In June 2015, Riara University honored Dr. Micere Githae Mugo, professor emerita at Syracuse University. Many gathered to praise her scholarship, her creative writing, and her mentorship to Kenyans in Kenya and abroad. As a poet and scholar, Dr. Mugo gave many Kenyans the words we needed to imagine different ways of being and thinking. It was ironic, then, that Dr. Mugo was honored by an institution that does not offer degrees in literature or creative writing. If one looks at Riara University’s offerings, one notes it does not have any school dedicated to the humanities. Disciplines such as Literature, History, and Philosophy are absent. In many ways, Riara University exemplifies the new ideals of a university education: it is created to produce skilled, knowledgable workers suitable for the development economy.
With the caveat that university websites are notoriously unreliable and often out of date, a brief scan at the new universities in Kenya—besides the public University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and Moi University—reveals a dearth of departments and programs offering traditional humanist fields. I am not wedded to traditional disciplinary organization, so I’m quite okay with the absence of discipline-specific departments. However, a scan of the curricular offerings demonstrates the same absence of training in the humanities, little or almost no training in literature, history, and philosophy. Across schools, training in English focuses on teaching students how to write for industry: how to produce reports for the NGO industry, for instance, or how to draft proposals. The focus on writing as skill devalues writing as an important site of self- and society-making. As Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language possess as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” The language one possesses—as structure—possesses one, directing the possibilities of one’s thinking.
In one of independent Kenya’s earliest blueprints, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta exiled academic debate—the kind of thinking taught in the humanities—from development:
To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done we must settle down to the job of building the Kenya nation. To do this we need political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about the aims of our society.
The “job of building the Kenya nation” demanded that “debates on theories . . . about the aims of our society” should cease. Nation building, and more precisely development, required that intellectual debates be silenced. Development programs were to be moral and ethical guides. We continue to live in the wake of this thinking.
Under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, thinking that was not directed toward development, thinking that did not support the state’s image of itself, was threatened. Scholars and students were detained, imprisoned, and exiled. Subjects and methods that enabled critiques of the state—History, Literature, Philosophy, Marxism, Anti-Colonial Critique—were devalued and de-fanged. The joke is often made that a Kenyan official issued an arrest warrant for Karl Marx. This much-reported story provides a powerful metaphor for what it means to arrest thinking.
State repression was abetted by the neocolonial machinations of neoliberalism. Under colonialism, natives were educated to become useful to the state. The education was skill-based, designed to produce workers who were not thinkers. Needless to say, this strategy failed: freedom dreams cannot be so easily managed, and education creates opportunities beyond what’s envisioned for it. However, skill-based education became the foundation for development: Kenya needed people with the right skills to build the nation. The development imagination was privileged.
Something strange happened.
Prior to independence and, perhaps, in the early years of independence, teachers were esteemed. They were understood to create and spread knowledge, to provide opportunities for minds to expand. The title “Mwalimu” was a title of honor. Indeed, teachers were considered very clever—the geniuses of the village, if you will. In the post-independence period, the designation “best and brightest” no longer applied to teachers: it referred to doctors, architects, lawyers, and engineers. By the mid-80s, teaching was considered a profession for those who were not very clever. This devaluing of teaching at all levels—primary, secondary, post-secondary—was part of sustaining the “best and brightest” myth that, at its core, privileges skill-based learning geared toward nation building over intellectual debates that question state operations. Though I will not elaborate this point here, we need to consider the relationship between so-called elite professions in Kenya—medicine, law, engineering, architecture—and professions produced by vocational training: both produce the same effects, the same subjects with the same relationship to the state. In one sense, both produce skill-based professionals, albeit with different specialties.
Under neocolonial neoliberalism, the development imagination is the dominant frame. It dictates what counts as education and what the educated should do. The NGO sector, for instance, which is consumed with collecting data, writing reports, and creating proposals to receive donor funds, is thoroughly neoliberal and neocolonial. It rarely, if ever, asks about the structures of white supremacy that govern the donor economy. It is based on mastering skills: how to beg for grants, how to master acronyms and abbreviations, how to fit work into donor frames. It is also the place that currently absorbs many Kenyans with advanced degrees and good minds, who dedicate themselves to mastering arcane rules and languages so they can write reports and grant proposals. In many ways, it’s the sector where intellectual production is mastered and strangled by neocolonial neoliberalism. I note this point because many Kenyans pursue higher education so that they can join the NGO sector—it has well-paying jobs, as long as the donor funding continues to flow.
Training in the humanities teaches how to ask difficult, necessary questions: How does the past influence the future? How can we live together? What is the good life? What is an ethical life? What values are worth promoting? How can we learn to disagree without killing each other? What is collectivity? What is a shareable world? What is a livable world? What is freedom? Why is love important? Questions that can be considered in intellectual ways have been outsourced to homes and religious institutions. Certainly, they should also be discussed in these settings, but the humanities have frames and methods and archives for discussing these questions. A recent report claimed that young Kenyan people are okay with corruption. Where would they acquire different ways of thinking?
Devaluing the humanities continues to have devastating effects in Kenya. Sure, it would be great if universities without departments dedicated to the humanities opened such departments, but I’m not wedded to traditional disciplinary divides. Faculty who teach literature and history and philosophy and gender studies could be hired in schools and departments that focus on business and law and computer science and medicine and architecture and engineering. They could be hired to teach in schools that focus on carpentry and ironwork and accounting and dressmaking. Perhaps if we populated Kenya with better thinking, we might be able to demand more from ourselves.