July is also the month of mock exams, when students are reminded that their future, and the pride (or shame) of their communities, all depend on the grades they score during the examination.
But the drilling for exams is also accompanied by physical and psychological abuse. Young people are told that they are useless without passing the examinations, and they are aware that even for the few who do pass exams, their future is not guaranteed. Corruption is going through the roof, and unemployment is destroying the self esteem and livelihoods of young people.
But all these stories are missing from the hegemonic narrative about the spate of school fires that have returned in this strike season. The government, mainstream media, the church and educators are all reading from the same page in turning the society against her youth.
But even more horrifying was a twitter thread from the official handle of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, "Kenya's" equivalent of the FBI, warning children from primary school to university that they would be criminalized for life if they were found participating in the unrest. What is shocking about the DCI's bravado, which they defended as doing their job, is that it throws all care for constitutional requirements on judicial process and the rights of minors.
And the next blow would come from Education CS Amina Mohammed, a grieving diplomat who appears to be a fish out of water in the Education Ministry, but got the job as a consolation prize. The statement she read a few hours ago sounds like a literal copy of the twitter thread of the DCI. It doesn't require much to imagine that her statement could have been drafted by the DCI, which falls under CS Fred Matiang'i, the current Interior CS who was the previous CS of Education. All the drama of the communication is suspiciously similar to the drama that has followed in his wake, from the media digital migration, to the police brutality during rigged elections of last year, to the flop of a curriculum reform.
Perhaps the most depressing thing in all this is how blind the Kenyan adults are to the blatant abuse and criminalization of our youth. The voices that were able to speak out against the electoral autocracy of the "Kenya-tta" oligarchy last year have now found a camaraderie with the government and are siding against the youth. In this long post, I will address
1. The media reports on the strikes
2. The claims that the strikes are rooted in the desire of the youth to cheat in examinations
3. The hegemonic discourse that leads adults to abandon nurturing and education of the youth and accept the violence of the "Kenya-tta" state in its place
4. The ethnocentric character of the government's attack on the youth.
Hegemony and the Media
Kenyans were seemingly prepped for the government vitriol against the youth this last Saturday when the Daily Nation published a series of articles on the unrest in the schools. The articles were largely defined by reports from the Ministry of Education and principals, who are also civil servants. This continues the long standing tradition of the Kenyan media to take little interest in investigative reporting when it comes to education. Most media stories that should be of public interest, in terms of analysis of policy, are dominated by either Kenyan governments and the World Bank, and rarely include the voices of the students, teachers, or educational researchers.
The Nation basically repeated the government line that the riots in the schools resulted from the disappointment of the students that they would not be able to cheat in the end of cycle examinations that start in November. For students as criminal as the media and government portray them, it seems odd that they would start fighting over leakage to KCSE examinations in July, 4 months before the examinations begin.
But even more interesting is the glaring factors that were not considered in the reporting. For instance, boarding schools have become more like prisons, with the Education CS having banned events in schools, in the name of preparing for examinations. Related to this dictatorship, is the fact that the previous CS, Dr. Matiang'i, ordered a reshuffle of 500 principals en masse, leaving schools in the throes of adjusting to new regimes this year.
It also doesn't help, as shown by the stories we've been collecting on school violence at the hashtag #tyrannyof3pc, that a lot of the abuse students receive in form of humiliation is pegged to threats that students must pass exams. Combine that anxiety with the mock exams that are supposed to be taking place now, and the promise of relief that would come from watching World Cup, and you have schools with insufficient staff outnumbered by restless students. Common sense should indicate that with high tensions, the government should be cooling down the temperatures. Instead, the current CS has added an extra punitive measure in the name of the almighty exams. Clearly, the government has no idea about human nature, and thinks that anxieties are reduced by threats and punishment, rather than empathy to students.
That none of these factors were considered in the reports by Daily Nation points to the participation of the Kenya-tta media in fueling the hegemonic discourse of demonizing students as irredemably criminal, rather than empathizing with minors who need education and guidance.
A worse case can be seen in the Standard Media Group's reporting of new developments in the the rape that happened at Moi Girls' High School.
A few days earlier, KTN and the Standard reported of a new twist in the case. The union representing teachers' high schools, KUPPET, claimed to have carried out its own investigations into the assault and claimed to have found out that the student was sexually assaulted by fellow students after she refused to have sexual intercourse with them. The homophobic and sexist undertones were obvious. The union clearly sought to portray the students as sexual deviants, and the newspaper didn't even notice the contradictory statement that "lesbianism was rife in the school," "but it was only confined to a group of students."
And KTN lapped it all up. First, they called the KUPPET investigation "independent," when the interest of the union in the case was obvious, which was to absolve its male members from suspicion after DNA samples were required from them for police investigations. And it is impossible to divorce those interests from the political ambitions of the KUPPET chair, Omboko Milemba, who is also a sitting member of parliament. It is therefore not surprising that he immediately made political capital by first sharing the report with the media, even before, as school parent Brian Weke said, the union had shared its findings with the police.
