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Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes (III)

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 22, 2006. By Farooq A. Kperogi I ha...

The following post first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 22, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I have received a number of emails from readers, some of which I have reproduced below. Two of the emails are actually requests for me to explain some things about American education, and to compare the Nigerian and American educational systems.

My responses to these requests will form the kernel of this and next week’s columns. I will be glad to respond to any other concerns from my readers. I actually prefer the interactive approach to column writing than the standoffish authorial narcissism that passes for much of column writing.

But before I answer the questions posed by my readers, I want to conclude my observations on the differences in our use of nomenclature for categories of university teachers. As I said last week, the term “professor” is used generically here to refer to all university teachers who have Ph.D.s.

Most times, however, it is used as a term of respect by students to refer to even university teachers that have no Ph.D.s. I have been called “professor” by my students countless times. It is a good feeling, I tell you! It is equivalent to our use of "lecturer" as a generic term for university teachers.

But what I have found odd is that full professors—people at the highest end of the professorial scale—don’t usually prefix the title “professor” to their names. They simply identify themselves as “Dr.” It is typical for a full professor here to identify himself, for instance, as: “I am Dr. John Smith, Professor of English at University of ….” Or “I am Dr. John Smith, Associate Professor of….” But hardly, “I am Professor John Smith.”

When I asked one of my professor friends here why this is so, she said it is because anybody with a Ph.D. who teaches at a college/university can informally be called a professor. So it is superfluous to self-identify oneself as a professor, she added. It is such a huge contrast with Nigeria where people who attain the rank of professor ("full professor" in America) attach the title to their names even when they longer profess anything or when, like Gerry Gana and his ilk, they actually now profess lies!

I also found it interesting that the term “lecturer” is used here to refer to people who are less in prestige than “professors.” Usually, a lecturer is someone who has no Ph.D., teaches only undergraduate students, hardly conducts research, and receives comparatively lower pay than professors. At other times, it is used to designate a Ph.D. holder who has been denied tenure. He only teaches undergraduate courses, does not conduct research, and lacks the job security and prestige of a professor.

Another term that interchanges with “lecturer” is “instructor.” Lecturers or instructors are only a notch higher than graduate teaching assistants. They may be excluded from attending certain departmental meetings because of their status. The American professoriate (as they call it here) is very class-conscious and intellectually snobbish.

I am now going to reproduce some of the beautiful and encouraging emails I have received from readers. I will respond to those that specifically ask for responses.

Glad you’re back to Weekly Trust
I'm glad that you have come back to the Weekly Trust stable, as it were, by the lucid contributions in your "Notes from Louisiana". As usual, because of my desire never to miss the informative and linguistic relevance embedded in your pieces, I have read virtually all of them.

The most interesting of them, in my estimation, is the illuminating serial, "What it Means to be Black in America." I have always known you to be proud of being a black man and I have seen a potent reaffirmation of that in the serial in question. Do keep the black man’s flag flying.

Your "Danish Cartoons and Holocaust..." is quite interesting. Thanks be to the Almighty that you were not rusticated from school for your innocuous use of the word holocaust. The loss the intellectual world would have suffered by the truncation of your studies would have been colossal.

I am particularly impressed by your summation calling on all concerned to tolerate and respect the rights of one another as the sure way to harmonious living. Nothing can be truer than that.

Your “Baptism and Conversion to American English” made very interesting reading too. Thanks for familiarising some of us with the interesting variations between American and British English.

Keep up the worthy work.

Mohammed Haidara, Gwarinpa, Abuja (

What are Ivy League Universities?
I have been relishing your interesting columns quietly for the past few weeks, especially your pieces on education in America. I am one of those who requested for such information, though it is obviously a universally interesting topic.

However, I would like to know about the Ivy League universities: what is the meaning of ivy? Which universities constitute the Ivy League? Why? Is it true that a job is waiting for even a third- class graduate of an Ivy League university? In my dictionary I have come across “magna cum laude" and "summa cum laude." What are their equivalents in Nigeria?

How many colleges and universities are there all together in the US? What percentage of high school graduates get admission into universities? Also what makes el-Rufai and Okonjo Iweala make so much fuss about Harvard University to the chagrin of graduates from Nigerian universities? So many questions, but I know you are equal to the task.

Kind regards,
Abdulrahman Muhammad, ABU, Zaria (

My response
First, “ivy” is simply a kind of flower that climbs buildings. It does not grow in West Africa, so I can’t give a local name for it. I saw it for the first time in my life only when I came here.

I have been told that it is native to America, some parts of Europe, some parts of Asia, and some parts of North Africa. It is a beautiful flower with evergreen foliage that people use to smarten their surroundings.

If ivy is a mere flower, why are some universities here called Ivy League schools? Well, it is perhaps because the schools that are called by that name traditionally used these flowers to beautify their buildings at a time when no other school or institution did so. And they are called a “League” simply because they formed an association for the purpose of inter-university athletic competition, much like a smaller version of our Nigerian Universities Games Association (NUGA).

So, shorn of all pretensions, Ivy League simply means the games association of the first eight American universities that were distinguished by their habit of growing ivies to beautify their buildings.

However, the social meaning of the term is now much deeper than that. Ivy League is now synonymous with academic elitism. The universities that constitute the Ivy League are: Harvard University, in the state of Massachusetts; Yale University, in the state of Connecticut; Princeton University, in the state of New Jersey; Columbia University, in the state of New York; Brown University, in the state of Rhode Island (the tiniest state in the United States); University of Pennsylvania, in the state of Pennsylvania; Dartmouth College, in the state of New Hampshire; and Cornell University, in the state of New York.

The features that these schools share in common are: (1) they are private universities, (2) they are some of the first universities in the United States, having been established between the 1600s and the 1700s, except for Cornell University, which was established in the 1800s, (3) they are all located in the northeast of the United States, the most urban and sophisticated part of the country (I will talk about the north/south dichotomy in this country some day), and (4) they are extremely expensive and selective.

My space is up. More on this next week.

Do Americans have HND?
Dear Farooq,

I must start by appreciating your insightful and well-thought articles on education in America. Folks like us in Nigeria got to know about education system in America through your column.

Farooq, the purpose of this mail is to inquire from you how American education is similar to that of Nigeria. For example, I hold a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Estate Management. How can I fit into the system? Please your kind information will be very helpful to many of us desirous to pursue education in America.

May Allah make it easy for each and every one of us.

Ahmed Usman Abuja (

Ahmed, I will respond to this next week.

I have been following your column since the first write-up and find it educating and enlightening, especially "My Baptism of and Conversion to American English.” Keep up the good work.

Kamaludin Bala M (

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