Teaching History in Twentieth Century Nigeria: The Challenges of Change*

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The twilight of the twentieth century saw major developments in the world, which profoundly redefined people's perceptions of and interest in history, both as a mode of enquiry and as an academic discipline. The significance of such changes would appear to have found resonance in the Third World. The most important of these changes included "the revolution in IT, which transformed and democratized scholarship, and the further expansion in higher education; the shift from sociology to anthropology as the most fruitful subject from which historians were now borrowing; the influence of Michel Foucault, postmodernism and the 'linguistic turn;' the rise of women's history, gender history, and the reconfiguration of 'imperial' history; and a broader shift away from the search for causation to the search for meaning.'1 Some of these were to pose serious challenges either to the ways in which history was perceived by civil society or practiced by professionals. It also affected the very possibility of doing history at all. But the details, complexity, and magnitude of the changes varied from country to country in different ways.

In 1993 the "Mission Statement" of the newly-introduced Ife Journal of History gave an indication of the travails of the discipline of history in contemporary Nigeria:

More than at any other time, the discipline of history today in Nigeria, is under severe stress. Perplexed by economic crises of immense proportions and dominated by the craze for money and by the politics of the moment, we have become distorted in our orientation and deluded of any deep consciousness of history. We live as if all that matters is today. In private and in public, our citizens are routinely treated to dreary lectures on the irrelevance and insignificance of a systematic knowledge of our past...We seemed determined to go on record as the first nation to make a meaningful progress without reference to the accumulated values, experiences and culture of yesteryears. . . . The discipline of history is routinely dismissed as dispensable. History which used to be an attractive subject has dropped to the bottom of the ladder of priorities for intending undergraduates. Historians receive little or no regard in a society that is in a haste to modernise and that places emphasis solely on science and the acquisition of material wealth. . . .2

But does the foregoing constitute a valid assessment of the state of the discipline in twentieth-century Nigeria? This is the question this paper tries to answer. It is also an attempt to illuminate from below the effects of modernity and globalization from the perspectives of social experiences and African reality.3 This work, using the Department of history, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, the home of the famous Ibadan School of History as the focus of analysis, is a critical evaluation of the predicament of a new generation of students that took its cues from both local and global issues, to redefine itself and its aspirations.4 Ibadan is used as the barometer of the discipline's capacity for sustained development because of the longevity and popularity of the Ibadan history program. It is here, more than anywhere else, that one can best test the mood and resilience of the discipline and its subscribers. Copious references would, however be made to other Nigerian universities inasmuch as they help in throwing light on the issues under discussion.

The twentieth century and its numerous challenges has provided the opportunity to do a critical appraisal of how history as a discipline in higher educational institutions fared in its odyssey as an academic course in the humanities. But as pointed out earlier, this is done mainly from the perspective of the students rather than from their teachers.5 History and historical writing have occupied a high pedestal ever since the establishment of Nigeria's first university in 1948. Prior to the inauguration of formal history teaching in Africa's higher institutions however, African oral tradition; the collective memory of peoples, had served as both the formal and informal tool of passing down the history of Africa for several generations. …