The KTN journalist did not ask the MP what mandate KUPPET had to be carrying out investigations into a crime, or if the union was indeed professionally equipped to carry out the investigation. In fact, the undertone of his political interests in pursuing this case could be heard in his interview, when in response to Mr. Weke's questions, Mr. Milemba appealed to his own status as a father of girls, which is really irrelevant in this case.
Clearly, the Kenya-tta hegemony has no interest in improving education for ordinary Kenyans, and has instead decided to profile and criminalize the youth. Unfortunately, the media has become a pillar of the hegemonic discourse and has supported government in diffusing news reports and portrayal of our children as criminals, sexual deviants and cheats.
Academic dishonesty claims
The way the political class talks about examination cheating, one would think it is a uniquely Kenyan phenomenon, when in fact, it is a global problem. The sad part is that there is already a huge body of research on academic dishonesty, which neither the ministry officials nor the media seems interested in exploiting. Research now says that academic cheating, like almost all educational phenomena, is driven by social and psychological factors internal and external to the classroom.
One such research was done by James Kariuki for his Masters of Education thesis at University of Nairobi. The data is interesting, although I think that a better theory and consciousness would have arrived at more interesting conclusions.
According to the students Kariuki interviewed, the greatest motivation for cheating in exams is social mobility. The greatest number of students said they would cheat, if their access to university depended on it. But according to the teachers, it's the students' failure to prepare for exams that causes cheating.
After social access, students are driven to cheat by the fear of shame from their parents and teachers. On this, the frequency of responses among teachers and students is roughly the same.
Other interesting data from Kariuki's thesis shows that students' willingness to cheat comes from feeling that the syllabus was not adequately covered. Now, as a teacher, I'm scared of that statistic because it will make a Matiang'i type character wave the stick at teachers, when what teachers are facing - in terms of facilities, workload and other social factors - is another major ball game. I also do not believe that reading the riot act and doing the neoliberal thing of measuring teachers by kids' performance in exams will improve learning. But something is to be said about the connection between curriculum, what goes on in the classroom, and exam cheating.
Research in other countries, for example by Anderman and Won (2017) shows that academic cheating rises when students don't see the relevance of the content, and when teachers are the ones telling the student that the grade the students get in the class is of ultimate importance. This tying of grades to learning is called "performance-approach," and it revela that the more teachers emphasize grades, the more likely students are to cheat.
These results render problematic the theory that our students are so desperate to cheat, because they seemingly lack of moral compass or because they are not well prepared for exams. Students are under physical and psychological torture to pass exams. They are being scared to believe that they will be a disappointment to their parents and society, and that they will be failures for life if they don't pass the exams. Successive governments have refused to tackle these problems through reform of the economy and opening up more spaces for progression in one's career and academic pursuits.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the class dimensions of cheating. The schools which are mentioned as having students desperate to teach are not the top end schools in well -to-do areas. In fact. some of the saddest stories about the pressure on teachers to participate in academic dishonesty come from historically deprived counties such as Pokot. By contrast, little is said of cheating in the prestigious schools. Alliance High School, for example, never features on the list of schools reported in the local media for being penalized for academic dishonesty. Instead, we get to hear about such instances at Alliance from Huffington Post. And the privilege of the school doesn't stop there. When there were reports of brutality at the school last year, then Education CS, the ever belligerent Matiang'i, said that the primary goal then was to ensure that the school remains prestigious.
But what is shocking to me is how disconnected the teachers are. We teachers - and I include myself here - have surely lost our professional calling. We teachers are clearly unable to articulate, if we blame children for performance in exams, but say nothing about the resources that they need to learn well. It is truly sad that the unions, which could provide a popular platform to lead society in meaningful public discussions about our education, have instead abandoned children to their fate.
But above all, the Kenya-tta government, in its intellectual mediocrity and laziness, has refused to dismantle the stranglehold of examinations on the education system. In the name of integrity, it has made examinations more high stakes, and the students more desperate to pass them at any cost. And if it is indeed true that the students are distressed because they cannot cheat in exams, which I find difficult to believe, the government is using the students' anxiety to beat its chest and celebrate its "efficiency," instead of doing the caring thing and asking what we can do to make our children less anxious. We should be ashamed that adults can be so callous as to rejoice at childrens' misfortune.
A country of no adults
One of the disturbing threads running through the education sector is the abandonment of the adult responsibility for nurturing and guiding the younger generation, and the state assuming this responsibility through violence. From the teachers accusing students of "lesbianism," to a hapless Education CS with no idea what to do with her ministry, it is clear that adults are not willing to be leaders of the process by which our children become adults. We wananchi have limited our conversations about education to school fees, without talking about what exactly is happening in our schools. Our schools have therefore turned into prisons because they don't have the fresh air of democratic conversation and public oversight.
