Nearly 120 secondary and high school dormitories in Kenya have been burned in a wave of arson attacks in recent months.
A sense of crisis has set in. The “criminal” students torching the buildings have been rightly condemned, and some even arrested.
And the many causes of the arson attacks have been analysed – the hand of political saboteurs, cartels, frustration with the education system, anger at corrupt and authoritarian school leaderships, boredom, legitimate protest, an archaic and outdated education regime, bad examples from violent and cruel political leaders, the fear by students that the future will be one of joblessness and bleakness.
There are only a few left to deal with. One of them is to ask; “what kind of buildings do people generally burn?”.
And the answer is that, except for the crooks that burn their own buildings to collect insurance money, the majority of usually burn other people’s buildings. People rarely burn their homes.
This small establishes two things. One, that the Kenyan school burnings are the same part of a wider social and economic behaviour, and is probably not as unusual as it seems.
The second, to use the cliche, that the students don’t feel a sense of ownership in their schools.
One problem here is that ownership doesn’t explain why, to take one case, worshippers don’t burn down churches, even though they don’t own them, when they fall out with the parish priest or lose their faith. In fact as taxpayers, citizens own schools in ways they don’t own that big Catholic cathedral in Nairobi, for example.
We will return to that later.
The other point that has not explored much is the kind of school buildings students are burning. They are torching dormitories, and less so classrooms, or even the headmaster/mistresses’ office, which are the ones that represent the authority they are protesting.
I have also hardly heard of any school where the dining hall was burnt. The students clearly have an affinity for the kitchens, because it’s the place that feeds them.
And that brings us to the great contradiction; why would you burn the place where you sleep, and keep warm against the cold, and not the one where you eat?
Commentators have said its because dormitories have now come to represent deprivation. The students get up too early when they still want to sleep, and are kept away studying late or doing other things when they would want to go in and sleep.
It is telling that though schools are not hotels, they will close when dormitories are burnt, although the classes – where the primary activity of learning takes place – have been spared.
This then seems to have become a contest over sleep, not education. However, sleep represents more than snoozing. Dormitories are the places where students are trying to reclaim schools as social spaces.
One of the reforms from all this, seems to be that class attendance should not be so strictly compulsory.
The breakdown of this very structured education is not a problem facing Kenya alone. It is a crisis all over the world, but it would be interesting to compare it to what is being done elsewhere in Africa. The experience of those who have tried is telling.
One such case, at the university level but relevant at secondary school level, is Ashesi, a private university in Ghana.
Ashesi has tried to make students sovereign again, by turning over some decisions that were long taken away from them because authorities couldn’t trust – like sitting exams without invigilators. Because it is big on ethical educational, it argued that if its students couldn’t do exams on their own without cheating, then it had failed in its mission. It needed to test itself.
It has the seeds of the same idea as not making class attendance compulsory. If a student is persuaded of the value education, he or she will turn up for class. And they might feel differently about their self worth, if it is left to them to sleep or go to class.
It seems, and probably is, a crazy idea. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work.
In Ashesi’s case, it’s insistence on letting students do exams led to a drawn out refusal by the education authorities to give it full accreditation. It was punished for believing that it was possible for students to be good and honest people.
And so everywhere we make education miserable, the students don’t enjoy it, and to pass, they resort to cheating.
Source: The Citizen.