St Lawrence University, Cameroon
St. Lawrence University and the Missing Link in Higher Education: A Personal Reflection by Dr. Oscar C. Labang
Among the several questions I have received in relation to the creation and functioning of the St. Lawrence University Ndop which will go operational in October 2016, one of them provoked a stream of thought that took me down memory lane to my days in the dusty hallways of the University of Yaounde 1 and the type of education I received. The question was “why are you interested in higher education and how will SLU be different from other institutions?” My first instinct was to answer the question simply and directly; but, on second thought, I felt that using my personal experience as an example I can provide a better and clearer response.
Like most young Cameroonians, I went to the university as a last option and out of excitement. I didn’t really give deep thought on what the journey was going to be and how it was going to affect my future and my life in general. My family thought I was going to read Law, but I had a deeper passion for Literature and I went for it. They felt kind of disappointed when I informed them I was going to read English Modern Letters (whatever that means). I remember being told by somebody with a mock heroic laugh that after the BA, my job will be to assist old people in the village to write letters to their children in the city. Was this what I really wanted to do? No. All I really wanted was do something I loved and was passionate about.
In the undergraduate years, I went with the crowds. There was no reason to dare anything new. The focus was on getting the BA in three years though we had been told it was not possible. Then getting a job or entering Ecole Normale which seemed to be the only useful employment channel. Three years went by really fast; my hard work paid off and I had the degree. I applied to almost all the private schools in and around Yaounde for a teaching job. I knew my stuff; I could teach it, make students to love it, and make them to pass excellently. BUT something was seriously WRONG; something was MISSING.
What was wrong? First, I found out after the interview at Oxford Comprehensive that I have no hope of getting the job because one of the ladies I was competing with had a Ph.D. in African Literature (she would become my mentor and friend later on). She did not even come for the interview. Someone simply called and gave her name, and I automatically lost my position as first on the interview list. I realized that the university system had a problem, if a Ph.D. holder and a BA holder were fighting for the same job.
What was missing? Three years undergraduate studies did not prepare me to become a teacher. As a matter of fact, it did not prepare me to become anything. I was applying for teaching jobs with no knowledge of pedagogy, assessment or the educational sciences. Was it enough to know Literature, to have the passion to teach it, and to be ready to take students to the celestial worlds of Shakespeare and shitty world of Ayi Kwei Armah? Yes, it was, but I needed more. My university education had not prepared me for that. Apart from the fact that I had read more books, I was not different from the Oscar that graduated from GBHS Ndop. The additional books and additional grammar that I had learnt was a very slight advantage over any high school graduate. University had not helped me in any way. It had taught me Language and Literature but had not taught me what to do with the knowledge or how to apply it to the real world.
What did I do? In the face of increasing confusion and possible frustration about my destiny and the education I had received, I opted for more knowledge. I thought that education was like a pyramid; the higher you go the smaller the tip – that is the lesser the crowd and the better the opportunity for a job. That was true, but I had also learnt that in Cameroon higher education even the fewer people at the top like the lady with the Ph.D. could not find a job worth the education. But my reading of Bernard Fonlon and excerpts from Cardinal Henry Newman had taught me that higher education had a higher purpose than we thought or are meant to understand. To cut a long story short, I went in for graduate education and earned an MA with "Tres Honorable" in less than 2 years, earned a DEA with "Tres Honorable" in 1 year instead of the usual 2-3 years, and earned a Ph.D. with "Tres Honorable" in 4 years instead of the usual 6+ years. But the search for more education and more knowledge did not solve the problem. Rather I gradually came to the realization that the higher you go the more profound your frustration and despair.
After the Ph.D., I spent much time thinking about what was MISSING in the higher education system in Cameroon because, to borrow from Cardinal Newman, the Cameroon higher education system is “giving no education at all to the youth committed to its keeping”. I have asked myself severally why the education system in Cameroon is not adapted to the reality of the economy. As a developing nation or emergent economy, there is a vast horizon of opportunities that have not been explored or exploited. There are still a multitude of problems that need creative solutions. So, why is there the issue of unemployment? This is a central part of my motivation and inspiration to start a higher education institution - St. Lawrence University.
