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Tragedy of education by numbers

After 30 years of neglect, 6,000 rats were reportedly killed at Wakulima Market recently, with another 6,000 allowed to escape.

After 30 years of neglect, our education system now annually allows 350,000 children to proceed to secondary education. Another 350,000 are told “Sorry, house full”.

Why am I comparing our children to rats? Because as a country, that is how we treat our most precious resource: the budding talents that could power this country’s leap into meaningful development. The need to develop a future pipeline of skilled human resources is an absolute imperative. Ask any successful company. Ask any developed nation. For goodness’ sake, don’t ask anyone: it’s a no-brainer. Our children are the most valuable capital we hold. If only they had the skills. If only they felt they had a stake in the country of their birth. If only the weakest were not swept out of the system like rats.

As a country, we operate on the exclusion principle. People must systematically be excluded from the economy, starting from childhood. At the secondary school entry point, 50 per cent must be excluded. Of the 50 per cent allowed through, many will drop out during the ensuing years, for a variety of reasons – inability to pay fees, inability to cope with the intellectual load, the economic necessity of needing to earn money for the family. Let’s call that “natural wastage”, a nice technical phrase that allows us to blame it on nature. By the time college or university rolls around, we’ll be ready to do some more radical culling. We have an impressive number of over 7 million children enrolling in primary education every year; at the other end of the tube, a grand total of 100,000 make it to Kenyan universities and technical colleges.

This is our much-lauded “free education system” that apparently impressed one Bill Clinton several thousand miles away. I guess it must look good from there. Even Kibera looks quite nice if you view it from the top of Mt. Kenya.

And these fortunate 100,000, what about them? Is their future at least assured? Please don’t laugh that loudly; this is a serious matter. I, for one, get extremely dispirited to hear the tales of our graduates who have beaten their heads against the hard wall called employment. One poor fellow who wrote to me has apparently been actively seeking a job since the turn of the millennium; five years later, his shoes are worn out and his shirt is a rag on his back. Today, he is trying to eke out a living selling old newspapers. Here, too, he requires Shs. 10,000 capital to make a meaningful fist of this venture. Needless to say, no one is ready to give it to him. We have sentenced him to a life on the scrap heap.

So what does it take to make it in this Kenya of ours, to become a member of that very exclusive set of people who have meaningful employment and financial stability? Brains? Perhaps, but no guarantee there. Determination? A fine thing, but unlikely to be enough. Money, the right contacts? Ah, now you’re talking. To be someone in Kenya, you (or your father) should already be someone. That’s when you have a real chance.

That is the sad thing about the Kenyan Way. We call ourselves capitalists but fail to understand the meaning of the term. There is no capitalism without opportunity. There is no opportunity without participation. There is no participation without skills. Given the way we structure our education system, why does it surprise anyone that we have one of the most unequal societies in the world? The principle of exclusion operates from cradle to grave. We operate a “devil-takes-the hindmost” country.

Oh, but the state of the slums, we moan. Oh, the horrible insecurity, we wail. All these beggars and pesky streetkids. All this nasty aggressiveness and violence. All are inevitable consequences of the exclusion principle. When people are given no fighting chance to make it, they end up fighting you for a chance to stay alive. We have been running this country like a golf club for a long time now. The excluded masses gather at the gates, beaten back by our hired guards (plenty of employment in that area, surprise, surprise). But for how long?

There is nothing “natural” about this state of affairs. Let us not kid ourselves that there is no other way to organise things. A country like Finland has something like 84 per cent of the relevant age group enrolling in tertiary education. Great Britain, which is losing its once-famed emphasis on education, still has 60 per cent enrolment. Even Malaysia, once a country that resembled ours, boasts 28 per cent. We are stuck in the bottom league of educators, where less than 5 per cent of those of age make it to universities and colleges.

This is a choice we make. Running an economy is about making choices. We can choose to ensure that as many of our youngsters as possible are given a basic set of marketable skills, at public cost. Or we can choose not to. We have chosen not to. We have chosen, instead, to run a large, well-equipped army. We have chosen to have 30 cabinet ministers and give them as many as four luxury vehicles each. We have chosen to allow all our bigwigs to travel the world in first-class comfort to engage in meaningless tours, earning an allowance per day that would make your head spin. We have chosen to ignore all the other options at our disposal that would allow us to stretch our resources: radio and internet-enabled distance learning; community-based co-operative schools; and using the tools of modern marketing to actively promote a book-reading culture, not just a drinking, consuming, partying culture.

It is eminently possible for us to offer far more education of far better quality to our budding generations. But, like that unfortunate fellow Bartleby in Herman Melville’s excellent little tale, we “prefer not to”. We prefer to look after those who have, and keep their numbers small. We prefer to pretend that we lack resources when we have coffee with donors, saying: “Well, if you’d like to help our poor children, that would be very nice, thank you.”

Rightly, this way of running education is finally attracting outrage and critical comment. Rightly, we are beginning to question this numbers game, in forceful terms. But there is more to this problem than just numbers. What about the quality side? What exactly are those little fellows in primary schools being taught, and what form of education do those bigger fellows in our universities actually receive? Is anyone receiving any wisdom that will help them become better citizens and better people, let alone better workers? Is anyone being taught how to live life with dignity, rather than learning to elbow their peers aside in the race to the exclusive club?

Ah, now that’s a whole new can of worms. To be opened here next week at the usual time.

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