By Tom Odhiambo
Kenyans invest billions in education, yet many are sceptical of the value of schooling. It is common to hear Kenyans – who have taken loans to pay for their children’s school tuition – say that today’s schools, teachers and curricula are useless. Indeed, Kenyans talk about the value of education in Kenya today just as pervasively as they debate politics. Why this obsession with education? And is this concern peculiar to Kenya?
No; it isn’t just Kenyans who worry every day that the school system isn’t worth the money spent on it. Across the border, Ugandans were recently shocked to learn that a majority of their teacher trainees couldn’t perform better than the pupils they are meant to teach after college. The charges against schools range from the claim that teachers are semiliterate to the accusation that the schools lack facilities, learners are lazy, administrators are incompetent and the curriculum is out-dated. So, why have Kenyans, who all have a stake in education, allowed matters to rot to such an extent?
Aren’t teachers members of the society? Don’t they have children in schools? Are they not the ones who develop the curriculum? Where do the students come from? Are they not the children of families that make up the societies that host schools? In other words, is the society right to blame the school system for failing to socialise and acculturate its young ones when it is the main shareholder in the school system?
I would say that the cynicism one often hears directed at the school system is, in fact, healthy. It is probably the right attitude to always doubt if school is imparting the right ken to young people. However, the pessimism may also end up damaging the system. This is already happening in many places around the world. There is a pervasive argument that schools should mainly be teaching subjects that directly relate to the world of work. There are some who argue that what matters today is science, technology and mathematics (STEM). Others have called for the banishment of the arts, social sciences and humanities.
As South African university students contest increases in school fees today, there are whispers – found online – by some academics that the militancy by the students is due to the “unpractical” theory they have imbibed in the art, humanities and social sciences classes. The irony is that these professors are ensconced in departments of arts, humanities and social sciences! Well, the liberal arts haven’t liberated many in the society, if the liberty the naysayers seek is economic! But probably this is the point of liberal education – to prepare individuals to ask questions rather than seek answers – and money – to the problems of the world.
This is the point that I think Michael Roth makes in the book, Beyond University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). This is a book that notes the arguments against and for liberal education – almost from the time education was systematized into a university system. Roth’s isn’t just a book that defends the worth of liberal education (for that read Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education); it is an argument for education in general.
Roth rightfully warns against quick fixes to the supposed ‘crisis of education’ in today’s world; the kind of ad hoc changes that Kenyans are always suggesting for the sector. Remember that Roth is mainly talking about America. But his conclusions can be applied to many other places in the world. He warns, “Beware of critics of education who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.”
Educational reformists today talk of the incongruence between skills acquired at school and the expertise needed in the workplace. They forcefully argue that the cost of education is unjustified. Of course, they say, what is the point of someone going to school up to the university when she will struggle to get a job or get one that doesn’t match her skills and knowledge, or not get a job at all? Such pessimists are probably right. Maybe one doesn’t really need to get all that education from Baby Class through primary school to college if there isn’t a chance that whatever job they will end up doing will pay back the ‘investment’ in him.
Beyond the university
But isn’t the problem really this dogmatic view about education as nothing but in investment that must have reducible and tangible economic returns? Must every venture return tangible profits, which can immediately be ploughed back into the business? The problem – and therefore really the most important aspect – of a liberal education is that it is practically and theoretically meant to go “beyond the university”. The university is just but one of those places where individuals are socialised and acculturated into the kind of persons that may make the society better than probably it is now. Roth argues that the intentions of a liberal education are to “increase our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it, and to reshape ourselves beyond our years at a university.”
In other words, it is nearly impossible to calculate the credit side of spending years learning how to play the saxophone in the manner one would immediately quantify a doctor’s qualification in terms of patients treated and money made. But the doctor needs to learn how to empathise with her patients just as he needs to unwind after work by listening to classical music. Where does the doctor turn if his “scientific” training doesn’t help him understand the mysteries of the world? I guess to the spiritualist or the philosopher – none of them is likely to be certain in answering the doctor’s dilemma but they will expand the range of the doctor’s interpretation of the world.
Liberal education is largely interested in learning that draws from everyday experiences of people. It is learning that John Dewey saw as context-based. Roth explains it in these words, “Learning in the context of living means modifying one’s behaviour on the basis of experience; it means trying things out and revising one’s attempts through collaboration.
It’s not that one ‘gets an education’ in order to ‘do things in the world’; it’s that doing things in the world and getting an education are part of the same process. One is not prior to the other.” In other words, great learning – which one hopes a good liberal education provides – doesn’t prepare one for the world of work; it is work included in the theory of the classroom.
How, you may ask?
A good liberal education at the university should prepare the individual to work in any environment. It should be the foundation for developing any other skill that the so-called workplace may demand. It is socialising the learner to be ready to adapt to new work circumstances and innovate, because a graduate of such an education understands the historical and current forces that have created the world in which they live. It is therefore alright to demand that the society provides free or affordable education to all those who wish to have it because it is part and process of becoming human.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org