The Guardian newspaper of Monday, 15 July 2013 carried a story that should ordinarily not be news. Titled, ‘I didn’t make a third class, says Soyinka’, the newspaper quoted Nobel Laureate and Literature emeritus professor, Wole Soyinka, as saying he never made a third class degree from the university as widely believed by Nigerians. The Ogun state born international scholar cum critic said he had kept silent over the years on the matter but decided to open up for the sake of the children as a mark of respect for them. An obviously curious pupil must have asked the prof that question.
WS – I didn’t make a Third Class
Wole Soyinka is not the only one with such mythical ‘third class’. The late radical activist, Gani Fawehinmi, was another common example Nigerians throw around in similar arguments. Tony Elumelu, former CEO of UBA, has also been inducted into the club as his name is also surfacing in Nigerians’ list of ‘academic failure turned professional success’. I also grew up hearing that the late MKO Abiola was barely literate, just as some people –and they are supposedly educated – will swear that Bola Tinubu never went to school, when both of them are actually chartered accountants. The list goes on, although the Soyinka line is the most popular.
From my observation, there are two sets of Nigerians that peddle these hoaxes: one, those that want to discount the efforts of academic high flyers; two, those that do so to encourage or console those who didn’t do well at the end of their academic pursuit. I have little problem with the latter class, for I also believe we need to encourage our friends who came out with lower classes at the end of their degree programmes, especially those affected by variables that were not within their control (like poverty). Yet, I believe there are better ways to console or encourage ourselves or our academically deficient ones than resorting to tales by moonlight which the Soyinka ‘third class’ story is.
Worse by far are those that pull down the academic high flyers with the Soyinka line. These people belong to the former category. It is common when discussing with such people to hear things like, “My friend, Wole Soyinka had a third class, Bill Gates dropped out from school, degree certificates are just papers bla bla bla”. While no one is disagreeing with the fact the class of degree doesn’t always have positive and direct relationship with what one goes on to achieve in the future, this is most times an exception to the rule rather than being the rule itself. It is therefore very wrong to wield that line of argument as is common among Nigerian youths these days.
Tony Elemelu – another ‘third-classer’
While Soyinka himself has come out to tell us that this generational attribution to him is indeed a myth, it is actually true that Bill Gates dropped out from school. But what Nigeria’s self-appointed motivators don’t know is that, Gates did not drop out because he couldn’t cope or because he was a dull student. He did so because he found a shorter route to achieving his ambition or actualizing his ideas. Same thing for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. In any case you can’t be a dull student and gain admission into Harvard. These are the parts we ignore in Nigeria here, just as we also easily forget the socio-economic differences.
It is not that many Nigerians have not succeeded without going to school. Many Nigerian drop-outs have indeed gone ahead to be successful in the capitalist sense of the word, but for every one of such, there are a thousand that rue their not going to school or making good grades today. Herein lies my problem with our folks that brandish the Soyinka tale.
The Soyinka third class line is simply an encouragement of laziness and a dangerous excuse for failure. Lest I am misunderstood, I have not said third class graduates are inferior or automatic failure. I have seen many of them that are very sound and smart. But this still doesn’t make anyone want to pursue what is less than excellence. This is where we need to draw the line between encouragement/consolation and justification of mediocrity.
Now that Kongi himself has come out to tell us the third class tale about him is nothing but a myth, I hope our friends will find a better motivational line or brickbat, depending on intention.