I have been following, sporadically, the events unfolding in Kenyan secondary schools. I have been following with more interest the various theories attempting to explain “student unrest.” Today’s students, I have learned, lack discipline; have inattentive parents; are overly privileged; lack toughness.
Whether commentators are sympathetic or not, an ongoing refrain is that “we” who have already been through the system “made it.” It is this claim that concerns me. In praising our “toughness,” our “tenacity,” our “fortitude,” we efface, or at the very least obscure, what might be more useful questions.
Under what conditions do students succeed? How can we achieve those conditions? How can we maximize those conditions?
Approaching secondary school as an obstacle course to be completed under harsh conditions is counter-productive. We should not be proud of succeeding “against the odds,” nor should that be what we expect of students today.
Students have a right to complain that they must study four years worth of education to be competitive in a two-hour exam consisting of, at most, 50 random questions. Those of us who have taken national exams know they are rarely cumulative, often comprise less than a year’s worth of knowledge, and test memory, not native intelligence.
Students should complain about over-crowded classes, poorly constructed dormitories, harsh prefects and teachers, restricted access to their parents and guardians, and poor nutrition.
Students should have smaller class sizes. They should have no cause to imagine that their work is gratuitous. They should be able to forge relationships between what they study and how they live. If this means that at least two terms, if not a year, of secondary school is spent pursuing some kind of internship or externship—and I think this is a great idea—then so be it.
We should not be proud if we ate weevil-flavored beans and undercooked ugali, if we lived on poorly cooked githeri and unpalatable porridge, if we learned to love stale bread and dirty water we called tea. We should not think well of ourselves for “doing well” despite overcrowded classrooms and overly strained teachers. We should not believe that education is about overcoming adversity and beating the odds.
Under what conditions can students succeed—and I have a generous definition of success that goes beyond merely achieving good grades—and what can be done to maximize those chances?