Where our education system fails

Saturday March 14 2009


As Prof Sam Ongeri, the Education minister, announced that my former school had gained the academic glory it had recently lost, Alliance High lost for eternity two illustrious old boys -- Nicodemus Asinjo and Prof Elisha Atieno Odhiambo.

Nick Asinjo was among my most brilliant classmates. At the end of every term, he scored the highest marks in all the branches of mathematics -- algebra, arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry. Yet, although Alliance alumni have been accused of haughtiness about their mental ability, Nick was the humblest of men. He remained self-effacing, gentle, soft-spoken, imperturbable and courteous all his life.

He performed with equal sheen at Uganda's Makerere University (for which I was not chosen because I had not passed my Cambridge School Certificate examination as well as he and such other bright classmates as Henry Chasia, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Parsali Likimani and Joe Gatuiria.

Nick and Henry – who starred in physics -- were some of the first Kenyans to be drilled in the New-Age technology, Henry in the satellite systems and Nick in ICT. Even as he died – decades after the new tech had been introduced here, Nick remained among Nairobi’s elite of ICT experts.

Atieno Odhiambo, who was much younger than we, did not find us at Alliance. He was probably in the same academically illustrious class as Amos Wako, Willy Mutunga, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, William Ochieng and Emmanuel O’Kubasu.

I first heard of Atieno in 1969 when he sent a personal note from Makerere challenging the historical veracity of a claim I had made in a column I was writing for the Sunday Nation. Atieno and I became close friends. He went on to obtain a shiny Ph.D in history and to teach at Nairobi University. Unfortunately, he had to dash into exile in the US due to the anti-intellectual campaigns unleashed as soon as Daniel arap Moi became President in 1978.

Prof Ali Mazrui -- who had fled both Makerere and Nairobi -- describes it (in his book The African Condition) as “the crisis of political habitation”. Kenya and Uganda have never really recovered from this barbaric assault on those trained to handle ideas, an onslaught started by Idi Amin in 1972.

But Atieno and Ali never turned their minds back on Kenya and Africa. As dons on American campuses – where they excelled in correcting America’s often skewed image of Africa -- their research findings constantly flowed back home through books, seminar papers and newspaper articles.

Though Ali’s ideas frequently exasperate me, I have to say that he epitomises that post-high school independence of thought which the colonial education system tried its best to suppress. Few survived the habit by European schoolteachers to spoon-feed their students.

Of course, we were “clever”. It was no small achievement for Edward Carey Francis – the stringent Alliance headmaster -- to pick you for Form One among the 50 African boys countrywide who had performed best in something called KAPE (Kenya African Preliminary Examination).

Nick Asinjo, Ben Mogaka and I were the only boys who qualified from the old vast South Nyanza District which, at that time, included Gusiiland and which has now been balkanised into approaching 10 unviable districts. Yes, we were smart -- you never had to teach us anything twice. But, from hindsight, we can see that our cleverness consisted only in excellent memory.

For the purposes of colonial education -- which was to produce nothing but lower-echelon mandarins -- the power of retention was what Shakespeare would have called “the be-all and the end-all here”.

Socially functional education -- what Nyerere called elimu yenye manufaa -- requires far more than the ability to regurgitate whole chunks of knowledge in the examination room. Good memory is, of course, intelligence. But it is only one form of it. As we can see from our parrot friends, it may not entail reflexive, critical and creative thinking.

The ability to think both independently and analytically and to relate your thoughts to the society from which had spawned you and for which you hoped to work -- that was what the colonial classroom systematically stultified. In my class, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is among only two or three who survived what a Jamaican writer has called Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack.

It is almost certain that this was why we, Alliance boys, never performed exceptionally well at the tertiary level – where spoon-feeding was no longer possible, where learning required independent initiative, extra-curricular reading and the ability and readiness to question every “established wisdom”.

The chief failing of our education system (Alliance especially) remains its inability to produce functional thinkers -- individuals who can put the problems of their society in as clear a mirror as possible so as to make manifest their solutions to as many members as possible.