Children of well-educated Kenyans have negligible advantages, in educational terms, over those of ill-educated or illiterate parents.
That is, apart from attending elite private primary schools and securing admission into some of the best secondary schools.
To the advocates of mass democracy this must be good news. The principle of equity demands that all possible distinctions in the provision of education be obliterated. It is merrier if the children of the elite drink from the same waters of education, without any advantage.
Strictly speaking, education is nothing but raising children as per the highest expectations and aspirations of the society and the times. It is the institution by which society transmits the culture it deems appropriate to the next generations.
And what does culture, in its technical terms, entail? Nineteenth Century English anthropologist EB Tylor defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and many other capabilities and habits acquired by...[members] of society."
If we view education from the perspective of educational anthropology, the school is not the only place we acquire education or culture. We have informal channels or institutions with the capacity to impart similar “knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and many other capabilities and habits” of mind and behaviour, though not structured or systematised as formal education institutions.
Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds would logically have an advantage had their parents appreciated the stakes involved in acquiring the things that define a written culture, which in turn defines modern formal education.
The ability to read, write and count—literacy and numeracy skills—that society desires to build in children at lower primary school becomes useful only when the children use it to read outstanding books that embody the cultural and intellectual heritage of mankind.
These skills are of lasting value when is used to impart values, visions, dreams and opportunities that certain writers, thinkers, philosophers and scientists have recorded in their books.
The modern curriculum is predicated on the assumption that certain qualities of mind are crucial to a society which aims at building a stable, prosperous and harmonious society. The qualities of mind in question are critical thinking, creative thinking, and ability to communicate; a grasp of scientific approaches to problem solving, an understanding of the cultural, social, scientific and political backgrounds to the basic policy problems and challenges modern society is facing and ability to think with imagination, logic empathy over these things.
Educational theorists and policymakers acknowledge this, yet learners go out into the world after completing 12 years of basic education totally defenseless. It is like an army matching into a war without preparation and weapons.
The most unique aspect of an education based on literacy, on written culture, on reading and writing is one: That mankind has invented books, libraries and, lately, the internet.
These have materials that students can read and improve their grasp of the knowledge that educational authorities want them to learn and develop the desired intellectual and behavioral dispositions.
Reading content of intellectual and cultural rigour helps learners to develop their ability to grasp abstract concepts, apply logic in various scenarios, recognise cause and effect, and utilise good judgment.
Extensive reading of age-appropriate books broadens the imagination and mental horizons of students. It is the joy of learning and imagination that builds technical talent and capacity—skills that employers look for in prospective employees.
What's more, wide reading beyond the prescribed textbooks enables the student to acquire rich and varied vocabulary and concepts. It becomes easy, far easier, for such a student to articulate his/her thoughts or ideas without difficulty. It also provides crucial background knowledge to understand complex situations and problems.
The irony is that elite parents are busy providing for their children's material needs—the best schools, the best hospitals, the best shelter and the best food. They, however, inexplicably neglect to build the minds and intellects of their children by stocking good books in their houses or facilitating the children to visit public libraries in urban areas.
On a visit in Ghana three years ago, US President Barack Obama said Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men to establish stability, prosperity and harmony in their countries and on the content.
Institutions are only as good as the people who manage them. If they do not have the necessary mental, moral and behavioural deportment, the institutions are nothing but shells. Institutional or state building needs men and women with technical, administrative and political ability; it needs men and women with impeccable critical and problem solving skills.
It needs strategic thinkers. It needs men and women at the helm with the “knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and many other capabilities and habits” acquired through formal and informal education, and access to books.
The successive generations of students should ideally not only grasp the prescribed curriculum. They should have a bowing acquaintance with books and other materials that have consolidated the knowledge, belief, moral and other capabilities that define a well-educated and trained heart and mind.
Educated and well-placed parents owe it to society to raise their children so well that they have something substantive in their minds beside the formal curriculum.
School managements should, meanwhile, build libraries so all students get the chance to read, in the words of Mathew Arnold, "the best that has been thought and said in the world.”
It is the ideas gleaned from books that fortify the intellect and provide the energy to dream, have visions, values and take advantage of the opportunities the mind and imagination is able to discern.
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