“Stop Beating Students,” Or, the University’s Mission

The front entrance of Nairobi Primary faces “Box,” a women’s residential hall at the University of Nairobi. When I was at Nairobi Primary, the easiest way to get to the city center was to walk through the compound of university housing. In those days, teachers nurtured our dreams that one day we would “walk across the street.” Proximity made dreaming possible. UON was never an abstraction: it was the faces and bodies of students we encountered every day as they went about the most banal business of studying, eating living, dreaming, being.

This proximity created other types of interactions.

When university students “rioted,” and when the police pursued them—most often the GSU were called in, essentially a military unit—students would flee through Nairobi Primary. My siblings recall hearing students run through the corridors as they ran away from military men intent on “beating” students. While I don’t recall any such incidents from my days at Nairobi Primary—I have a leaky memory—I certainly understood, even then, that being a university student rendered one vulnerable to massive state-sanctioned violence. To be a student at UON was to be, to use an ugly word to describe something ugly, “beatable.” And even “beatable” might be a euphemism for the range of (often undocumented) violations that took place, many of which included sexual violence. Recall, Nairobi Primary was across from “Box,” the women’s residence.

One wanted to go to university, less because of the glorious opportunities higher education promised—by the 1980s “tarmacking” was all too real, graduates clutching their papers and walking from office to office in search of jobs—and more because it confirmed something: one belonged to the select few who had made it through a competitive process to gain admission to the university. At least, in retrospect, this is how I remember it.

But Nairobi Primary’s proximity to UON also made evident that university life was anything but idyllic. In Moi’s Kenya, the one I grew up in, the university was a place where students and faculty wrestled with question of belonging and justice, a place where the “best and brightest,” as we termed them, fought for a better vision of Kenya, for better versions of citizenship. The university was at the heart of political debates and struggles, a place that nurtured “dissidents,” taught the usefulness of dissent, fomented dreams of utopias, even as it anchored those dreams in concrete material struggles. Utopia may have been possible, but it was going to be a hard, bitter slog to get there. And students’ bodies would be on the line. Were on the line.

I want to begin from here, from the intimacy of fuzzy memory, to think about the university’s mission, this time, not as a young primary school student, but as a faculty member, as someone invested in nurturing dreams worth fighting for. This is, I confess, not in my job description. Nor is it to be found in UMD’s mission statement. And, certainly, it is nowhere in the rhetoric of “skills attainment” and “appropriate assessment” that now shapes university culture and administration. It is not that these things are bad or irrelevant, but they often miss the mark of what it is one might be attempting to do. When I teach C.L.R. James or Fanon, I am interested in students thinking about genre and tone and historicity. But I also want them to be inflamed, excited, provoked into imagining better worlds and acting to realize them. In this sense, I am very much the legacy of the political movements that allowed my presence in the classroom in the first place.

To bridge time and space: I want my students to realize the stakes of their education just as UON students did in my fuzzy recollections.

As I watch the terrible videos of students being assaulted at Berkeley (scroll down the page)—Aaron’s account is a must read—and the fissure visible (all-too-visible) between the university administration, on the one hand, and students and faculty, on the other, I keep wondering how the university’s mission might be defined. Part of UMD’s Mission Statement reads, “The University creates and applies knowledge for the benefit of the economy and culture of the State, the region, the nation, and beyond.” UMD considers UC Berkeley a peer school.

It is tempting to believe that “rioting” students, to use Kenya’s language, or “not non-violent civil disobedience” actors, to use the UC administration’s obfuscatory language (see Rei Terada) have gone beyond the university’s mandate. That when students assemble to protest injustice and advocate for better modes of living they have stopped being students and are no longer subject to the protection of the university—certainly, this is the narrative the UC administration would like to believe. But to believe that is to misrecognize and diminish the university’s mission: to believe in and act toward a better world, a more just, more equitable, more accessible, is a major component of what it means to “create and apply knowledge for the benefit of the economy and culture” of a place.

