Kweku Sintim Misa (KSM) shared an insightful joke in a Leadership Seminar I invited him to as a role model guest. He said, in Ghana we set our mindsets so low it is pitiful and painful. Let’s consider this imaginary argument about a serious matter such as the lack of water in our communities.

The first person begins: “In Labone, we haven’t had any water in three weeks.” The second person reacts: “Ah, you don’t know anything; in Ashaiman, we haven’t had water in three months.” The third person, with pomp and self-assurance, outshouts both: “You guys are so lucky with your weeks and months; you haven’t seen anything yet. In Adenta we haven’t seen water in three years.” In the shout-fest, the loudest and the worst case scenario wins the argument. With ignorance and a hollow sense of reality elevated into the status of victory, the last pummels the two to recoil in defeat.

How, why and when did this tendency to compare and settle for the worst start? All nations have 24 hours in a day, but it is how the mindsets of the more serious nations use valuable hours for work to improve thinking, and raise living standards. Poorer nations, in contrast, are preyed upon to ply precious moments paralysed on the knees, hands in the air, with wish lists on their tongues, begging for manna to drop from the clouds. The worst is when that futility is made to trickle down to our impressionable youth.

The irony is that we want the best out of our youth; but when a good number of our brainy sports drift out into incantations and fantasy to fulfil wish lists, it is time for intervention. Society is the pot in which a citizen’s character is brewed, (to allude to Kow Ansah of TV Africa). It takes a village as they say, so when a large portion of the community thrives on base instincts (like imaginary rape-fests), deceptive bliss (like honey dripping from the clouds), superstitions (like vanishing genitals), and exorcism (like a “prophet” chastising an elusive serpent that some witchy old woman planted inside a child’s skull), please, it is time to regroup. There’s a lot of crass to ignore, in order to achieve a lot that is substantive and useful.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) termed that mass confusion “the phantasmagorias in the brain of men” and “the opium of the masses”. Psychologists use the term “Learned helplessness”, the morbid sense of futility camouflaged in apparitions. Marx cautioned that such ignorance provide the fodder that enrich the stock in trade of “holy” men and politicians, and perpetuate poverty in mind and substance.

It should give us pause to think that our youth - in the prime of their lives, who should be filled with optimism and ambition, and developing the skills to match 21st century realities - are plucking stars out of the sky.

At the end of it all, people‘s wish lists may include prosperity and conveniences like Nokia phones, Samsung televisions and video players, refrigerators, made-in-India fans, and the like. Little do we appreciate the amount of education, research, work ethic, and effort that go into the making of those wonderful things.

In the real sense, that lack of appreciation is the albatross that feeds the culture of poverty: so much to do, but so many without the quality preparation, and employable skills that make the designs and value additions of resources possible. To close the generational gap between indulgent adults and the 21st century African youth, quality education - for making good things happen and for saving nations - must be re-invigorated and brought to the fore.

There’s something inherently bizarre with the collective national mindset when refined gold bullions are airlifted out of a country, and replaced by container shiploads of other people’s trash in the form of electronic wastes, worn appliances, and factory rejects. The very sight of Africa’s youth peddling such wastes as lifelong trades is a cause for human and environmental concern. African nations, in general, need the right kind of education to at least begin to reflect on these hazards.

“Small Is Beautiful”, as a conceptual economic framework for third world nations, was advocated by E.F. Schumacher in 1973. In a chapter, “The Greatest Resource – Education”, the author noted: “it is man, not nature, that provides the primary resource: that the key of all economic development comes out of the mind of man ... In a very real sense, therefore, we can say that education is the most vital of all resources.”

Singapore and Finland provide two classic cases of smallness made beautiful and bountiful through education. Without any visible natural resources of any kind in Singapore – no gold, no bauxite, no cocoa, no diamonds, no oil – education has provided this small city state with some of the highest living standards in the world. It was insightful when CNN’s Fareed Zakaria announced (Nov 14, 2010) the government’s investment of US$30 billion for human capital development for the population of 5 million people.

Finland, with a population of 5.4 million, is a world leader in technology, symbolized by the planet’s most ubiquitous cell phone, Nokia, with a share of 35% of the global market. By investing in human capital - talent, ideas, visions, know-how, and organizational ability - the Finns have converted their schools from mediocrity to excellence. Many of their brightest students become teachers to continue the relay of sheer mind-power. Finland is now credited with producing “the world’s best students in the world’s best schools”.

Compared with African nations, India has possibly more religions, charismatic prophets of various hues, superstitions, untouchables, and tribes; but how they’ve been able to transcend those eerie slopes to attract investment, industry, innovation, and technology to advance a prosperous middle class is a lesson worthy of emulation.

They realized for sure that phantasm and national progress do not mix. In portraying Mahatma Gandhi in the film “Gandhi”, Richard Attenborough, the British director, was cautioned by the Indian authorities to portray Gandhi as a flesh and blood visionary who evolved out of their own ranks, and not some apparition that came dashing from the skies. They said, India has enough deities, please do not add yet another one.

“Learned resourcefulness” is the idea behind Critical Thinking in education. The Ghana Education Service (GES) syllabus has a section related to developmental issues which aims at “increasing the pupil’s knowledge about critical issues ... reasons why some nations are rich and some poor”. In the segment on Science, the syllabus states, “For Ghana to develop, there is the need to eliminate superstition” and encourage the rapid development of science and technology.

There’s no model anywhere in the world of a people who have achieved any measure of success with little or no effort. It is said, To tell where a nation is going, watch its youth. But to abandon our youth to their own devices smacks of national irresponsibility of the worst kind. We have to at least begin to compare standards with the best, and not the worst. The best, the worst, and the ugliest examples are visibly around us. It is now a matter of choice.

Credit: Anis Haffar