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16.04.2008 Feature Article

“Psynclonising Degrees With Scholarship: What Alhaji And Alhaji Failed to Spot”

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten, B. F Skinner has said. So, if a person maintains a brain the size of a peanut after going through a process of formal schooling, we can, in the thinking of Skinner, assume that no education has taken place. And, (and who said you cannot start a sentence with 'And'?) where there is no education, formal or informal, there is no scholarship. Perhaps, that would explain why any time I become presumptuous enough to take a red pen to strike out the mistakes in somebody's English, I end up shooting myself in the foot, as I just did. But this time, you would forgive me for making this comment, because I am not the one doing the correcting; it is media men who thought it wise to highlight the mistakes in the handwritten note of an NPP government appointee, who also happens to be a PhD holder.

On the April 12 edition of Alhaji and Alhaji, Radio Gold's flagship news analysis programme, panelists dissected and ridiculed Dr Amoako-Tuffour's English expressions in a note he was purported to have written. The Executive Chairman of President Kufour's school feeding programme was alleged to have spelt the word synchronized as 'psynclonised'. Kwasi Pratt, editor of the Insight newspaper, had warned panelists and listeners that they would be shocked if he read out the transcript of a press conference the Kufour appointee had held a few weeks ago. He questioned Amoako-Tuffour's line of reasoning and his logic. Co-panelist Tony Aidoo also teased and questioned the authority the PhD holder had to have authored a book. Generally, they called into question the managerial ability of Amoako-Tuffour as well as his intellectual capacity as a scholar.

While listeners might have seen the funny side of the panelists' comments, I was reminded of my own shortcomings as a writer. I haven't been doing this exercise for long but I am more miserable than Ofidius, a Shakespearean character in Coriolanus, who has “faults to tire in repetition”. I have often been accused of relying too much on self deprecation to advance my arguments. That is because sometimes, I flip-flop between what is shamefully unreadable to what is readable but wanting in comprehension. Either way, I have to deal with a lot of trouble whenever I compose myself to write what I should leave for experts to do. So, perhaps, I should be ashamed that after appearing to be a Shakespeare lover for so long, having read a lot of his plays, I still cannot remember very well the exact spelling of Ofidius. It may be Ophidius, for all I care.

But unlike Ofidius, I hesitate to criticise literary output, especially when there are big brains involved. Academic qualifications may not matter much, but when you hear that somebody has a PhD in Economics, you have more than a good reason to believe in what he can do. A quick google search revealed that Dr. Joe Amoako-Tuffour is an Associate Professor in the Economics Department of St. Francis Xavier University. He did his undergraduate and Master's Degrees at that University and proceeded to the University of Alberta, where he had his PhD. It sounds like the routine most immigrants who study abroad follow, but it is not every immigrant who manages to get a first class in a programme study. So, it may be significant to highlight that Amoako-Tuffour made a first class in Economics at the Bachelor's level. It is equally important to mention that a first class is not something you would associate with buffoons and twits. Well, these days, a first class degree may well be awarded to a crank. And, that is because there are Master's Degree holders who have no curiosity for any intellectual pursuit, let alone command mastery over the things they profess to have mastered. So, there are PhD holders who wear the coveted academic title on their sleeves but do not do much to show that they have made a significant contribution to knowledge.

Back in 2003 when Komla Dumor was adjudged best journalist of the year, Kofi Opare-Addo wrote: “Is the question of who is the best in a certain field hinged on the persona that won the award or the work that won the award? One should not replace or get in the way of the other.” Often, when people think of men of success, they are instantly transported to the world of their achievements, which at once presents the picture of what they have done and what they should be able to do. It is usual to associate a PhD holder with a certain level of scholarship. You would expect them to avoid the silly slips most of us make when rendering any thought in the English language. If the title means anything, a PhD holder must be 'philosophical', not in the sense of producing something 'immortally esoteric' or 'intellectually unthinkable', as Voltaire and Plato did, but being good enough to do something better than most people. So, it is a bit worrying if a PhD holder writes 'psynchlonised' for synchronized. You wouldn't say the noble academic did not know the correct spelling of the word; he might have used it several times in his essays. But you want to ask: is it usual to start such a word with a 'P', as in psychology or psyche? Mark that he did not type it, he was said to have handwritten it.

