School fires have exposed Kenya's social science deficit

Friday July 29 2016

In Kenya, there is an unquestioned belief that the hierarchy of professions places those trained in the natural sciences at the top.

This fallacy feeds the argument that society needs more medical doctors, engineers and people with natural science training, as opposed to those who have studied, history, anthropology and sociology.

The latter fields are presumed to require lower cognitive capability and therefore to be of less value for a developing country like Kenya, and as many Kenyans marvel at the impressive pace at which the standard gauge railway has crawled to Nairobi under Chinese engineering, the contest about the superiority of natural science seems to be closed.

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This thinking has been heard from leading politicians, who mention that Kenya’s higher education institutions should support the study of subjects like agriculture and other sciences as opposed to anthropology and sociology.

To be fair, the argument extolling the supremacy of science-oriented education and denigrating liberal education is not confined to Kenya.

It reveals not only a misunderstanding of the purpose of education but also what the content of liberal education really is.

Going back to my main point, I will illustrate, using three situations, that while government can buy top engineering capability to solve infrastructure challenges, it clearly lacks good social science advice.

The first clear illustration is school fires. It has been reported that buildings in up to 100 high schools been set on fire.

While the grievances remain unknown, there have been nearly a dozen theories of varying plausibility on the cause of the fires.

That we are fumbling to find the causes of such significant destruction is evidence that Kenyans are fishing for theories based on gut feelings and rumours, while blaming parents, teachers and the Cabinet secretary for Education.


The struggle to find a solution urgently is understandable, because Kenya’s education system and institutions represent the largest single footprint of the national government.

As citizens are finding out, the causes and solution for this problem are not easy to find and all guesses about who is responsible and for what reasons require something more than our beloved natural scientists can master.

It requires good social science thinking that would define the real problem and separate the causes from the symptoms. But instead of asking the proper question, the discourse is focused on fires and the unbelievably uninformed view that a resumption of corporal violence on children would stop conflict in schools.

What more evidence does one need to confirm the ignorance that forms policy formulation in this country other than the presence of such proposals?

A second manifestation of this pervasive but poor thinking is in the explanations that Kenyans offer and accept for dysfunction in our society. The most predictable retort to any unacceptable behaviour is that it traces back to politicians because youth behaviour is modelled on them.

This preposterous claim is so easily falsified by the fact that the turnover for elected officials is as high as 70 per cent, an expression of disapproval, if not outright contempt, for some politicians.

So how the bulk of commentaries still maintain that the tendency for violence is as a result of conditioning by politicians just baffles me. However, in the absence of reasonable hypotheses, people will grab at the most convenient lies spewed by the posh and serious.

The perennial struggle with prejudice and bigotry presents the third illustration of the gap that good social scientists would fill.


Outside the election season, many Kenyans worry that harsh ethnic-based rhetoric is dangerous to the country. But because nobody has cared to define what about hate speech is really objectionable and dangerous to the country, we have adopted a legal approach to it and criminalised speech.

This has been done through the formation of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), whose idea of hate speech is anything that causes offense to a busybody with a fragile ego.

Thus we are in a conundrum in which political communication is restricted to what doesn’t cause offense to those with fragile egos.  

This policy response ignores nearly 70 years of written history showing that the best response to “hate speech” is not to restrict it but to allow for rebuttal of false characterisation and stereotypes.

Clearly, every Kenyan is frustrated that the NCIC has done nothing to curb hate speech since the commission and its clueless bureaucrats were given an impossible task and set on a futile chase.  

Instead of making national discourse better, the NCIC has inadvertently created an industry of cry-babies who take offense at any criticism, however benign.

So next time you hear someone utter the phrase that knowledge of such soft subjects as anthropology, history and sociology have no place in development, please tell him this: Kenya will not engineer its way out of teachers’ strikes, school fires and economic malaise.

These problems are very hard to figure out and building a white elephant railroad is nothing compared with them.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame