One More Note on Kenyan Education

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?

7 thoughts on “One More Note on Kenyan Education

  1. Hihihii..interesting and somewhat true..but here is another side to it. How will they survive this cruel world if they get what they want/expect.

  2. I guess I have two answers.

    One, if we truly believe the world is cruel, then we should not believe in politics or in tomorrow; we should not participate in institutions that perpetuate its cruelty, including the family and the state; we should abstain from every act that makes the world more pleasant, beautiful, or enjoyable. We should take ourselves as prisoners/guards in war camps whose task it is to make life merely more unpleasant.

    This is not a vision of the world with which I can live.

    Second, the task of a progressive politics, the one I embrace, is to make the world a better place, to believe it can be better, and to make it better. That means maximizing the conditions under which pleasure and good can be created and increased. It means creating fewer obstacles to success. It means learning to value each other and making each other feel and act valuable. I believe we do so most effectively when we embrace the good we can do and the good we can be.

    We have enough hardened, callused people in the world. That is a terrible legacy to give to the future.

  3. i think student have to want it and want it so bad that regardless of the intervening circumstances, they still attempt to overcome it all.

    the conditions arent likely to change: not the bad food, the mean high school teachers, the awful exam that is a misrepresentation of your high school academic achievements, the fact that private schools will continue to do well, NONE OF THAT, so these kids just need to shut it and work hard, we all been there and look at us!

  4. Yes, look at you. Does Kenya excel in academics on a world scale?

    The argument “It was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for you” is a distraction. You’ll make to progress with it.

  5. I meant that part of the complaints voiced by these striking youth are neither here nor there- when they are harmed physically or expected to make do under inhuman conditions, then we shall join them but the pre-exam fears that are masked in the angst-driven strikes need to be dispensed with and not given time of day by anyone.

    But I do believe that the 844 system ranks far superior to many out there especially because it prepares one for the higher levels of schooling where education does truly begin!

  6. My man, could not have been put better. There is something absurdly obtuse for 12 years of work to boil down to a 2 hour window!

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