“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school”, said Margaret Mead, one of the most important anthropologists of the 20th century. Education is how we’ve built all of human civilisation: pursuing knowledge, nurturing our curiosity and applying this inclination across a diverse array of fields is how we’ve gotten here.
Yet today, higher education in Nigeria is broken and deplorable. We ask kids (stark in the middle of their formative years) to spend four or more years in higher education only to be exposed to some of the most ridiculous life experiences: overcrowded hostels, faculty/ASUU strike, sexual harassment by lecturers, praise of hostility towards critical thinking etc. Higher education in Nigeria is often an exercise in stifling the curiosity of individuals — a multi-year module on how not to challenge authority. We send our nation’s future to universities — intellectual prison yards, obsessed with caging young people in a box of irrational obedience.
The world is fast evolving and leaving us far behind. Increasingly, credential signalling is of very little importance and college degrees are of far less relevance. Around the world, tech companies like Google and Facebook no longer care about academic credentialism; and even in Nigeria, forward-looking institutions like Paystack and Flutterwave hire people who never went to university. Yet, our broader society chooses to double down on our putrid higher education experience by not just gatekeeping universities, but also insisting on a narrow set of fields for students to care about studying. The vast majority of our population is poor and it’s clear the extent to which this influences the career choices we encourage young people to make. It’s often medicine, law or engineering. It’s incredibly difficult to find Nigerian anthropologists who have made a mark in global academia. We most definitely don’t hear Nigerian names at the frontier of cutting edge innovation: road design, earthquake engineering, cryptography, stereo photography, rocket science etc. To be clear, we have had certain luminaries break out of the mold and contribute significantly to humanity’s march of progress. However, they are the exception and not the rule. It’s heart-wrenching that relative to our potential, our collective contributions to humanity’s intellectual legacy are almost non-existent.
It’s unsustainable. It’s preposterous. We can’t live in a world where our kids can’t reach for the stars; where our kids can’t imagine that they will be inventors of the internet or the discoverers of gauge theory. Representation matters! Challenging ourselves to go above and beyond matters. We have to convert the world into a planet where our young minds at least have a shot at discovering the cure for cancer, enhancing knowledge of mRNA vaccines, or helping to better understand dark matter.
There was a time when the odds of success in pursuing big dreams like this was zero. But not today. While the odds are still infinitesimally tiny, they are infinitely larger than zero. We have to be strongly cognisant of this and begin to put in place things to help us attain greater heights. Historically, one of the big barriers in the pursuit of the extraordinary was insular knowledge spheres and geographical limits around the acquisition of knowledge. But we’ve moved past that today. At no time in the history of our planet has it been easier to teach yourself skills and be self-determined in growing your intellectual pursuits; we must aggressively encourage young people to do this. We have to help them reclaim a huge part of their lives that would otherwise be lost to the cesspool of ordure that is pursuing a higher education in Nigeria. The decrepit Nigerian educational system — with its outdated syllabi, antiquated pedagogical methods and apathetic figureheads — cannot realise the urgent vision of this fellowship, at least not anytime soon. But we do not have the luxury of patience.
As such, I am launching the Aleph Fellowship. The Aleph Fellowship is a program targeted at Nigerian students in their last year of secondary school education or students who have just graduated from secondary school. Each year, we will select a pool of young adults from across the nation, who have displayed a spark of brilliance and have demonstrated a history of teaching themselves a diverse range of topics. Fellows will be groomed and mentored over a period of 2 years. They will earn a stipend of 100,000 Naira (~$200) per month for the first year and 150,000 Naira (~$300) per month for the second year (guaranteed regardless of what goals they achieve as long as they do not enrol in any higher education institution — this is also some form of experiment in basic income). At the start of the program, Aleph Fellows define a two year learning curriculum that includes learning about a broad range of fields: physics, cryptography, medicine, history, economics, game theory, political science etc. They will also take part in at least one internship program and are encouraged to work on group projects together. There will also be regular fellowship activities to help them continue to build their social skills, form new friendships and establish a deeper network. Learning is self-directed and self-paced and the Aleph Fellowship team just has regular check-in points, connects fellows with folks in our network and holds fellows accountable to the goals they set for themselves. Once they’re done with the two year program, they can drill in and focus on any career field they want. We will also connect them with resources and world class teams in their chosen career paths so they can have a great shot at excellence.
The aim of the fellowship is to open kids living in Nigeria to a much higher quest of learning. If we remove the obstacles around learning, remove the immediate concern for an income and let young minds wander, they will lean into their curiosity and climb great intellectual mountains. I want us to take a big and bold bet on the Nigerian youth. It’s audacious and ambitious but in a few decades, the program should be churning out Curies, Buterins, Du Boises, and Doudnas.
For me, it’s untenable that we don’t get the basics right: electricity for our citizens, contraceptives for women; but it’s just as unacceptable that we don’t contribute to cancer research, or build the Clubhouse of our generation or maintain the bitcoin codebase. And while the basic things are incredibly critical and must be solved, the slightly less basic problems also need urgent solutions — especially because they often have a multiplier effect on the solutions that we pursue to solve our base needs. My vision isn’t that any of these problems are solved overnight. But that 20 years from now, we are in the middle of a cognitive revolution of the Nigerian mind. I’m not certain we are on the path to this today; but I feel confident this will be one of the many steps we have to take as a nation to accelerate our progress.
Today, Aleph Fellows are exceptional kids who are on a path of discovery of how they fit in and matter to a massive yet highly connected world. Tomorrow, Aleph Fellows are every Nigerian youth, disinterested in a bad education system and looking for the best system to help them build an economically sustainable career in a field they enjoy and are good at.
If you consider yourself an autodidact, love dreaming big, are incredibly obsessed with learning, enjoy building and want to take a big and bold bet on your future, then come apply here. I promise it will be fun and challenging! The application is open for the next 4 weeks and closes on Sunday, May 9 @ 10 pm WAT. Application link: https://www.notion.so/buycoins/Aleph-Fellowship-c1a99cb6a294460eac57b5df21556488
PS: Students, we know your parents might not like this. Apply anyways, let it be our job to help you figure out how to convince them that it’s worth a shot :)