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Education begins in the home

Last week, we looked at the quantity aspect of education in Kenya – how many get through the system. This week, let’s talk quality – let’s take a trip inside the classrooms to find out what those little boys and girls are being taught.

We all know that most of our children are being educated using grossly insufficient textbooks and equipment; and, on the evidence of the quality of their protest placards when they go on strike, by ill-educated teachers. The value of what is produced by this system will be commensurate with what is put into it.

Distressing though this situation is, it is not my focus today. My worry is that as Kenyans we stopped appreciating education for its own sake a long time ago. All that we are interested in is the certificate, the diploma, the embossed piece of paper that says something quite trivial: that we passed an examination, or completed a course of study. Whether we became “educated” in the process is an irrelevance. We must be armed with as many of these pieces of paper as possible in order to secure employment. The joy of learning about new things and new places, new ideas and new concepts is a mystery to most. Don’t waste your time; focus on the piece of paper at the end. Public esteem and a shot at employment are the real goals, not learning for its own sake.

In a poor country where the competition for meaningful jobs is horribly intense, that is perhaps understandable. But it is certainly not desirable. It does not produce enough of the thinkers who can analyse the problems facing this land and develop mould-breaking solutions.

This factory approach to education is a global problem, and it starts early. Consider what happens in the world’s classrooms. The day is divided into periods of, say, 45 minutes each. Each period covers a different subject, because it is deemed necessary for children to know a little bit about everything. After 45 minutes of geography, the bell rings, the teacher changes and the attention switches to mathematics. Nothing important is ever finished in any one class, but that doesn’t matter. As American teacher and educationist John Gatto pointed out in 1992: the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?

Gatto pointed out other disturbing features of modern education. The curriculum is not chosen by students or parents; it is decided from up on high by morose mandarins in myopic ministries. Children must surrender their will upon entry to a predestined chain of command, without appeal. Teachers have great authority: they can discipline or suspend students on a whim; they can pass or fail them on an impulse. They cultivate favourites, and pick out troublemakers early on.

Why such a system? Because we need to produce worker bees to populate the modern capitalist economy. What is important is conformance and uniformity, and the ability to follow a chain of command. In addition, a “survival of the fittest” culture must be cultivated; the “best” children (i.e. those who conform best to the system) must be picked out, and the others consigned to the dustbin. Examinations are set which test children’s ability to memorise and regurgitate under intense pressure – a pressure most normal individuals cannot handle. You might be paying hundreds of thousands of shillings for your children to attend elite institutions, but the outcome is the same: at best they will emerge as well-polished cogs, ready to take their place in the big wheel of commerce. A competitive mindset is cultivated from the beginning; children are encouraged, implicitly and explicitly, to build themselves while diminishing others. This behaviour goes from playground to classroom, and eventually from office to boardroom.

Real learning is the casualty. It was different in traditional societies, which all shared common characteristics wherever in the world they happened to be. There was, for example, a respect for community: children were taught to work with their peers rather than against them. There was an overriding reverence for nature: people were taught to work with the elements, rather than working to control and harness them. And all traditional societies had “rites of passage” for adolescents – where youngsters were allowed to spend time discovering their own particular talents. Somewhere, sometime, we lost all these things and produced a winner-takes-all system that gives a selected few disproportionate rewards and throws many others straight into the gutter.

So, you are a thinking parent in this modern world. You are faced with a narrow choice of alternatives: whether your child goes into a basic government school or a posh private academy, the essential philosophy of teaching is likely to be the same. What do you do? The first thing to question is why you hand over all responsibility for your children’s education to others. Educational outsourcing is a relatively modern phenomenon, one in which parents are brainwashed into thinking they are too busy to play a central role in their children’s upbringing. But what could be a more productive use of a parent’s time? Teaching your child dignity, compassion and human values is the very essence of parenting. Teaching your progeny how to handle finances, how to manage nutrition and how to select a life partner are all forgotten necessities. Today, it is left to teachers and TV to do. The results are all around you: in the consumption-crazed, self-centred and fad-frenzied kids you see everywhere.

Take Britain’s Prince Harry, presumably a boy who was given access to the best possible formal education in the world. As recent events attest, he apparently does not know enough about the significance of the Nazi swastika, and indeed the history of his own family, to prevent him from engaging in idiocy that has hit the headlines across the world.

We have also forgotten how to read books. There is an enormous treasury of learning available to every person on the planet. Thomas Carlyle told us: “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.” But the problem is, no one hands you a certificate after you finish reading a book, and in Kenya the certificate is the thing. Books can be our best and most patient friends, but we have forgotten them. We prefer the idiot box, yet, as Andrew Ross pointed out: “The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.” This myopia starts from parents, who today almost revel in their own ignorance and find it very convenient to park their children in front of Cartoon Network. Saves so much trouble, doesn’t it? Fine, but don’t waste everyone’s time complaining about the collapse of education, when you are unwilling to lift a finger to do something about it in your own home.

We can’t dismantle a flawed system overnight, but we can do something about the things in our control. True education is hard work, and it starts with you.

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