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By not reading, we accept to remain behind

Two weeks ago, I went to one of my Makerere University classes with Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

Both are old and considerably popular books you would expect any curious university student in their third year to have at least glanced at or scanned through – more so at a university with such a vast library.

Of the over one hundred students, not even one had read or perused through any of the two books. Actually, when I raised Long Walk to Freedom to ask if any had ever read it, looking at its volume, they laughed sardonically even before they could see its title!

I wasn’t really shocked, but was gravely disturbed by this side of our ‘leaders of tomorrow’. I know quite well this bibliophobia (fear of books) cuts across our society. Otherwise, why would we have lecturers giving the same ‘hand-outs’ (notes) year after year and course outlines with unchanging references – even for relatively dynamic subjects?!

Some teachers have hardly read any book ever since they finished school, and their teaching simply rotates around what they were taught.

In such an environment, one easily understands the inclinations of the products we roll out. Nevertheless, I went into a lengthy talk in counsel and rebuke.

The students listened in a mixture of guilt, victimhood, and uneasiness. Several minutes into my monologue, some hands were up, raising some critical observations both in admission and self-defense.

Many felt they are victims of Uganda’s education system where there is so much emphasis on pumping students with stuff they must memorise and reproduce. There is little room for independent thinking, creativity, and research. This way, they are trained to read to pass exams, nothing more!

Ironically, in this system, ideas beyond or critical of those of the teacher often attract penalty! For this is to challenge the teacher’s knowledge and authority (being a wiseacre). As such, there is no incentive for going beyond class content. The ‘points’ are known and numbered!

This is how our schools and universities kill imagination and produce ‘information banks’ (or humanoid robots, as I called them earlier). Little wonder then that, even at university, students will still reproduce what the ‘lecturer’ says, including the very examples.

In many of our tertiary institutions, we are still stuck to the archaic methods of the ‘lecturer’ as a know-it-all that has to stand before the class to engage in a monologue where the student is relegated to the role of listening and taking notes, not a co-creator of knowledge or active party in search for answers.

It is thus common that even when you find students in the library, they are often reading their ‘hand-outs’ and ‘the textbook/s’.

One student candidly retorted: “For most of our time at university, we are fed on theories from Europe. We also want to read theories and ideas from our lecturers.”

This is a strong call in response to which there should be no excuse. Yet even the lecturer, apart from often being a product of the same crippling system, is engrossed in a web of challenges that only makes things more complicated.

With all their existential insecurities and workloads, do academics have time for reading and writing? Besides, the general reading culture of our public is such that, as Jenerali Ulimwengu once wrote, the African writer is condemned to a life of poverty. Who buys books? You publish, yet perish still.

Even with the relative ease of access on internet, largely because of the above reasons, serious readership is hard to come by in our society. Entertainment seems to take precedence in our reasons for reading the little we do.

It is mainly celebrity gossip, soccer updates and player profiles, lyrics, fashion, movie updates, and jokes. It has also been argued that, given the livelihood problems our people are faced with, reading can only be a luxury.

You can’t read when you are not sure of food. But this doesn’t explain it all. Mostly, for a number of reasons, we are not adequately socialized into reading.

Yet the price we pay for not reading is through our nose. There will always be a deficit in our mental stimulation, because our learning is limited to syllabus stuff, hearsay, work experience, news reports, and other random sources.

We easily get comfortable with too little and set our bar so low. Or else, someone will have to think for us, as often happens in imported policies.

Because we mainly learn by experience, we tend to equate old age with wisdom – wisdom acquired after making so many otherwise avoidable mistakes. Experience, though important, is sometimes more like a comb you get when already bald-headed.

How much do our ministers, MPs, local government leaders and other policymakers/implementers read about issues in their dockets to inform their decisions?

Sometimes, the depth of ignorance that comes out when some of those officials speak makes one freeze in shock and wonder as to whether they will get us anywhere.

Societies that are advancing so fast are in constant search for new ideas through building on what already exists. But many of us here are comfortably not curious even about what already exists in our own domains!

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The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

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Written by Jimmy Spire Ssentongo

The author is a teacher of philosophy

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