These statements, ironically coming from a PhD holder in literature, were not based on evidence, which I sometimes challenged the Commission of Education to provide the minister with. For instance, I know that only five universities in the entire country offer a degree in Music. Few private universities offer degrees in languages and literature. To this day, only one university in Kenya offers a degree in Fine Art. I’m not sure if there are philosophy departments in Kenya besides the one in the University of Nairobi, and last time I heard, the few departments that exist have not been admitting students.
But when I challenge Matiang’i’s statements about too many arts and humanities graduates, the standard reply is that they must be true because Matiang’i said so.
Matiang’i can do no wrong.
The latest boost to this reputation came from the release of the 2016 KCSE cheat-free results in record time. Not surprisingly, no one has independently confirmed claims that he destroyed the cartels profiting from leaking exam results, or that KNEC delivered a credible exam, or that the results give us a true picture of Kenya’s education system. No cartels have been taken to court and charged with denting the credibility of our exams. Matiang’i has fixed the education system, and the only evidence we need is that Matiang’i’ himself said it.
It is so bad that now, if you ask most Kenyans about KCSE 2016, they will not tell you about our students but about our great CS. Not a word about the children of Kenya and what the results mean for them. Yet a true exam is supposed to be the evaluation of not just the students’ performance, but of the health of our education system. Anyone who has been to a decent education school knows that examinations are supposed to tell us whether we’re teaching (not drilling) our students well, whether education is equitable across Kenya, and what challenges the education system poses for young Kenyans.
But the Matiang’i syndrome has made Kenyans accept anything we’re told. And sure enough, the Education ministry got so drunk on this power, that within days of the release of the results, the Commission of University Education was trashing bridging programs offered to students who do not score the mandatory C+ to enter university, saying that anyone who entered university on the strength of bridging programs would have their degrees withdrawn. Again, when I asked about what this means for equity, especially for students who do not perform well in exams due to poor facilities and limited staff, or simply being in a bad phase in life, some Kenyans ignored the questions and told me that system is full of cheats who need to be weeded out. The Commission later realized that it had no power to revoke degrees, but the damage was done.
And that damage is to make Kenyans feel that there is nothing they can do to determine their own destiny, and the government owes them nothing. We can’t be treated because we’re refusing to buy insurance, and because our hospitals are so bad and our doctors are selfish. We cannot be educated because teachers are cheats and exams are a joke. Any radical shift to our systems is acceptable because our ministers are efficient while our professionals are ALL selfish and tribal cheats asking for huge salaries they do not deserve. And if the problem is not the professionals, the problem is we the people who get sick from eating too many fatty foods, or who fail because we are stupid and can only pass if we cheat.
We are in a very dangerous space as a country. Our education is being overhauled just before elections, which essentially gives Jubilee a blank slate to argue that they need at least five more years in power to implement the replacement. The vultures of private healthcare, which include Kenyan and international investors, are circling around doctors from our public system who were trained with our taxes. The impact of crippling our healthcare and replacing our education system is to make us Kenyans more vulnerable to despair, and if we are in despair, we will make bad decisions at the ballot box. And even if we do make the decision to throw out Jubilee with our vote, our voices will be crushed not just by the manual system of the IEBC, but also by the increasing militarization of NYS and the police.
I am not saying that our education system is perfect. But its problems require solutions more complex than fixing examinations or introducing a new system. The cheating in the exams was a symptom of the pneumonia of limited opportunities and lack of equity in education and employment. Unscrupulous businesses took advantage of our desperation and sold us exams as a quick fix. We need to address equity in education for the marginalized and special needs students. We need to improve teaching, and encourage more investment in pedagogy. We need to increase opportunities of lifelong learning by expanding libraries and internet access in the regions. We need to improve the climate for business for entrepreneurs, and talent development for creatives. But instead of our breathing system being healed, we were offered cough syrup and we’ve celebrated it as a cure for pneumonia.
