of Badagry and eventually culminating in the reality of Nigeria in 2022.

The Origin of For vs. Against

Prior to migrating and founding the town of Badagry in the 18th century, my family lived in a town called Ouiddah in modern day Benin Republic. The local deity in Ouiddah called Tolégba was one of the most important Òrìsà in the pantheon. Like much of West Africa, we had no concept of a binary worldview because the very basis of our existence – our spiritual system – was plural and multipolar. This is why the concept of a “religious war” was something that did not exist in that geographical area.

The British, Germans and French however, had firearms and large navies, so as West Africa increasingly came under their direct rulership, their cultural influence particularly through their religion and education began to rub off on us. By the time the British made first contact with Nigeria through my 19th century ancestors in Badagry, Tolégba’s influence was waning. In place of the Orisa, there was now a single God called Jesus, and his eternal adversary called Satan.

Thanks (no thanks?) to Anglican Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther who translated the King James Bible into Yoruba, “Olodumare” and “Esu” – previously just two members of the West African godhead – morphed into “Jesus/God” and “Satan” respectively, and the rest of the Òrìsà were effectively erased. Now we had one good and righteous God to pray to, and one evil and iniquitous Devil to be delivered from. At this point without knowing it, we had plugged our culture and society into the deepest and most fundamental basis of European cultural philosophy called the Hegelian Dialectic.

The Hegelian Dialectic is a form of philosophical enquiry perfected by 19th Century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which was based on the dialectical method of Greek philosopher Plato. In Plato’s case, his way of arriving at the truth of a philosophical discussion was to pit two groups of people on opposing sides of an argument until a consensus opinion was achieved. Hegel took this further by pitting ideas against each other in an eternal battle to the death beyond the limitations of accepted reason and skepticism. You could call it an early form of brute-force hacking where scientific fact is established by argumentative trial-and-error ad infinitum.

The good thing about the Hegelian Dialectic is that it is the closest thing to a totally scientific and dispassionate way of establishing facts. It makes no assumptions about anything and merely examines all issues on the strength of their merit – nothing is off limits. If for example, Hegel’s Dialectical method is used to examine racism, sexism or homophobia, it makes no prior judgments and simply hammers out every false argument until only the truth remains. Whatever comes out at the end of Hegel’s Dialectical process is the simple, refined truth. Or at least that is how it should work.

The Futility of For vs. Against

In reality, the Hegelian Dialectic has been a bit too successful and has gone beyond merely the method of philosophical enquiry that influenced the colonizing cultures of 19th century Europe. These days, pretty much everything that entails a difference of opinion, from politics to research to marketing to entertainment has now adopted the Hegelian worldview even if it serves no useful purpose there. The dialectical method popularized by a German philosopher has succeeded in dividing the world into a never-ending series of binary conflicts on just about every subject known to mankind both in Nigeria and elsewhere.

APC vs. PDP. North vs. South. East vs. West. Man vs. Woman. Coke vs. Pepsi. Republican vs. Democrat. Conservative vs. Liberal. Remain vs. Brexit. Climate Change vs. Denialist. White vs. Non-white. LGBT vs. Straight. Historian vs. Revisionist. Ronaldo vs. Messi. Facebook vs. Twitter. Oppressed vs. Oppressor. Batman vs. Superman. “Rich” vs. “Poor.” Red vs. Blue. Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter. Fossil Fuel vs. Renewables. Change vs. Status Quo. For vs. Against.

Unknown to us, when we tell kids to stand up in front of an audience and debate for and against, without any real context or purpose to said debate, we are acting out a script that is much older than us. We are acting like our great-grandparents who were so impressed by their Western-educated children and grandchildren that they would sometimes make them stand in front of the family and speak English. It didn’t matter what they were saying – often it was basically gibberish – but the old folks were bowled over by their progeny displaying (a crude simulacrum of) the white man’s apparent sophistication and erudition.

European colonizers introduced the Dialectical debate to us, and we came to associate that two-sided system of “debate” with “intelligence” and “sophistication.” That is how come the topics we still assign our kids to debate in school are consistently nonsensical, pedestrian or out-of-date – it’s not really about achieving a useful result at the end of the so-called debate.

Plato and Hegel used the Dialectical debate for scientific and philosophical enquiry. We on the other hand are merely aping what our great grandparents saw the white guys do, without understanding why they did it or if it is relevant to our current situation. For what it’s worth, there are still many issues in our public discourse that could use an objective Hegelian debate in order to arrive at a scientific conclusion. “Is a boy child better than a girl child?” is certainly not one of those issues.

Hegel’s Dialectic exists to arrive at conclusions on subjects that are still in question, not to flog long-dead and cremated horses. It serves no useful purpose to get Nigerian students to argue back and forth about whether a good name is better than gold, or whether doctors are better than teachers. Being entertained by such pointless and arcane “debates” is analogous to how our naive grandparents reached into their pockets when their mischievous children came back from school and spun them a yarn of the “Daddy, teacher said we should pay for a Biological-Geometric-Chemistry tomorrow” variety.

It’s 2022 for God’s sake.