Don’t Just Make a Living

It is nice that Ethiopia has a Ministry of Science & Technology, for most of the technology or science in the country is imported. The governmental body is understandably on a crusade to attract younger people. It is unfortunate though that they are going about it the wrong way.

The Ministry currently has a 3.6 billion Br project in the works – a centre that has a science museum, a library and conference rooms. But that is not all. Recently, the Ministry also finalized the construction of five ‘science cafes’ – where people can come to discuss science, access the internet and browse a digital library over tea and coffee.

This is nice, but it is merely infrastructure. I never heard of the mere existence of an expensive stadium serving as the basis for the growth of a sport. Instead, a sport grows when there are people that appreciate it from a small age, either on the streets or in their homes. Once a hobby, it becomes an important profession later in life.

It will matter little that the cafes serve the perfect coffee, provide the fastest wireless connection (which may draw in customers for all the wrong reasons) and look cosy. As long as the people inside are talking about Albert Einstein’s relativity theory, youngsters would most likely avoid the establishment.

That is because science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are boring. Most are interested in them only to get a good job, which is unfortunate since many care about a career by the time they are adults.

Perhaps, after that, we take a course, study and become a good engineer or computer scientist. But that is all we get to become – good, not great. The sort of innovations that have cured diseases or reduced the inconveniences of life was in most cases the products of brains that were cultivated in the STEM from a young age. In most developing worlds, including Ethiopia, this is what is missing.

The first years of schooling are the most important for a child. Learning to write and read could be an overwhelmingly exciting experience. But as the years go by, things get a little boring.

The STEM are no match for the world of video games, pool houses, movies, recreational drugs and the opposite sex. By the time youngsters are out of this reverie or at least recognize that there should be more to life, they have already lost a critical chunk of their lives.

Many will try to catch up in higher learning institutions. And, unfortunately, they will think they have. We confuse making a living for excelling when all it is settling. It is a condemnation to mediocrity, to never having the chance to change the world but becoming a function of it.

Much as what we have become now, we would continue to be importers of cultures, knowledge and technology for we have nothing much to offer. To make up for it, we become ardent patriots, artificially inflating our psyche.

There is a chance to revive the lost productivity. The world finds itself in an unexplored territory, in the digital age. Futurists were wrong in believing that the next superpower after Great Britain and the United States will be the country that conquers space. The next most powerful country would be that which has control over the internet.

It is good to have the infrastructure but it would be meaningless if young people never learn how useful and interesting the STEM are.

What is the fun of being told that there are a couple of trillion galaxies in the universe? Would it not be far more exciting for a child to be told that there are more stars in the galaxy than grains of sand on Earth?

It was Hawking that wrote in his acknowledgement to ‘The Brief History of Time’ that a single mathematical equation in a book cuts readership by half. Students in a classroom lose interest the exact same way. Without context, no one cares enough to be interested. Until they are hooked on the STEM, they require constant contextualization, giving education the relevance to stick in people’s brains.

But Ethiopia is starved for teachers that are talented and knowledgeable enough to put courses in context. For a country that dreams of a skilled human power, Ethiopia has been too cheap to invest in the group of people that are in a position to realize such a dream. High school teachers are often underpaid, effectively pooling skilled human power away from schools. Students are instead left with the sort of people that lack the mental capacity to see most things in contexts.

Their lies the challenge of the government and civil societies. Thinkers and gifted practitioners of the sciences must be made available for youngsters to access and learn from, while their minds are susceptible enough to be trapped by the STEM. Otherwise, we would be stuck by human capital that just wants to make a living.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Mar 24,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 934]



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