Science, Engineering and Mathematics, No Arabic, Please!

By Obadiah Mailafia

WE have heard with consternation that the Federal Ministry of Education has introduced a new curriculum in our school system that places emphasis on Arabic, Religious Knowledge and Civics. The Honourable Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu is a friend; an ascetic and incorruptible public intellectual for whom I have high regards. But if what is said is true, the new policy is retrogressive.

I have nothing against Arabic. I lived and travelled throughout the MENA countries, the Middle East and North Africa. I can hold my own in conversational Arabic. I’m known among my Arab friends as Obaidallah, same as the Hebrew Obadiah or Avadiah (servant of the Most High). I have communed with the greatest Muslim philosophers:  Jalaluddin Rumi, al-Ghazali, Averroes, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sinna; and the medieval sages of Cordoba, al-Andalus, Samarkand and al-Zaytuna. No intellectual could possibly downplay the contributions of Arab-Muslim civilisation to world culture. But to say our young children should now focus on Arabic at the expense of science and maths is folly.

By STEM, we refer to the whole gamut of disciplines covering science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These skills include numeracy and ability to generate, understand and analyse empirical data including critical analysis; an understanding of scientific and mathematical principles; ability to apply a systematic and critical assessment of complex problems with an emphasis on solving them and applying the theoretical knowledge of the subject to practical problems. It also entails ability to communicate scientific issues to stakeholders and others; ingenuity, logical reasoning and practical intelligence.

The definition of what constitutes the core STEM disciplines vary from country to country. For example, disciplines such as medicine, structural engineering and sports science are not included in some definitions. As generally understood, the core STEM disciplines include Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Architecture, and, General, Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics, Communications, and Chemical Engineering.

Across the world, China leads the pack in terms of the number of STEM graduates produced annually, with 4.7 million; followed by India with 2.6 million; USA with 568,000; Russia with 561,000; Iran with 335,000; Indonesia with 206,000 and Japan with 195,000.  By contrast, out of the 1.8 million graduates that enter the job market annually in Nigeria, only 20% (360,000) are from STEM disciplines. This perhaps explains why today we have a backlog of 5.3 million unemployed – some would say unemployable – graduates.

In the EU, an estimated 22.8% of graduates have a STEM background. Some 1.8 million employees in the Euroland Area engaged in high level scientific work. Notable among these projects is the European Organization for Nuclear Research popularly known by its French acronym, CERN, and its Large Hydron Collider Project that has brought such enormous prestige to European Science.

It has helped that some of the world’s greatest leaders have had a science background. Both Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and his daughter and successor Indira Gandhi were science graduates. Her son and assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, had a background in Aeronautics. India’s late president A. P. J. Abdul Kalam who passed away in 2015, was one of the world’s greatest physicists. These leaders influenced the creation of the Indian Institutes of Technology, a network of 21 institutions whose graduates rival the best from Caltech, MIT and Imperial College London. It has made India a world leader in science and innovation.

The state of Israel was founded in 1948 largely by scientists. Albert Einstein was the first to be offered the presidency. He politely declined. The lot fell on Chaim Weizmann, Nobel laureate in Chemistry. Current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an MIT engineering graduate.  Chinese President Xi Jinping has a doctorate in Engineering. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has a doctorate in Chemistry. Only two of Nigeria’s leaders so far have had a background in science: late Umaru Yar Adua who was a chemist; and Goodluck Jonathan, who had a doctorate in fisheries and marine biology. Both did their best to encourage STEM in the Nigerian education system.

African countries rank the lowest across the world in terms of STEM graduates. Not only does the school curriculum place undue emphasis on humanities and social sciences; there are no enough teachers; and a culture has been created that believes that science and maths are “difficult” subjects accessible only to a chosen few. In Nigeria, the matter was worsened by the economic crisis of the 1980s when budgets for higher education were slashed and the most gifted science academics fled the country in droves.  The most attractive subjects became economics, accounting and social sciences. With these, you could get yourself cushy bank job or work for the civil service. Engineering and mathematics became a ticket to nowhere.

Worldwide, the demand for STEM competencies is increasing. Shortages of such skills are particularly acute in developing countries, especially in Africa. In Nigeria, social sciences and humanities make up the overwhelming areas of higher education enrolment, at almost 70 percent. A survey carried out a few years ago showed that Economics was the single most popular course in Nigerian universities. Other popular courses include Accounting, Law, Mass Communication and Business Administration. Science, Engineering and Mathematics trail far behind in terms of popularity among Nigerian students. What is even worse is that many of the graduates of these disciplines lack basic literacy, numeracy and communication skills, bringing into question their employability in the job market.

In an increasingly integrated and globalised economy, pressures of global competitiveness will mount; demands for such skills are expected to rise in the future. It is also understood that technical competencies of STEM graduates will have to be augmented by “soft” skills such as communication, creative thinking and team work – skills that will enhance employability in the marketplace. Other issues centre on improving enhancing the role of women in science and engineering, employer investment in STEM, internships, post-graduation training and international partnerships for science and technology cooperation.

No, our future lies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, not Arabic.


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