My philosophy is that every academic discipline has a practical method of expressing it, every academic discipline has a method of linking it to reality, to the needs of the community and to the local and national economy. This is an integral part of the program structure at St. Lawrence University. The current higher education system continues to overload knowledge in students with little or no practical reality or essence. As a graduate student, I served as a Teaching Assistant with no knowledge of higher education pedagogy, no knowledge of grading/assessment, and no knowledge of appropriate discipline mechanisms other than what I had seen or heard other people do. This is when the internet was most useful in my life because I had to save myself and learn about these things. My higher education training had made me a master of the subject area but failed to link it to the economic reality of my immediate context. It had failed to provide valuable information surrounding the subject or other things I could do with the knowledge.
One of the major deficiencies in Cameroon higher education is the disconnection between curriculum and reality – that is the failure to connect classroom knowledge with real world problems. I am interested in higher education programs that prepare students to be problem solvers, to be creative and to be enterprising and this is what I wish to achieve through the St. Lawrence University. We do not need undergraduate programs that jumble up general courses, optional courses and transversal courses. We do not need graduate programs that consist of highly specialized coursework without direct relevance to a career. The courses might be taught in excellent ways by highly dedicated and qualified staff, but if there is no connection between the course and the reality of society, then the students are ill-prepared for survival. It was years after graduation that I realized something fundamental was missing in the education I had received. My mission is to provide a better experience for coming generations by inspiring them to question what they hear, to improve what they have, to formulate and test new hypotheses, as well as develop new solutions to the problems of their community.
From my experience as a student, a Graduate Assistant and Lecturer (briefly), and from my study in the United States and readings about educational systems, I continue to imagine a higher education system that improves the present deficiencies. Part of my thinking has been to professionalize the humanities because the Faculties of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences are responsible for flooding the streets with graduates that cannot help themselves, their families or their communities. In 2013, at the Catholic University of Cameroon, I presented a paper at the Kashim Ibrahim Tala Annual Lecture on the “Professionalization of the Humanities” as a means of producing students who are ready for the job market and a method of fighting unemployment. My whole argument was on the introduction of professional course in all academic disciplines in the humanities at the undergraduate level. My argument was that if we teach a student English plus Education pedagogy that student can easily become a teacher; if we teach a student Anthropology plus Digital Media that student can do anthropological documentary for self employment; if we teach a student Sociology plus Banking they student can use knowledge of Sociology and Banking to understand and influence people’s behavior towards loans, saving etc. In the current LMD system, what is called Transversal courses could be replaced by professional courses. If as an undergraduate, I had learnt anything about education, I would have had better chances of having a job in the many schools where I applied. When I started my first company as a graduate student (Miraclaire Publishing), I would have succeeded far better than I did, if I had learnt something about business or financial management as an undergraduate.
A lot seems to have changed between 2006 when I sat in Room E114 for my last graduate exams and today. But the honest truth is that little or nothing has changed in earnest. The higher education system has gone from the hotly and hurriedly adopted French/European Union LMD system to debates about harmonization, which in essence is a form of assimilation or homogenization. What these suggest is that Cameroon does not have a higher education philosophy grounded on the reality of the cultural identity, and economic necessity of its youth.
Caspa Sama Edward
7/8/2016 12:20:33 pm
It isa pity that our educational system has can't give more than reading and writing. Notwithstanding, i am happy much is done to redraft the curicula for teaching different univesity courses, but much needs to be done to drill youths to become more creative, thus the reason why this drilling should start with the teacher trainers. The systerm is plagued by numerous problems, and i will like to say that the lack professionalism and the non tutoring of entrepreneurial couses that drives every economy to emergence. The time is now, and we need new methods of teaching that will transform nations and its people, a wanderful step your have started, courage sir.
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