MUGWE: Delinquent students, misplaced blame

Some students in court /courtesy
Some students in court /courtesy

Nearly 4,000 years ago, Babylon was ruled for 43 years by King Hammurabi. As King, he laid out one of the earliest known set of laws.

History records that these laws are among the oldest translatable writings consisting of about 282 laws, most of which concern punishment. Each law, takes into account the perpetrator’s status. One of the laws states that if a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. And if it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder. King Hammurabi’s laws had three important concepts; reciprocity, accountability and incentives. In today’s lingo, King Hammurabi would gladly tell us that we don’t get to walk away from the risks we have created for others. We need to own our risks.

This week, we witnessed eight students who created risks for their fellow students by confessing on video they cheated in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam. The risk they created is a possibility of having all the other students results annulled. Their brazen confession and unprintable insults caught the eyes of the highest sovereign of the land, and they were subsequently arrested and arraigned in court.

In another region, 30 students were arrested for allegedly engaging in illicit activities, including sex and beer drinking, as part of the celebration for completion of their KCSE exams. They were also arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

All this is happening against the backdrop of teenage pregnancies, where it was reported about 13,000 cases of teenage pregnancies were reported this year alone in one specific county.

And as has become characteristic of us as a people, we voiced choice opinions regarding these delinquents. We shifted blame from the perpetrators and laid it all on parents too busy to discipline their children, on privileged upbringing, on a church that has lost its vocation, on dishonest politicians, and even on the Chinese debt. Everyone but the actual culprits was given a guilt trip because ‘they have learnt the immoral behavior from us’. While this is not entirely untrue, it is also not defensible.

In economic-speak, a risk is a chance an entrepreneur or investor makes that an outcome or investment return will differ from the expected outcome or return. It includes the possibility of losing some or all of the original investment. In real life, risks are non-transferrable and when they are, you pay a hefty premium to an insurer who agrees to indemnify you. In essence, it still costs you, the risk bearer, to take a risk.

It is, therefore, absurd for us to transfer these students risks on the rest of society by blaming it on the moral lacuna of those supposed to be raising the bar, and at no cost to the students themselves. These students must commence adulting without inculpating their misconduct on others.

The cardinal reason we are witnessing this kind of boorish behaviour is because of our dependence and faith on the fruits of obedience. We have mistakenly believed that obedience is synonymous to self-discipline. However, obedience is other-discipline. It is the type of discipline that horses and dogs learn from their trainers, slaves from their masters; and pious people from their religious leaders. It is a slave mentality that forces us to obey simply because there is an authority figure present and an incentive, good or bad. This is the reason why dogs and horses expect treats when they obey their trainers; why we do not obey the traffic lights unless there is a policeman present; and why we ritually go to sanctuaries of worship only on days deemed reverent. With the slave mentality, our performance in work and life is undertaken primarily for the sake of someone else with a higher authority over us. It is essentially driven by fear. It is the equivalent of a cattle-prod.

On the other hand with self-discipline, the motivating factor for performance is not motivated by the threat of external negative or positive reinforcement. Those that embrace this type of discipline are self-governed. They are no longer slaves but are radically free. They have locus of control also known as second-order thinking which helps to identify the subsequent order consequences of a decision before it happens. They spend less time debating within themselves whether or not to indulge in detrimental risks to themselves or to others; are able to make positive decisions more easily; and do not let impulses, greed or peer pressure dictate their choices. However, like with everything else that brings progress, the greatest struggle is always within ourselves.

Consider the following: A fisherman is heading home at dusk. Suddenly he sees another boat headed straight towards him. He gets upset and starts to yell: ‘Watch out! Turn!’. But the boat crashes into him anyway. The fisherman gets really furious and starts loudly hurling insults until he realises there is no one on the other vessel. He was bumped by an empty boat. He now feels even more upset because he has nobody to blame.

Our lives are full of empty boats that are adrift. When they bump into us, we instinctively get the urge to find the pilot of the other boat to blame him or her. Because when things don’t go well, we want to find who is guilty.

I, therefore, submit that we should be like the Babylonian builders. Each time we construct a house, there is a risk it may collapse, if we make any advertent or inadvertent mistakes. To avoid this outcome, we must allow for the widest margin of safety to ensure that the house is solid.

Finally, my unsolicited advice to all of us is: do not blame the shadow for the shape of your body. Likewise, do not blame others for the delinquent nature of these students. Like the Hammurabi builders, they don’t get to walk away from the risks they have created for others. They should solely own their risks and the outcome.

If one treats men like cattle, one cannot squeeze out of them more than cattle-like performances – Ludwig von Mises