Moulding the social behaviour of students: the role of schools as agents of socialization and institutions of learning

By Kenneth Okpomo. Kenneth is a researcher from Lagos, Nigeria.

At the convocation ceremony of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, it is typical to hear the Vice Chancellor use the phrase “having been found worthy in character and learning” when conferring degrees and diplomas on the graduating students. While this is true of many other institutions of higher learning as well, it hugely underscores the importance with which this highly reputable citadel of academic excellence whose motto is “to restore the dignity of man” places on character.

It is therefore not farfetched to see that schools have a moral obligation to educate their students on social behaviour. The fact that schools of nowadays have failed in this regard is the reason, to a large extent, for the increasing spate of social misbehaviour by students within and outside the school environment today. Take, for example, the many elusive battle for supremacy that campus cult groups are embroiled in which disrupts the peace and tranquillity on campus. Or the frequent unrests that students on rampage cause (in the spirit of “Aluta continua” or “The struggle continues”) when they protest against school policies that are thought to be inimical to their overall wellbeing: rampages that are often occasioned by violent clashes with law enforcement agents which results in such unintended consequences as the wanton destruction of properties and injuries to students.

While it is true that the primary purpose of attending school is to get subject knowledge and learn life skills, however, in the course of this, the intellectual faculties of students are developed such that they should be able to apply their critical reasoning skills in solving problems that may arise in their workplaces, homes, communities, and in the nation at large, thereafter. How does one explain a situation where a person who has passed through the four walls of a school becomes an armed robber or beggar afterwards? Or an accounting student on industrial attachment in an organization who fudges the account and manipulates the ledger to steal funds? Yet these kinds of occurrences are frequent and strident in our society. They denote, on the one hand, the manifest failure of their school teachers and instructors in moulding their character, and on the other hand, the moral decadence in the society in which they live, since the school is a mirror reflection of the larger society. Schools are supposed to be influential agents of socialization alongside the family, peers, the media, and others. Socialization here refers to the whole gamut of processes by which an individual acquires the traits, ethics, customs and values of society and learns to conform to the normative behavioural pattern as well. If schools properly play their role in educating students on social behaviour there can be no doubts that there would be fewer cases of social deviance and delinquencies in our society. However the pertinent question remains: how do schools perform this crucial task? The answer cannot be farfetched.

Traditionally schools have rules and regulations that are meant to guide students. These rules and regulations spell out the resumption time, permissible behaviour with respect to fellow students, teachers and non academic staff both male and female, class attendance, kinds of associations to which a student may belong or can form, conduct when sitting for tests and examinations, and so on. Reward and sanctions are applicable for compliance and defiance. In this way a school attempts, consciously or unconsciously, to instil discipline while subjecting the students to the overriding authority of the head teacher, the vice head teacher, and other teachers to whom such authority have been delegated, in the case of primary and secondary schools. In the case of a university and other types of higher institutions, however, it is the Senate and the Governing Council that wields such overriding authority.

With regards to primary and secondary schools, there is a disagreement over the method of instilling and enforcing discipline. For example, in Lagos state, it was recently reported how the principal of Eva Adelaja Girls Secondary School, Bariga, stripped one Ogechi Blessing, a 14-year-old female student, while brutally assaulting her. Nonetheless an eye witness account had it that “Ogechi and the head girl had a disagreement and Ogechi retaliated the slap she got from the head girl. The head girl then reported to the school authorities.” The principal and five other teachers were said to have asked Ogechi to remove her uniform. She was flogged and slapped severally and then made to cut grass for four hours under the sun.

In Nigeria the debate over the appropriateness of such punishments (deemed as “corporal punishment“) in public schools continues to rage on. The Committee on the Rights of the Child in the General Comment No. 8 defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting (‘smacking’, ‘slapping’, ‘spanking’) children, with the hand or with an implement – a whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc.” For the reason that corporal punishment can inflict physical harm and cause traumatic pains children’s rights campaigners have deemed it as “demeaning” to the child and have therefore called for its outright abolition.

It is therefore not hard to see why proprietors of many of the private primary and secondary schools in Lagos are not favourably disposed to its use in instilling discipline and moral rectitude in their schools. Again parents whose children are badly injured in the course of imposing corporal punishment may sue such schools and claim damages for the grievous bodily harm done to their children and/or get the concerned teacher or principal arrested for what could be termed as “child abuse”. Such parents are ultimately likely to withdraw their children from such schools and fix them somewhere else. In an era of increasing competition among schools, this is the last thing any school proprietor that is worth his/her onus wants to happen. But, even with these odds, should we forget the age-old adage that says “spare the rod and spoil the child”? If in the moral rectification of the child the rot is spared in our effort to pamper the child, won’t this have adverse effects on their moral standing later on in life? These are pertinent questions demanding answers also. After careful consideration I should think the scrapping of corporal punishment in schools is not the solution rather moderation in its application will help to bring about the desired results.

The other way in which schools shape the character of their students (or attempt to do so) is through the academic curriculum. Syllabuses are often drawn to incorporate subjects that teach moral values through set lessons or via general courses of study. During my primary school days, for example, Moral Instruction and Social Studies were elevated to full-fledged subjects with the hope of moulding the character and attitude of pupils in their formative years.

I vividly recall that during some of the lessons we were taught virtually everything about morals – from standard etiquettes such as greeting your parents, brushing your teeth, taking your bath, helping with domestic work, observing good hygiene, eating habits, siesta, etc, to civic duties such as having utmost respect for national symbols (including flags, coat of arms, anthems, pledge, etc), what good citizenship and patriotisms entails, what the salient qualities of good leaders are, among others.

In secondary school I took such subjects as History, Literature-in-English, and was made to go through passages in English Language texts, etc, all of which were structured in ways that conveyed strong moral lessons. While in the university (of course my alma mater being the University of Nigeria Nsukka) I took general courses such as General Studies (in the Humanities, the Use of English, etc) and electives such as Ethics, Logic and Clear Thought, to mention a few, which were latently imbued with character-moulding lessons.

Nowadays, however, education is centred on paper qualification with less emphasis on teaching those subjects and courses that can positively lead to good character formation. The metric for measuring the performance of students is the number of subject distinctions and credit passes that they earn during examination. This is a distorted notion of education and the role of the school. The real essence of attending school and gaining education should be holistic. It ought to encompass educating the students on social behaviour alongside the academic. Schools, as a matter of fact, should give equal attention to these two aspects. After all, of what value is the school if it does not transform the mind or distinctively mould the character of those who have spent years in the classroom to acquire it? Absolutely nothing!

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