The Government has lately been keen to cull what it views as useless degree courses. None other than the Deputy President, Dr William Ruto, has termed degree courses such as anthropology and history irrelevant. Under the hawkish Education CS George Magoha, many degree courses, especially in the arts, are set to be reviewed perhaps with the ultimate goal of expunging them.
However, nothing in the universe is useless in and of itself, much less a degree course. We give something value when we utilise it and subtract or eliminate value from it when we underutilise it or fail to find use in it altogether. The leg is an integral part of our body, but only in so far as we use it for locomotion. If for whatever reason the legs are rendered immobile by an injury, for instance, the limbs become useless and mere appendages to the body. They may even become cumbersome.
An Sh1,000 note given to an adult with responsibilities and bills to pay is useful but the same given to my two-year-old nephew becomes a plaything and sooner ends up torn and defaced. The child sees no inherent value in it. In the same vein, an eight-lane highway built in a remote area connecting two distant villages where nobody owns a car or bicycle, grand as it may look, is useless in the eyes of the villagers as they have no means of utilising it.
As such, a degree course is useless only when the knowledge gained is not utilised in some form. This is true for all degrees. A trained doctor whom the Government fails to employ or who for some reason does not practice medicine has a useless degree. An engineering graduate who works as a bank teller has a useless engineering degree. Conversely, a mason trained in a technical college who proceeds to use his or her skills to build a market or a school has a useful certificate.
What about history and anthropology then? There are endemic underuse and non-use of graduates from these disciplines in the Government and even in public and private corporations. I have always suspected that if NARC government had consulted historians and anthropologists, it would have been spared the embarrassment of uprooting herder Lemma Ayanu from one of the remotest parts of Ethiopia and booking him into one of our best hotels, naively believing he was the lost freedom hero, General Stanley Mathenge.
Our problem is that we view history as passive (as a prominent politician once put it, who is interested in knowing when Vasco Da Gama first came to East Africa?), while in essence, it is active in its ability to provide insights from the past that enable contemporary decision-making. Business history and economic history are core studies in American universities such as Harvard, meaning corporations in that part of the world appreciate historical insights. Is it surprising then that many companies in the developed world survive and thrive over decades (even centuries) while one can count with fingers the number of companies that have passed two generations in this part of the world?
There need not be an uncrossable chasm between the arts and sciences, either. The reason why this story is written using this particular font type is that one of the world’s foremost scientific and innovative minds in the name of Steve Jobs once sat in an art class in college and discovered the beauty of different font types. Jobs applied what he learnt and saved those who value aesthetics from the dreary monotony of one font type.
Perhaps in order to pre-empt the possibility of students signing up for supposedly ‘useless’ degrees, a symbiosis between the arts and sciences should be encouraged. I believe that an architect is as much a scientist as s/he is an artist. The same applies to engineers and plastic surgeons. Small wonder that one of the longest-running creative columns in our dailies is written by a surgeon?
That surgeon will tell you what many in his field say about a muscle: If you do not use it, you lose it. With knowledge, if you do not apply it, it is rendered useless. Likewise, a degree’s most critical purpose lies in its application. We have important and potentially impactful theses, projects and reports in our universities proposing solutions for many problems we experience, but these ideas are yellowing in shelves for lack of utilisation. Our problem is not useless degrees; it is failing to put the degrees to good use.
Mr Owino a journalist and a Masters student at University of Nairobi.
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