The Politics of Education in Kenyan Universities: A Call for a Paradigm Shift

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The winds of political change have been sweeping across Kenya for the last two decades. However, as many sections of society-the media, the church, civil society, and even ordinary people-take advantage of the unprecedented democratic space in which to engage the political establishment, the country's intelligentsia has remained aloof. The aim of this article is to interrogate discourse patterns in the Kenyan university system. Adopting a historical lens, it argues that the curtailment of intellectual freedom in the postcolonial Kenyan university is a reproduction of the colonial suppression of discourses whose objective was to ensure the political survival of the ruling class. It also argues for the adoption of critical pedagogies that challenge the status quo.

Introduction

In Kenya's universities, intellectual freedom has always been under siege. The relationship between the state and higher education has been characterized by suppression, arrests, detention without trial, and even the deaths of antiestablishment academics and students. Evident in the persistent suppression of dissenting voices is the legacy of colonialism, especially in the use of government resources and the police system, in league with university administrations, to smother critical dialogue. Intriguingly, the kind of critical discourse and political activism that withstood these pressures in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s seems to have faded in the last two decades. The question then is: Why has the intelligentsia abandoned critical discourse following the return of political pluralism in Kenya, particularly after the defeat of KANU in 2002?

Besides theorizing why suppression of discourse has persisted in the Kenyan university system, this article seeks to explore how the university can reclaim its status as an agent of social change. I argue that all regimes, whether colonial or postcolonial, suppressed discourse to perpetuate their hegemony, and that the so-called banking education, which has been the predominant pedagogy, has facilitated this agenda by fostering a culture of silence. Thus, a pedagogical paradigm shift is imperative if higher education is to play its role as an agent of social transformation in the country; educators have to adopt critical pedagogies that allow critical discourses to thrive. The university must abandon its ivory tower attitude and work in concert with other sectors of society in offering a counterhegemonic discourse that challenges the status quo. This argument is premised on the proposition that it is impossible to divorce politics from education: that education is by all means a hegemonic enterprise.

Education as a Hegemonic Enterprise

That education is a hegemonic enterprise is a basic assumption of many scholars and social critics. According to Mouffe (1979), hegemony is "the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to win the active consensus of those over whom it rules" (10). In the pursuit of perpetuating its dominant position, the ruling class capitalizes on its position to design an educational system that advances its agenda. Thus, in reality, it is impossible to divorce education from politics. The school system represents "a major structural setting wherein those classes whose interests are already dominant have access to greater power by which to maintain their dominance at the expense of subordinate class interests" (Lankshear & Lawler 1989:25). In other words, educational systems embody the "struggle [for] the control of the whole process of social reproduction" (Mouffe 1979:5).

An understanding of the role of politics in Kenya's higher education is impossible without an investigation of the historical circumstances that have influenced and shaped the sociopolitical fabric of Kenyan society. Any history-making process cannot be divorced from one's material conditions; die present and the future are informed by what Freiré calls the "concrete conditions" inherited from the past (Freiré & Macedo 1987:60). …