Why universities choose to sit back as others build state

University of Nairobi (UoN) medical students took to the streets in January outside the Ministry of Health offices in Nairobi, over the Government's failure to implement the doctor's 2013 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). PHOTO BY GEORGE NJUNGE

By the time this article is published, Kenyans will have known the outcome of the Supreme Court process which saw the opposition contest the re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta.

The recent elections did not produce any notable shocks as far as voting patterns are concerned. We are a hopelessly divided country. Tribe still rules and much of what we call voter behaviour in this country is simply an ethnic census. If the so named ‘tyranny of numbers’ was insufferable in the last four years, it will be nauseating in the next five years.

The ‘tyranny of numbers’, where specific, large ethnic groups ganged up to capture the state and engineer a closed knit, tightly controlled revolving exchange of power between a select ethnic elite is an affront to our nationhood. If Uhuru’s win is upheld, the urgent task of building a fractured state must be top on the agenda.

I have followed the discussion spearheaded by public intellectual David Ndii on the prospects of calling quits the abusive marriage that Kenya is. In my opinion, these conversations are important as they are an invitation to a broader debate on the kind of Kenya we want, both for the present and posterity. The Kenyan project is in danger of failing. Conceptualisations and imaginations of citizenship are continually entrenched and legitimised along narrowed confines of ethnicity and autochthony.

Conveyor belt

The sporadic, flashes of nationalistic excitement when our athletes outpace other mortals are not only superficial, but are increasingly far between. The celebration of national days is slowly turning into a terrifying farce where our history is continuously reconstructed and silenced. These national events are official spaces where we enact our differences and give material form to perceptions of exclusions.

But even as national leaders continue to undermine the Kenyan project, the role of universities in facilitating and birthing an alternative narrative of nationhood and citizenship needs to be explored.

Unlike other institutions of learning, it is assumed that universities are national assets whose primary responsibility is to educate its citizens, expand their knowledge, and teach them to pursue the truth and to develop their intellectual and vocational life.

Universities must do more than this. They must help students make decisions about their personal lives, about freedom and responsibility and about the kinds of ethical codes that might guide them. In so doing, the university actively develops the critical capability of students to think problems through that arise in their lives. Importantly, universities are designed to equip students with the capacity to be ‘good’ citizens. Anyone who goes through university, it is assumed, has attained social consciousness that allows for the exercise of constructive citizenship.

However, when I look at our social and political terrain, it seems to me that universities have fallen short in this mission. Although we rank pretty high on the scale of religiosity, we are still very corrupt and divided. The more educated among us are no more as bigoted as the unlettered clobber. The only difference is that the educated one is better equipped to justify it.

This must change. As a country, we have invested billions of shillings in higher education and we must demand that it goes beyond being a conveyor belt of human resource for our nation. Our higher education must add value to the common good, it must foster and build good citizenship and craft a more open, democratic society. Importantly, to partly heal the moral decay in public life, our higher education must produce socially conscious citizens.

As the scholar David Hargreaves observes in his book, The Mosaic of Learning, a moral link exists between citizenship and education. “Active citizens are as political as they are moral; moral sensibility derives in part from political understanding; political apathy spawns moral apathy.”

In my years of teaching Kenyan university students, I have found that in regard to social consciousness, students fall within two broad categories. The first are completely lacking in social consciousness and are driven largely by materialistic values, the second category shows the worrisome making of future tribalists. It is a troubling choice between indifference and bigotry. The sobering reality is that our higher education has failed in producing first-rate socially conscious citizens.

Our historians and curriculum makers in the foundational stages of our education system failed us. What is actually taught as a narrative of Kenya’s history is a warped reconstruction of our past where people of dubious character are hoisted as heroes. As such, many Kenyans grow through the education system with a distorted impression of what good citizenship entails.

In the university, where the possibility of a critical political history of the country is to be found, very few students get the chance to sit in these classes. In the 80s, former President Moi sponsored a parliamentary Act that mandated all university students to study a course named ‘State and Society’ whose aim it was to reproduce good citizens.

However, its generic content and its shadow mission of silencing dissent made the otherwise noble initiative collapse. Indeed, universities must move away from over vocationalisation and pre-professionalising programmes too early, and allow students to learn the fundamental, critical history of the Kenyan state. My good friend Prof Julius Ochoudho advises that as the natural future leaders of this country, those going through our universities must be encouraged to select modules covering such issues as political history, ethical constitutionalism and obligations of good citizenships irrespective of the programmes undertaken in university.

However, the mercantile approach adopted by our universities undermines their role in character formation which is essential for good citizenship. Universities must deliberately aim at standing up for something. They must instill courage, open mindedness, probity and respect. Importantly, universities must be left to develop organically and autonomously.

There is simply too much state interference with universities in Kenya today, which undermines their capacity to develop an identity built on virtue. There must also be deliberate efforts to encourage students to acquire higher education in places that are away from their places of birth so that our diversity can synergistically drive the Kenyan project. Universities must be allowed to be at the centre of rebuilding the state.

Good citizenship

The government on its part must move away from populist entreaties to university graduates and encourage a culture of volunteership. In the recently concluded General Election, politicians issued promises to would be university graduates that in my opinion undermine the prospect of inculcating good citizenships. The promise that the government will be paying fresh graduates to acquire internships within government is not a terribly bad idea.

In more advanced societies, undergraduates are encouraged to volunteer and offer services freely as part of building good citizenship and also develop in students’ values of social responsibility. Both government and universities must insist that a specific culture of ‘volunteering be part and parcel’ of students life. ‘Funding internships’ might win votes, but it cannot build a sense of Kenyanness in our youth. Our universities must restore and reclaim both the actual, and the symbolic-affective dimensions of good citizenship.

- The writer is the head, Department of Publishing and Media Studies, Moi University