When I wrote that I usually make a lot of mistakes whenever I try to correct another person's English, I meant to say that it is a danger that most people, even accomplished grammarians, face. Tony Aidoo also holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree. I am not sure where he acquired that qualification, but I am aware that he worked at the University of Cape Coast as a lecturer before joining the National Democratic Congress. I have not had the privilege of reading any of his books or essays, but he strikes me as a good academic. He is proficient in spoken English and makes fantastic sentence constructions most of the time. He may also be a good writer, if effective register and collocation are things we would consider when judging somebody's written English. But the NDC man also said something on that programme that was just as laughable as Amoako-Tuffour's 'psynchlonised.' If 'he didn't did' is the kind of English anybody would go to prison for speaking, then Tony should be made to answer to William James for reducing his Intellectual Republic to an Agbogbloshie market, where two negative forms of the verb could be made to kiss each other in one simple sentence. Commenting on a story about Alhaji Mumuni in his usual bombastic style, Tony said: “…at no point did Alhaji sought to ….” Did we not learn years ago that Tony should have said 'seek' instead of 'sought', having used the past tense of do 'did', which is a lexical verb, just as 'be' and 'have'?

And as if English Clergyman Dr Spooner actually had a spoon in his mouth when he transposed words to create Spoonerism, as the figure of speech came to be known, Dr Aidoo went on to sacrifice one important ingredient that Randolf Quirk's University English emphasizes: Parallelism-the repetition of a syntactic construction for rhetorical effect. The UCC academic turned politician continued: “….take them at the platform of rhetoric or on the platform of ….” At what point do we take somebody at a platform, and in what instance do we take one on a platform. As irrelevant as they appear to be, Tony would next time accord 'prepositions' the same amount of respect he has vowed for the NDC. Kwesi Pratt, my very good friend, was his usual forthright self. You would normally not associate the Insight editor with such slips. If he is not well liked, or will never be liked, it is because his tongue is dipped in untarnished truth.

Well, may be prepositions do not matter. Years ago, we were taught that we do not end a sentence with a preposition, but today we are comfortable with: Agona Swedru is a place they would like to go to. Many of the myths in English usage have been imploded, but that has not made the language easier for even the most careful of speakers. It is still a very precarious thing trying to judge what is correct and what is wrong. There is a great deal of uncertainty among writers on the appropriate use of commas. In fact, it has been said that no two writers agree on the exact position of every comma in a sentence. And I have seen commas used variously in British newspapers. So, I am making this attempt at correction with the conviction of a thief who is preaching a salvation message in a stolen pulpit. The message may not save anybody, and he will be caught one day.

Of course, I have been caught several times. When I wrote that I was a small fry in a newspaper article some seven years ago, I was a 20 something year old university graduate, and I had very fresh memories of my lectures on contemporary English usage. I made lots of mistakes in that attempt, perhaps because I was really small in size. Today, I have three degrees, sporting a Budweiser-inflated stomach and Macdonald's-enhanced cheeks, but I am perhaps smaller than the fry I was then. To me was all in all, if William Wordsworth means anything to a pantheist. So, I often find it necessary to ask whether there is anything like a good degree these days. Do degrees mean anything more than the recognition that the holder is compensated with a certificate for making a good effort to present himself at congregation? Well, the good ones would always stand.

Just as I finished writing the preceding paragraph, Opanin Kwadwo Kusi, a Manchester based chartered accountant, telephoned to ask me some pertinent questions. He wanted to know if scholars of this generation can theorise and 'invent' knowledge with the same breadth of scholarship that philosophers of yesteryears displayed when they thought through the 'whys' and the 'hows' of things. Well, that would be very difficult, especially if you imagine that it is possible for a government official to justify the employment of an incompetent professional on the basis of 'Ahumobro', as Amoako-Tuffour was alleged to have said in defence of the school feeding programme. Could it also be that the Executive Chairman of the programme got the position on that same basis?

Like me, Opanin is contemplating a PhD in Business Administration, but he is pursuing the prospect with the determination of a man trying for twins when his vasectomy is still undone. He wonders whether it is very necessary when he has not achieved much with two Master's degrees and a first class Bachelor's in the field. His worry is that there are too many degrees these days, but scholarship still belongs to the days of old. My little sister at KNUST, Esther Oduro-Konadu, has already started talking of a PhD, but she is yet to complete the second semester examinations of her second year in that institution.

The writer is a freelance journalist; he lives in London.
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2008

The author has 235 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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