Our systems are collapsing, but instead of fixing them, the government is saying we need to replace the systems and sack everybody in them. And they’re replacing the systems with privatized options.
Take for example, the new system that Matiang’i says he is “proposing,” not implementing. The new system has five examinations before university, as opposed to the two, too many that we currently have. The attractive name of “Assessment Learners Achievement” doesn’t mean any change. As long as the number of schools does not increase, these “assessments” will remain high-stakes selection processes that determine which kids are rich enough to be adequately coached to proceed to the next level. And it’s amazing that the same teachers we think are too much of cheats to be trusted to offer opinions, will suddenly be competent enough to give clean assessments that will make up 70% of the pupil’s final grade.
And who goes singing to the bank? Private schools and colleges. Already, our public university system is collapsing for lack of resources, and the solution we have been given is to reduce the number of students entering university by failing them in exams and cracking down on bridging programs that give children a ticket into university. With no options, all the failures will attend the non-degree tertiary institutions which are less costly to set up.
But the people who get the best windfall from fewer university graduates are the politicians. Since universities are normally the means by which people leave their counties and get exposed to the world, fewer students qualifying for university means them being stuck in their counties and poorly equipped and staffed technical colleges, which makes them easier for politicians to manipulate. It’s a replay of the colonial times, specifically of the work of the Phelps-Stokes Commission among black Americans and in African colonies, which proposed that blacks deserved only technical skills, not liberal education which would give them unnecessary ideas like freedom.
The only way I can explain how we Kenyans are accepting the return of colonial ideas about education for Africans is with the shock doctrine, an idea expounded by Naomi Klein. Klein talks about how ideas of privatization of public services and free market are developed to be implemented immediately after the next shock – planned or not – hits the public. Right now, Kenyans are reeling not just from poor exam results, but from the narrative that our exam system was so helplessly rotten and so any change must be a good change. And besides a supposedly catastrophic education, we are also dealing with the corruption that is so mundane that a hairdresser could walk around with bags of taxpayers’ money. We are confronted with the horror stories by doctors who are made to play God in public hospitals because the government starved public healthcare of staff and equipment. And we believe the Jubilee propaganda because we know so little of our history, that we believe that Jomo Kenyatta was a Mau Mau fighter and that being indicted by imperial courts makes one anti-imperialist.
So asking Kenyans to think more critically about education is asking too much. We’re tired. The few people who get what is at stake are voicing their despair, their helplessness, with us Kenyans having so many monsters to fight.
And the people who benefit the most from this situation are Jubilee government, because a traumatized population in despair is already a disenfranchised population.
And just to gauge how disastrous a new public education system is for national consciousness, think of this. My parents were educated in the colonial system that used Cambridge exams to sift the deserving from the underserving. I was in the last year of the 7-6-3 education system. One of the things that struck me about my conversations with my mother was the fact that we did not share the same education experience. Yet I was her daughter, living in the same country.
I am willing to accept that difference, because independence was indeed a radical shift for which we fought with our sweat and blood. But now, I’m teaching students who went through the 8-4-4 system. It has taken me years to get used to the fact that I have to teach university students educated in a different system than I was. And I’m still learning to teach them, but now, I must also teach the same students to be teachers in a third new system.
If we change our education system within the next even 10 years, we will have a country in which each generation was educated in a different system, and suffered frequent and poorly managed transitions between each new system. Our knowledge and memory will increasingly be fragmented, rather than continuous. When every generation cannot share memories of their education, knowledge and skills with the next, because our conversations are bogged down by trying to figure out what someone learned and when, we have a fractured national consciousness. And the Kenyan people become easier to control because we are not united nationally in knowledge and experience, but sequestered in tribal cocoons in the counties.
These ruptures alone make any talk of replacing our education system a threat to democracy and our very well-being as a nation. What our education needs is not a new system, but a new mindset. We need to judge the health of our education by equity, pedagogy and opportunity, not by examinations.