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December 11, 2018

Reflections: Knowledge, experience and sheep in academics


A few days before Christmas, Education CS Fred Matiang’i released the KCSE results for 2017. As you all know by now, the news was not good. Only about 10 per cent of those who sat the exam made the grade to join university. As for the rest, the hundreds of thousands who didn’t make the cut, and their parents, also in the hundreds of thousands obviously, it suddenly wasn’t going to be a merry Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, the country had a collective fit. Blame was hurled at everything and anything. The hue and cry was deafening, and prophecies of doom for the youth, who supposedly failed, flew about liberally. 

So vivid was our horrified reaction to the results, it brought to mind, my mind at least, the painting known as The Scream, by Edvard Munch. Google it if you’re not familiar with it.  

A couple of things: First off, we, as a people, should learn to be a lot less alarmist — make it a national New Year’s resolution. Alarmism makes us panic for no reason. It spreads hopelessness to the extent that we’ve sadly had cases of students committing suicide because they didn’t pass an exam.

Secondly, there is no problem here. Close to 90 per cent of students who sat an exam not making it to university is not a problem. The problem is not from the outside, it’s not that the exams ‘were marked too fast’, or released too early, or that there’s some conspiracy to keep the youth from getting degrees. The problem is from within us. It’s our own thoughts that make us see problems where there aren’t any.

To quote Marcus Aurelius: “Today, I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” 

Think about it, if you really want to be an electrical engineer, say, but didn’t get the pass mark to get to university, what actually stops you from becoming an electrical engineer? If you’re really interested, you start at certificate level. And because you actually have the talent and interest, you’ve probably tinkered with some wires and a power source long before you stepped into any classroom. Next, you move on to a diploma, sprinkle some work experience in between, and then on to an advanced diploma. Only if you want to, though you don’t have to, do you go on to university, but by then there’s not much you’ll be learning that you don’t already know from practical hands-on experience.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: university, especially nowadays, is not the place you go to learn how to think, or become competent, or gain experience. There, you’ll find only knowledge which you might think is worth much until you put it out into the real world. I’ll paint you a picture:

There are a hundred sheep on one side of the road. Let’s call this side A.  One sheep crosses the road to the other side. How many sheep are left on side A?

If your answer is 99, that’s knowledge. Experience tells us the answer is none because out here in the real world, when one sheep crosses the road the rest follow.

So you got a C minus, a D, or an E, think. Are you really going to let some letter in the alphabet end you?

Poll of the day