UGANDA: “Poor reading habits are the enemy of civilisation”
By Prof. Abdu Kasozi
Uganda suffers from a low reading culture. A reading culture is a set of behavior where reading is not only part of people’s way of life but is also constantly used by a good number of the population to read in order to search for information, seek the truth, look for intellectual pleasure and for the sake of reading as a hobby.
A poor reading culture, where people do not value or do not do any reading except to look for a few necessary items, is harmful to the development of the individual and nation.
Low levels of reading limit innovative and entrepreneurial minds from accessing cutting age information which they need to realise their ambitions, and indirectly through them, those of the given nation they happen to live in. The low level of reading that many Ugandan suffer from is an indicator of the quality of education our nation has, and is giving us.
Yet quality education, which must include both Arts/Humanities and Science, precedes development. In the early 1960s, the countries that are now called Asian giants invested in education, particularly tertiary science and technology, while the petro states, especially those of the Middle East, invested mainly in conspicuous infrastructure and consumption (including huge military expenditures). They did not prioritise education. Today, 50 years later, most petro states are consumed by social inequality, conflicts and oppressive dictatorial regimes.
The Asian giants on the other hand, without oil or extensive mineral wealth, have joined the clubs of developed high income and well governed nations. Their secret was the polishing of the greatest developmental agents God has given planet earth – human minds. Through well-funded and therefore quality education, the Asian giants created nations of people who could read and access cutting edge information from all corners of the earth. Knowledge is power, as Plato wrote, and these countries have demonstrated the truth of that observation.
The low reading culture in Uganda is characterised by first, the disinterest of students to read beyond what they need for examinations in order to get the magic papers, the certificates. Secondly, the inability of most of our “educated” people to read for pleasure before and after graduation is indicative of a low reading culture.
Thirdly, the few libraries we have in Uganda report low levels of visitations and use. A comparison of a bar located in the same geographical area as a library indicated that the drinking place received far more people a month that the reading one. Fourthly, the majority of those who visit libraries check out easy to read materials like newspapers and dictionaries. Fourthly, the book to student ratios in all levels of our education system is very low. Headmasters, principals and vice chancellors think of purchasing motorcycles, cars and other big items before they spend on books.
Currently the Uganda book to student ratio for the primary level is about one book to 13 students, at the secondary level it is about two books for each student while at the tertiary level (in universities) there are 10 books per student. Most of these are textbooks or religious treatises. In my period as Executive Director of NCHE (2002-2012), only one or two institutions had the required ratio of forty books to one student.
More so, the daily circulation of both the English and African languages newspapers does not exceed two million in a population of some 30 million people. It means that only about 6 % of the population can directly access written information in the print media. The others get it second hand or though audios like TV and Radio.
It should also be noted that a number of reports including UWEZO, UNESCO, World Bank and UPE/USE report of 2012 have indicated that our pupils do not learn basic skills in reading and mathematics. Lastly, listening to discussions by a number of Ugandans on Radio and TV talk shows, seminars and conferences, one is embarrassed on how the majority of those participating are uninformed on basic scientific and social issues.
To cure the problem, we must know the causes, at least the major ones. I feel that some of the causes include the following. First, the increasing enrolment in our education institutions that is unmatched by education facilities at all levels of our education system (primary, secondary and tertiary) robs educators the ability to deliver quality education.
Secondly, the over-emphasis on centralised examinations by our education system means that our children are conditioned to read only what they need to pass examinations. They do not enjoy the pleasure to search for, and appreciate knowledge for its own sake or to use it for other purposes. Indeed, many of the so-called first world schools are called so because they pack students with materials likely to be examined by external examination bodies. Few teach for general knowledge or character formation.
The traditional chalk-and-talk method of instruction where the teacher or lecturer is the colossus of knowledge and all students bow to him or her does not create the desire for students to seek knowledge from alternative sources like books.
A secondary school student should read at least one novel whose content is outside what is taught in class each week. An undergraduate student should read at least three hundred pages of materials that are outside his or her curriculum for general knowledge each week.
It should also be noted that early specialisation into Arts/Humanities and Science has become poisonous because it streams and compacts the intellectual conceptions of our children in lockers they cannot get out and which are not reflective of the lives human beings live.
We must rethink our education system if we are to move forward as a nation. We must break the shackles of specialisation into arts or sciences. Each of the disciplines compliments the other to constitute knowledge for life and development.
The writer is the former executive director of the National Council for Higher Education.
A poor reading culture, where people do not value or do not do any reading except to look for a few necessary items, is harmful to the development of the individual and nation. A poor reading culture, where people do not value or do not do any reading except to look for a few necessary items, is harmful to the development of the individual and nation.