By Wole Soyinka
In a situation that involves a plurality of faiths, a common dress code thus strikes me as a medium of secular arbitration, a function that is thereby vitiated by a blatant divergence from the uniform. To revert for a moment to our own Nigerian experience, the action of that Minister of Education in decreeing a duoform policy – as I dubbed it at the time – in place of the uniform, was a denial of a profound educational virtue in the personality formation of our youth. That equipment is a foundation block in the acquisition of the concept of oneness, one that does not interdict the celebration of the pupils’ faiths with their families at home, in places of worship outside the school, and in religious season.
Six to eight hours each day, five or six times a week, in a basically undifferentiated companionship of their age group, a period that is interspersed with huge spaces of vacation weeks during the year, strikes me as being not too great a sacrifice for parents to make, and I must stress that this ‘sacrifice’ is made, not by the children, but by the parentage, the adult stakeholders who are so obsessed with re-living their lives, with all acquired insecurities and prejudices, through their offspring. That sacrifice, or danger, exists only in the parental mind, since no child loses his or her spiritual bearings simply from the removal or addition of a piece of tissue or headgear from an outfit for a few hours a day. Left alone, children create their own world.
They should be encouraged to do so. They re-enter another world on returning home and again, left alone, harmonise both and others without any anguish. In itself, this constitutes part of their educational process, and makes their existence a richer one. Learning includes cultivation of an adjustment capability. I should add that I take this position within the context of a situation where private educational institutions – which include missionary owned schools – are permitted. Such schools are then free to decree their own modes of dressing, but their curricula should also be routinely vetted by the state – for reasons that I hope, are obvious. Schools should never be allowed to serve as an instructional field for the curriculum of hate in the young mind.
Boko Haram did not happen overnight. If I happen to believe that youths should be weaned away from any sense of class distinction through a display of affluence in school, it is only logical that the more insidious demonstration of religious difference should be equally discouraged. ‘I am wealthier than you’, as an attitude among youth earns our immediate disapprobation. Even more binding an institutional responsibility should be the attenuation of all buntings that, today especially, leave impressionable youth with the message: ‘I am holier than thou.’
In the name of whatever deity – or none – that we believe in, leave these youths alone! Subject them to a uniform character formative discipline. Don’t give them airs – spiritual or material – and do not fight surrogate wars through their vulnerable being. If there is an after-life of well deserved “weeping and gnashing of teeth” called hell, it is surely reserved for those who foster a mentality of separatism in humanity at an age when the sense of oneness, of bonding, comes instinctively, effortlessly, and selflessly.
This article by Wole Soyinka is only slightly altered from a 2008 contribution to a symposium at UNESCO, Paris.