When we talk about creating knowledge—in my upper-level classes, I tell my students that they are not simply knowledge consumers, but, more importantly, knowledge producers—we are talking about a wide range of ways of knowing: how to read a poem, yes, and also how to read the social. How to parse language, yes, and how to engage that language as it circulates in the world around you. How to recognize injustice in texts, yes, and also how to recognize injustice in the world one occupies. And how to act in the face of injustice. We read Fanon and Du Bois for reasons that go beyond historical coverage.

We try to provide students with what Kenneth Burke termed “equipment for living.” And we get angry and frustrated and grieve and mourn when the institutions in which we try to teach these lessons negate their missions of creating ethical humans by beating students.

3 thoughts on ““Stop Beating Students,” Or, the University’s Mission

  1. Keguro, stop it, bwana. I don’t want to think (read: the travails and precariousness of international student life have made me very jaded about the academy).

    But seriously: Kenyan universities have provided that minimal space from the totalizing force and power of the state and its propaganda—space for thinking and unthinking, making and unmaking democracy and subjectivities.

    Non-sequitir: as I read this, I remembered sitting for KCPE. I remembered that there was an AP officer present with a fully loaded AK-47. For what? I still don’t know. To prevent the students from cheating? For who’s security? This, for me, has always been a symbol of how the threat of state violence was deployed in schools — in addition, of course, to teachers caning students.

    The chilling threat of GSU is caught in that phrase: fanya fujo uone. Even as a child, that phrase expressed the sort of violence the GSU were known for.

  2. For a range of reasons, these days I am acutely aware how easy it is to look past shared historical experiences. As I was reading Aaron, I was thinking of how I could connect what’s happening at Berkeley to the familiar of Nairobi: I wondered how a Nairobi audience might receive a narrative and also how a Berkeley audience might be able to understand the reception of their narrative through other frames, even and especially those from Kenya. And, of course, I keep thinking of what’s happening at Berkeley and at Penn State in terms of the university’s mission. What is it universities are supposed to do? What do they actually do?

    While I sympathise with the international student perspective–how could I not? I spent close to 12 years in its embrace–I think it can also be a too-convenient alibi for disengaging from where one is. Even as one is not necessarily free to act in particular ways: those on visas from foreign countries cannot, as easily, risk arrest, for instance, though this is open to debate. One can be jaded about the academy, but there are moments of intense vitality that always happen and that can’t often be anticipated.

    I was also thinking of how many Kenyans are quick, too quick, to defend corporal punishment, itself a larger metonym for state violence, as you point out. For those readers, the chant “stop beating students” might be too easy to dismiss as “weak Americans” or “spoilt Americans.” And I want to arrest that thought, to press, more insistently on what it means to beat students. What is being modeled as power? What is being modeled as ethical behavior? What is the relationship between dissent and discipline?

    I’m not sure we’re past state discipline right now in Kenya. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the war has re-introduced something that feels too familiar: a policing of the public in the name of (paternalist) protection. All too conveniently close to a prolonged election cycle.

  3. I hear you, even though I must qualify something: being an international student before and after 9/11 here in the USA might—just might—be light and day. Add that to a whole host of other personal things I shouldn’t say on the internet (I’m here trying to pretend I haven’t bared all Oprah-style on the internet-s), personal things that the euphemism “poverty” captures well, and you might justifiably end up with a very jaded subject. But not too jaded to engage with what you’re trying to think through here. Just jaded enough to start every sentence and thought process with the need to declare my jadedness so as to be aware of it, but also to try and overcome it.

    Like you, I listen/watch/read with difficulty as some Kenyans defend corporal punishment. A friend once told me that people defend institutions quicker than they do individuals who go against them; it is inculcated in us. Since then, I’ve been on the watch, and even in myself (purging, anyone?) I have sometimes spotted a tendency to defend the institution over the individual. Not that I have ever supported caning, but caning is itself an institution—last night I was reading Foucault because Kenne mentioned him here the other day and let’s just say I don’t want to go into that vortex, so please allow me to get away easily without saying much on this non-point.

    This return to paternalism that you write about, this return to the Master, presents a lot of dangers, especially in light of that cliche criticism against Kibaki: that he has been an impotent leader satisfied with napping at State House while Lucy and Wambui (his non-wife) run amok, that he is too off hand, too laid back. Returning to the strong, potent Master might just feed off of all these complaints about Kibaki’s laid backness.

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