And that has left the space wide open for the belligerent Directorate of Criminal Investigation to lead the way in boosting the discourse of youth criminality. Several Kenyans have supported the hardline, if not extremist language with which the government is describing our youth as adults and monsters whom we must fear and fight against.
In addition, the Education CS's statement further points to an unfortunate failure of the government to grasp its role in providing resources for the growth our youth, and to a bizarre reversal of roles in the relationship between the government and the citizens. Instead of the government providing education for all, the government promises to deny the youth progression in the education. Instead of imagining and implementing policies to reduce the scourge of unemployment, the government has now threatened to exploit unemployment as a weapon against the youth.
What we are essentially witnessing here is a Kenya-tta version of the 13th Amendment in the US, which creates a underclass of poor, disenfranchised and uneducated citizens that are legally barred from access to education or social mobility. The government is essentially creating a birth to prison pipeline for the poor by irredeemably punishing the youth for choices made when they were minors, and leaving no room for rehabilitation or redemption. Yet second chances are available to children of the rich, including our president who is rumored to have had a colorful teenage and was allowed to run for the top office in the country, despite having been indicted for crimes against humanity.
Unfortunately, the few educated Kenyans who should see and articulate this militarized discrimination against the poor will not say a word, because the neoliberal hegemony of the Kenya-tta government has denied them the capacity to empathize. People who reach university feel that they belong to a special club whose privileges they must guard and protect at all cost, or to quote Michelle Obama, they have no sense that if they have passed through the door of opportunity, they should reach back and offer others the same chances. The middle class will, instead, shut the door on the poor, and expect the military and police to protect them from the social unrest that is the inevitable result of the rising inequality.
The key to fighting this backlash against the youth and the poor is to resist this immaturity and lack of empathy being imposed on us by the state. Minors are OUR responsibility. If they are misbehaving, WE THE ADULTS are the ones who have to answer for it. We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating the abuse of children by adults who are supposed to take care of them as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.
In any case, we adults are not morally better than our youth. We are stealing the youth's future through corruption and their lives through extrajudicial killings and sexual abuse. So whom do you want to teach the kids to behave better?
The ethno-neoliberal war on the youth
Perhaps the most frustrating thing right now is the stupidity and immaturity of the public conversations about the youth. Questions about the violent and impatient backlash of the state against minors are met with stupid questions such as "are you saying that the schools should be burned?" "Should the children get away with their crimes?"
What is interesting about this stupidity is that is was missing in the violence that occurred following the rigged general elections last year. Unlike our thinking about education, we were seemingly more nuanced and mature in undoing the layers of responsibility on the part of the state and the citizens.
Granted, we still had to deal with the silliness of arguments by Jubilee supporters that NASA supporters were delinquents who protest because they have nothing better to do, and that Muigai congratulated the police for a job well done and said he wasn't responsible for those who died at the hands of the police.
But many other Kenyans knew that these responses were tribalist nonsense and said so. We argued for the right to protest and said that that right was enshrined in the constitution. When people were killed in their homes and on the streets, we pointed out that the criminals were the police. And our arguments were proved by the fact that the swearing-in ceremony of Raila Odinga as the people's president had no fatalities, because the police did not show up. We also took exception to the ethnic profiling and murder targeted specifically at Luos.
Now, fast forward to today. Replace NASA supporters with our children in schools and we get exactly the same story. Except that this time, we've lost our sense of nuance and are employing the same arguments that Jubilee made against opposition. We say that our kids are delinquents who protest because they have nothing to do and just want to cheat in exams. We refuse to see the criminality of the schools like we saw the criminality of the elections. We celebrate the police for threatening violence and promising to criminalize kids for the rest of their lives, they way they did by ethnically profiling members of the Luo community.
All this is typical of capitalism that is necessarily ethnocentric and relies on demonizing an ethnic group to create a narrative to justify why Kenya is an increasingly unequal country, where, Oxfam says, "less than 0.1% of the population (8,300 people) own more wealth than the bottom 99.9% (more than 44 million people)."
Collapse of "Kenyan" society
The strikes in the schools are a reflection of a collapse of the very fabric of the "Kenyan" society. We have a government this is led by leaders who are clueless and not intelligent enough to know how to deal with the nation's problems. They have handed over control to the police and to economic interests whose greed and corruption knows no bounds. And the adults, instead of rising up and declaring an end to this rampage, have raised their hands in the air and claimed helplessness over their duty to raise their own children.
But all of this is made possible by a hegemonic Kenya-tta discourse that has captured the media, the church and the education system by treating minors as adults and relegating adults to a childish role in society. And so it would appear that the students in the high schools are the only people left in Kenya willing to acknowledge that something is not right. They just are not yet able to articulate what that is.