Humanities in Kenya: The Usefulness of the Useless

Over a decade ago, I told my mother that I was going to pursue a degree in English. Two years later, she asked, “and then when you finish that one you’re going to get a medical degree, yes?”

In the Kenya I grew up in, only a limited number of degrees had any cultural capital: medicine, law, engineering, and architecture. Business was useful, but not as prestigious. Business degrees became prestigious only if you made a lot of money.

At independence, Jomo Kenyatta proclaimed “uhuru na kazi,” and while this phrase no longer circulates in public discussions, it shapes how we understand education. We believe that education must be instrumental. It must have immediate utility.

Education should prepare us to be technically proficient, capable of producing demonstrable results: a healed body, a resolved court case, a house, a bridge, improved crops, better husbandry techniques, cleaner water, more efficient fuel consumption. To be clear, I agree with all of these. Education should improve our material lives, and, most importantly, should help us create safe, environmentally friendly structures and institutions.

However, by privileging a purely instrumental view of education, we devalue the humanities, whose worth can rarely be measured in instrumental terms. Those of us who study literature, history, and philosophy, to name only three subjects in the humanities, are routinely dismissed, told that what we study has no practical value. This complaint is not limited to Kenya or Africa, and is one heard frequently in the United States: the humanities are devalued.

Yet, the reasons the humanities are devalued in the United States are not necessarily the same ones in Kenya. I would like to venture three possible reasons why we do not, or rarely, value the humanities in Kenya. While each of these reasons is discrete, each buttresses the others. They are tradition, religion, and ongoing development programs, especially those funded by foreign capital.

It is impossible to sum up the humanities, as their root systems and branches seem ever more dense and confusing. However, we might take as their ongoing preoccupation Socrates’s famous dictum: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Broadly speaking, the humanities are dedicated to examining life, seeing what lessons can be learned from past events (history), from imaginative constructions and reconstructions of life (literature), and from the history of thought (philosophy).

The first major obstacle to valuing humanities in Kenya is that we are told tradition has already told us what is a good life. When we humanists argue for the value of morality grounded in philosophy or literature, we are accused of being detached and westernized. Even when we use African philosophers or creative writers, we are told that the living knowledge called tradition is always better than what is read in books. Books cannot compete with tradition.

What is troubling about such claims is that they set up a needless competition between so-called book learning and traditional knowledge. Both are systems of knowledge. And each one enhances the other. From tradition based on lived practices, the humanities can learn to focus on the knowledge and wisdom created in non-academic spaces.

In fact, a lot of scholarship in the humanities is dedicated precisely to exploring how traditional systems of knowledge and practices of knowledge intersect with book learning. To give only one example, scholarship on oral literature has been very influential in helping us appreciate African thinking and action as grounded in moral philosophies derived from daily life. Instead of seeing tradition and university-based humanities in competition, it might be more fruitful to see them as collaborators, with each one learning from the other.

If tradition represents one obstacle, I would argue that religion represents the major obstacle in the way of teaching the humanities.

The humanities are deeply interested in investigating what makes a good life. How does one live a good life? How can one be a good person? How can one be moral and ethical?

In Kenya, we believe such matters should be addressed by religion.

Unlike in the humanities, where these are posed as questions, requiring deliberation and reflection, we often approach morality as a set of proscription and prescriptions. It is a laundry list of what not to do and what to do. Moreover, we frequently believe that questioning moral proscriptions and prescriptions is heresy.

Good and bad are good and bad. There is no room for negotiation.

Yet, the Kenya we live in is full of shades of grey. How do we understand the moral choices of the post-election violence, for instance? Do communities have a right to protect themselves using violence? Or is violence always wrong? How do we understand theft and looting when, say, a tanker overturns? Should the poor and desperate always be condemned for trying to acquire a means of survival?

For we in the humanities, these matters are phrased as questions, requiring thought, discussion, and argumentation. In contrast, many religious approaches see the world in stark lines, where right is right and wrong is wrong, and where authority figures know what is right and tell us what is right. To take one absurd example, some church leaders have rules on what kinds of clothing women should wear to church. These rules, I hasten to add, are based on idiosyncratic interpretations of the bible, and are often misogynistic in their applications and implications.

As with tradition, I am not arguing that the humanities and religion compete. Anyone who knows the history of the university will point out, rightly, that it is deeply embedded within the histories of religion. In the ancient world, centers of worship were also centers of learning, and this venerable tradition has continued to the present, where some of the most prestigious and well-regarded universities in the world maintain close ties with the church.

The danger we face in Kenya is that, too often, we assume that religion is dogma, and that the questions that drive the humanities must be irreligious, and, as a result, are not worth pursuing. Those who take classes in the humanities study to “pass exams,” but rarely believe that classes in the humanities should shape how we interact with each other in daily life.

Finally, and perhaps most paradoxically, the humanities face challenges from well-meaning development programs and schemes. At their core, development programs define what a country or region needs, and they allocate resources accordingly.

Notably, most development programs located in Kenya and directed toward Africa focus on enhancing the sciences. Scholarship programs and grants are most often focused on those scholars who will produce “useful” knowledge about improved farming techniques, better crop production, medical care, and, increasingly, information technology. These are all good and necessary.

Yet, we rarely see support for those who want to study literature, philosophy, or history. Yes, there are individual programs and enterprising scholars will always find a way to acquire education. But the humanities in Africa do not garner much support from development agencies. There are, of course, some exceptions, and the Ford Foundation in East Africa, to name just one, is doing good work.

But the sense persists that we in Kenya, and Africa in general, need to build better schools and roads, but do not need to take the humanities seriously.

Consequently, we have a vacuum when it comes to thinking seriously about morality and ethics. Year after year, we hear the same lines: “eliminate corruption,” “stop impunity,” “clean Kenya up.” But without the social and intellectual foundations to buttress these pronouncements, we are left with nice sounding slogans.

This is an audacious claim, but a necessary one: our lack of “progress” in addressing the moral and ethical problems we face in our politics and daily life is linked, in some way, to our devaluing the humanities. As long as we dismiss the idea that we need to discuss and debate and argue over what consists of a good life and what makes a life worth living, we lack the intellectual resources to address our moral and ethical lacks.

We need to take the humanities seriously, to accord them respect, and to allocate resources that will help us think more seriously about the Kenya we want.

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