Among other things, I read philosophy as an undergraduate student at Makerere University.
This is a subject so important in the liberal arts, and general foundational university education, yet overly shunned and often confined to the basket of ‘useless’ subjects.
For many people, undergraduate years tend to be critically formative. It is the time of working out how to find one’s location and standing in the immediate community and in the world further afield. It is when some people forge their views of the world, both political and social, and deepen ideas about the environment around them and beyond.
This crucial aspect of university education is lost in the maze of viewing education in rather narrow and purely instrumental terms: as the path to earning a paper qualification and getting a job or joining a profession.
Earning a living through work and productivity is a necessity of human life. But one does not have to go to the university and earn a degree to achieve that goal. In fact, one need not have formal education at all.
So, there is something quite intangible yet extremely crucial that can be gained from years as an undergraduate student. This is the advice I give to young folks I get the chance to speak to, and it’s something I have inculcated in all those directly under my care, and will seek to do to others in future.
Reading philosophy at Makerere exposed me for the first time to one of the most deeply philosophical questions: what is the purpose and meaning of life? It is a question that fascinated me then. Fifteen years later and a search for answers has yielded little if any definite and convincing answers.
While I did not find answers to this question, it nevertheless helped me come to grips with many related questions and has shaped the way I perceive the world. If I have failed to understand the meaning of life, I have at least conceded a related fact: that life can often be quite meaningless. This is integral to our shared humanity and transcends nations, races and classes.
Consider the fact that, theoretically, just about everyone in this world can someday lose his or her freedom and end up in jail. Or look at the fact that everyone, including the Holy Father (Pope), has absolutely no idea when and how they will depart this world.
This is the mystery of life that knows no bounds and is indiscriminate. It is a sobering fact that no one has an overriding control and absolute determination on their destinies, more so the ultimate destiny of life. Some try to confront this reality through suicide and assisted-death, but it all comes down to unavoidable helplessness, resignation and the absence of viable options.
Now, this evidently chilling fact of life produces at once excessive misconduct in some human beings and empathetic behavior in others. It drives people like Yoweri Museveni to want to rule for life, afraid of a possible trip to jail or some other humiliating life-experience.
But it also propels philanthropy in the world’s richest such as Bill Gates (a position now apparently taken by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) who realize that even with their billions, they are human beings just like the world’s poorest person somewhere in an African or Asian country.
Both streams of behavior are driven by a similar attempt to wrestle with trying to understand the elusive purpose of life. Closely analyzed, more than those who care and empathize with fellow human beings, it is those individuals who exercise raw power and brutalize others who, especially in the subconscious, have a deeper sense of powerlessness, insecurity, and inadequacy.
Hubris, bravado, display of opulence, and showy stunts are all acts that are put to work to conceal the innermost struggles to deal with the limits of every individual, whether rich or poor, black or white, young or old, man or woman.
No rich man or woman can pay a poor person so the latter may answer nature’s call on their behalf. And no powerful ruler can pay for more time to rule or ostensibly to solve the day’s problems of his people when the random course of nature comes knocking hard on the door.
If I learnt anything from my alma mater, Makerere University, it is that I should use my ability to reason to decipher bad from good, wrong from right and always strive to do the right thing. If there is any one reason why I had gone to school, this is it. To play my role in making possible a just society.
This, to me, seems to be the way I have attempted to come to terms with that foremost philosophical question that captured my imagination as a young university student. It may well be a cowardly way of facing down the many ghosts of my humanity that constantly and unfailingly always remind me to stop, reflect, and act.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.