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Our high schools are boring, breathe freshness into them!

By Barrack Muluka | November 6th 2021

The late Dr Benjamin Kipkorir had iconic memories of high school. He recalled the Alliance High School of 1956-60, in the autobiography, Descent From Cherng’any Hills, as a family, with Carey Francis as the head.

Learning here offered the future university don, diplomat and banker a comprehensively all round experience. It nurtured him, “through excellent teaching, character building and political awareness.”

That is what school is about. It teaches you how to score Grade A in every exam. But it also gives you dignity and character. The Kenyan high school in the 21st Century is deficient in these qualities. It has steadily lost sense of purpose. It is pushing learners to reject the school system. Kenyans are asking, “What is wrong with our schools? Why are our children setting their schools on fire?” 

The answer is simple, even without the benefit of scientific research. The young people are telling you that the school system has failed. They are saying they no longer see the wider relevance of being in a tiresome place they can’t connect to the future. It behooves the adult population to stop and reflect. What went wrong? When the youth do horrible things in school, it is because adults have failed them. We are not making our children feel dignified in school. We are not giving them character, or connecting them to tomorrow.  We need to stop screaming at them. To sit down to dignified and frank talks with them. What do they want? Can we try to understand them? 

Unrest in Kenyan schools only a few weeks after returning from holidays has forced the Ministry of Education to send students home, “on ‘half-term’ recess.” It is hoped that if we bury our heads in the sand for a few days, things will return to normal.

Meanwhile, a number of youth can be arraigned before the courts as a lesson to the rest. It is unlikely that high-handed methods will work. These absurd happenings are uniquely Kenyan. What are we doing that they don’t do in Uganda, Australia and India? 

It is possible to give some useful common sense pointers. First, the Kenyan high school has degenerated, over the years, into a bleak and punitive place. It has the character of a jail. Students, some only a heartbeat from the university, are treated like delinquent children. We call them “kids.” We order them about and expect them to “obey rules” in prisonlike environments. There is no joy in being in school. 

Prof Joseph Mungai, the second Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, told his story, “The four years I spent at Alliance constituted a rewarding period of real growth and development.” He wrote in the biography, From Simple to Complex, ‘It was a rich learning experience. I played all the games, except hockey.”

Today even sports are a luxury. Dr Betty Gikonyo, goes beyond games. “Alliance Girls was a great training ground for all spheres of life,” she says in The Girl Who Dared to Dream, “We learned about religion, romance, relating with seniors and relating with expatriates. School dance meant there would be a young man waiting for me to spend most of the time with.”  

Musalia Mudavadi says, in Above the Storms of Passion, “We enjoyed meeting with girls’ schools. Limuru Girls were on top of the list, as was The Kenya High School, nicknamed ‘the Heifer Boma.’ Alliance Girls were not too popular with us. They were too academic and book focused. We wanted fun.”

And you could sample many more rich accounts of the joyous and relaxed school environment. Today, these things are anathema. Young people in schools I was privileged to visit with Dr Gikonyo to promote her book in 2015 were shocked that in the past boys danced with girls in school. 

Space denies me the opportunity to talk about dictatorial ministry officials, led by an overbearing Cabinet secretary, who thinks everyone is, “stupid,” and, of course, absence of role models.

Every student knows someone wasting away at home, with a university degree. What do such learners think of school? We need to breathe freshness, dignity and hope into the school system.

The writer is a strategic communications advisor. www.barrackmuluka.co.ke

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