Professor Toyin Falola is a world-renowned professor of History. He is a distinguished teacher and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. Born in 1953, Falola earned his first degree (1976) and Ph.D. (1981) in History from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where he began his teaching career.
His teaching interest borders on African History, African methodologies, diasporic and decolonial studies. Without doubt, he is the most prolific African scholar in History, gone and present. Among his staggering works are: over 400 Lectures and Keynote addresses delivered at conferences, seminars, workshops and convocation ceremonies, 250 Chapters contributed to others’ books since 1981, 202 Books authored, edited, and co-authored since 1983 when he debuted (including three memoirs and a poem). He has served in over 200 Committees and panels on tenure and promotion of associate and full-time professors, 150 Reviewed works, over 100 Masters and doctorate dissertations supervised and has been awarded about 13 honorary degrees. With all these honours and awards, Falola recently bagged a D. Litt degree at the University of Ibadan. In this interview with OLAYINKA OYEGBILE, he talks about why he had to do it.
What is the idea behind doing a D. Litt. degree after more than three decades of having a Ph.D. and being a world-renowned Professor?
Has it not been four already, four decades? The simple idea is that learning never ends. You should never stop wanting to know more. The quest for knowledge leaves me insatiable. The commitment to acquiring more knowledge makes me restless. I can’t help it. This is why I enrolled for it. It was not difficult because, as a writer of many books, I get reviewed all the time. It felt normal, and I do not know when the time was up. Having had over a dozen honorary doctorate degrees in the same humanities, I guess you would say those conferring me these honours were indirectly passing me a message that you still have a field we want you to explore. It excites me every time I receive an honorary doctorate that my work is being recognized. But it is also exciting to work for one, as in the Ibadan D. Litt. case. So, it is more about the knowledge than any monetary gain to come from it. If you know my people, they will call me “The Restless One” because that is who I am. I have been called an Iwin, Orisa, Yemoja, Irunmole, etc. And to them, to every school that deems me worthy of the honorary title, to my ever-supportive wife and children, family, and close associates, I say a big thank you. They have helped me come this far. You know that maxim, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with people.” I have opted for the latter, and they all have been supportive, effortlessly. Knowing I have their unflinching support is another reason I embarked on this quest.
I understand the D.Litt. degree is the first in Nigeria and perhaps in Africa. Was that the thrill in it for you, doing something different and novel?
No. Doing something different cannot be a motivation at this age and stage of my life. It is just like I already explained. Three factors. One, the quest for more knowledge, especially in a field I have been honoured over and over again. I owe it to myself and to scholarship to obtain a degree there. Of course, the feeling of being the first to do it will be there, but that is not all. It probably didn’t even occur to me at the beginning of the degree. Second, it was not stressful for me. I am still actively subjected to reviews every time I submit a manuscript for publication. I write, I edit, I review, I speak, I think, I meditate. I do all of these things by obtaining this degree. So, it was like life as usual. Nothing new. Nothing extra. Lastly, knowing the overwhelming support I have, nothing could be challenging to achieve. In the end, I have been made to repeat myself with your first and second questions. To someone being obsessed with arguments, pushing the frontiers, you are putting my restlessness to the test.
What then is the difference between having a Ph.D. and D. Litt ?
Both, undoubtedly, are degrees awarded after a great display of outstanding academic feat. It entails a process of thorough scholarship assessment and satisfactory knowledge production. However, the unique thing about a D.Litt. is that it is a distinction that appreciates the uniqueness of rare individuals who have heavily contributed to a particular field. To obtain a Ph.D., you must have had undergraduate and master’s degree within the same field/discipline. At the Ph.D. level, you can now specialize in a subject/area still within the discipline. The Doctor of Letters, on the contrary, is awarded after a lengthy period of research and scholarly journal publications. It is not direct nor tied to a field like a Ph.D. But to use a Yoruba way of talking, the D.Litt. is the father of a Ph.D.!
What do you hope to achieve with this feat?
Achieve? I have already. I have expanded my knowledge base with this degree. Similarly, I have validated the several honorary degrees I have received. It takes it beyond being a title to being fully entitled to go through hard work. It is the closure of a cosmos. I was admitted to a B.A. degree at Ibadan in 1973, but I went to Ile-Ife instead. The tail of the snake has now entered its mouth, a cosmic closure. The task ahead is to consolidate my consolidations with Ibadan, to combine two prestige—the prestige of the first, and the best, and that of the humanity scholar that I am to cement the centrality of Ibadan as an intellectual capital of Nigeria.
Do you now feel fulfilled, or might you be on to something more in the nearest future?
Some journalists’ questions can put you in a fix. My life is a fulfillment already. Like many at my age would be. What gives fulfillment is purpose. My purpose in life is not to amass degrees. If that were the situation, I would have more than the few I currently do. Within the spectrum of academics, my goal in life is the exportation of African History, the winning of worthy recognition for Africa and its people, achieving intellectual pan-Africanism, as crucial to political pan-Africanism, support knowledge production in Africa. In fact, recently, most of the feeble energy left in me is being channeled towards decolonizing African studies and the methodology of writing African studies. This last part especially is a huge fulfillment on its own because closer than ever, we are getting there. I have a double-volume book series in production addressing the coloniality of African knowledge and perspectives and how to achieve decolonization and decoloniality. More than ever, it is fast becoming a trend within academics that Africa has a vantage position in the global epistemology of knowledge, challenging the European perceived monopoly, which has fueled their hegemony. It is things like this that give me fulfillment. I have signed over 20 book contracts, and they have to be accomplished.
Will I look elsewhere in the nearest future? Maybe. Maybe not; learning is a continuous process. So, I will say, we shall see.
Many would say after being a professor, why do this again? Do you feel that way?
Oh, no. You can only feel that way if you think being a professor is the peak/ultimate of knowledge. I do not think so. It could just be your limitation. I believe it is a title to acknowledge your status in academia, earn you respect, and perhaps, a few extra bucks from your paymasters. Learning has no respect for status. It is what makes you. It adds to your wealth of knowledge. So, I don’t feel it was something unnecessary. It was like a mandate to fulfill after the many doctorates I got. And I am glad I started and completed the degree gracefully.
Now, I need to run. Thank you.