The Federal government appears to see that being complacent in the wake of a pandemic can potentially bring tragic consequences. By eventually ordering the closure of all public schools and universities just days after closing its borders to some of the epicentres of the virus, the government did what many had long clamoured for. Unfortunately, despite the public-health benefits of closing schools, we are simultaneously confronted with the foreclosure of knowledge.
For instance, we need to pay attention to the language coming out of the country in regard to the shutting of schools and universities. In terms of the dominant rhetoric in media discussions, the language has focused on the fact that schools have to be “shut down” or that they are to be “closed” indefinitely.
What you don’t get to read about or see very often is that that our university campuses are “transitioning to online teaching.” Never mind that this is an ongoing discussion in neighbouring Ghana.
That the rest of the world can easily reconvene in-person classroom interactions in online spaces for lecture delivery speak both to their careful investments in the support systems that make modern education amenable to the technologically driven market places of today’s world, and to the realization that high-quality online education can reduce costs while having enormous benefits for students.
It also signals attention to the existence of alternative structures of learning that can be relied upon in unsettling times such as the one Covid-19 imposes upon the world.
More importantly, the fact that we are not talking about online education in an age of social distancing, necessary to arrest the spread of the Coronavirus, is an unfortunate reminder of the state of public education in Nigeria. What is fundamentally at play is the devaluation and misprizing of knowledge itself, especially one made possible because of the lack of infrastructure for the cultivation of the mind.
By accepting our government’s refusal to invest in technologies that support (remote) education, we accept epistemic closure, and I will conclude on that point; for now, let me stress the importance of building digital infrastructures that serve public needs.
To cut to the chase, infrastructure are material locations of social meanings. We see this idea strongly affirmed in the work of the sociologists, Ulrika Trovalla and Eric Trovalla. In respect to the Nigerian city of Jos, they have noted in numerous publications the ways in which the presence, absence, flows and non-flows of infrastructure shape urban becomings and identity. Understood in this sense, infrastructure takes on important meanings in the everyday lives of people and cities. Whether it calls attention to itself or withdraws from awareness, “infrastructure,” they write, “can assume a wide register of visibility and connotations.
What I find most compelling about the couple’s analyses of the state of infrastructure in Nigeria is its divinatory possibilities. In other words: “the wires, pipes, roads and signals, the water, electricity, transportation and phone networks that connect people to and disconnect people from society make up powerful instruments for analysing the nation.” The paradox inherent in their argument is that even absent, derelict and uncertain infrastructure could be useful for signposting and revealing the cracks and neuroses of the Nigerian state.
And we could linger on the material gaps and crises from the energy sector to road conditions and other concrete domains that graphically enact the dangers of the Nigerian condition. In the context of digital Infrastructure, things are a bit dire. With an overpowering absence of digital infrastructure that supports knowledge production, we find ourselves unable to effectively participate in a global economy that relies on the unceasing flow of ideas and knowledge. We all know the endangered conditions of cultural and educational institutions manifest the fissures of the country; what we may not have realized is that they also invite us to see how we have not maximized the abundant resources available in the country. For instance, take the leading clusters and hubs of high-tech start-ups in Lagos, now being called Yabacon Valley, and read that in the context of Nigeria’s budding technology industry and its enormous online population of 45 million internet users, and you get the sense that we actually have the manpower and skills to make our country work. It bears repeating: Nigeria has what it takes in Lagos alone to build the digital infrastructure for students to migrate to online learning.
Notwithstanding, that Nigerian universities will not be part of the great migration of the traditional classroom to the Internet should come as no surprise. After all, this is a country in which distance education is still largely dependent on concrete spaces with crumbling infrastructure; in which universities do not have any central online platforms to supplement and enhance what’s done on campuses; and in which many do not have the internet technologies or access. Where these exist, they are the product of private individuals or multinational companies such as Facebook whose commitment to connecting the world to the Internet masks underlying neoliberal interests.
The result of the poverty of infrastructure for education is that closed campuses may amount to closed minds. As the Trovallas suggest, instead of being infra — underneath and hidden, our crumbled infrastructure becomes supra — above and visible as they transcend the realm of mere utility to signify the volatile and elusive essence of Nigeria.
Without the ability to transition to online learning because of the absence of the necessary infrastructure, our closed campuses come to mean something else: the closing of the Nigerian mind, to borrow the title of philosopher Allan Bloom’s famous take-down of American higher education.
We do need to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and that needs to be done urgently for public safety.
But I hope students and their lecturers will, in their quarantined spaces, give some thought to their own digital literacy and to the mental virus that collectively conditions us to the dark age of learning.
And before somebody reminds me that learning can take place outside of the traditional classroom, or that even Lagos is bigger than Ghana, let’s think of how our constant excuses may be enabling mediocrity.