There is no yardstick to rate the usefulness of degrees

In the academic year 1980–81, I was the only student in the Historical and Comparative Linguistics class at the University of Nairobi. I was in Second Year and my teacher was Dr Martin Mould. He had specifically come to Kenya from the University of California Los Angeles to teach this course as well as Latin, which I took in third year – again as the only student.

My country considered these courses critical enough to justify paying a UCLA professor to teach one student. If either of us should be absent, the class would collapse. We ensured that the attendance was one hundred percent throughout. Needless to say, there was also 100 per cent pass in all examinations.

The same was true of the Sociolinguistics class in the same academic year. This time my teacher was Prof Mohamed Hassan Abdulazziz. He put me together with six Linguistics students who were then in Third Year. The rest of the students in my Second Year Linguistics class were only four.

I have never considered, even for a moment, that I took “a useless degree.” The smallness of a class does not make the degree useless. Nor do I consider that I have not been usefulto my country and to humankind because of my training.

I say these things because once again the new person at the very top of the education docket in Kenya is abusing our intelligence. An overly exuberant George Omore Magoha has arrived in Jogoo House B breathing fire and brimstone. He behaves like an inebriated wild elephant. Used to exercising power in timid and passive environments, he trundles up and down, spewing threats left, right and centre – spreading fear. 

I served on the University of Nairobi Council in 2010 – 2013 when Prof Magoha was the VC. It did not escape my attention that spreading fear is his greatest management and leadership tool. He threatens to trample everyone and everything underfoot “because they are useless” while he “knows everything.” Newly arrived in Jogoo House, he has picked up the hackneyed script of “useless university degrees.”

Magoha’s yardstick for measuring the usefulness of degrees is the number of students taking any one course. In his estimation, therefore, my seven years at the University of Nairobi should be deemed useless, and my three certificates with them too. Good grief! You would expect a professor who has also served as VC of the foremost university in the region to know better. Higher learning is esoteric. The smaller the number of students is, the higher the quality of learning.

The teacher to student ratio in my Linguistics class was 1:1. In these days when people like Magoha have opened up the floodgates of education to all and sundry, you have classes where the ratio is 1:1000. This is preposterous. You cannot call this a university class. This is mass production. The university has been turned into a pork rolling mill. The focus is on income-generation just as in a pig factory. This is madness. Those who established the tradition of higher learning kept the classes lean and mean. They were the forges in which minds were honed and purified. Truly world-class universities still jealously protect the intake.

Magoha’s other beef with education is his philistine attitude towards the arts and social sciences. He says: “They are useless.” Once again, the Ministry of Education has the misfortune of being headed by an individual suffering from narcissist chronic academic xenophobia. Such persons operate in the narrow corridors of juvenile bravado that glorifies their disciplines over the rest. They remind you of the childish academic competition that is encouraged among kids in primary school.

I have learned that art has often demonstrated sufficient broadness of mind to recognise that it must travel hand in glove with science. Conversely, science students tend to oppress their brains in the suffocating narrow pigeonholes of specialised ignorance. Even among themselves, you will hear a physicist saying that physics is everything. For his part, the electrical engineer thinks that other branches of engineering are useless. They behave like lifeless machines that have been tuned-up to function in certain predictable ways.

How cold and boring could it get? A country whose education is headed by an academic xenophobe is in trouble. If you cannot see, or be moved by, the beauty and purity of the arts, you know nothing about the joy of living. You must be pitied. For, you do not know that societies that dither and perish do so not because they have not developed enough science, but because their humanness is underdeveloped. There is no inner beauty in the collective national soul. In the end, science is nothing without arts, and vice versa.

It is a pity that we may have to teach abecedarian truths to the people in charge of education in Kenya. Significantly, we must ask, when will we stop the experiments of trying to fit square pegs in round holes? Hasn’t Kenya produced enough educationists to head the Ministry of Education? What is an overbearing urologist doing in Jogoo House – traumatising our children and their teachers about things he is ill-equipped to address? The education system is not a urinary tract. President Uhuru, please send Magoha back to his laboratories and theatres and give us a Cabinet Secretary who understands the meaning of education.

- The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.