Give new graduates room to make mistakes

A past graduation ceremony
A past graduation ceremony. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In Albert Einstein’s words, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Implicit in Einstein’s words is character.

This past week, the chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Vijoo Rattansi, and vice-chancellor Peter Mbithi hosted a two-day career conference, which, in my view, was a discourse on the character of university graduates.

One of the featured items was an early morning televised discussion facilitated by NTV’s Laban-Cliff Onserio. It was on why university graduates are increasingly becoming unemployable.

Those in the room were largely CEOs and heads of human resource departments from prospective employers, senior government officials and top members of the academia.

It was the first time in Kenya employers openly expressed their concerns on the quality of graduates.

They said the academia was churning out graduates who are half-baked: can’t read, write, lack soft skills and can’t dress properly for an interview. An indictment of the academia.

Without being defensive, the question of preparedness of graduates should never have been asked without first addressing another ancillary question: What does university education seek to achieve?

I pose the question considering the fact that education is a process that begins with the parents and proceeds through primary and secondary education.

Indeed, later in another session, Henry Indangasi elaborated that the primary objectives of higher education are to instill higher cognitive skills (thinking creatively, critically and developing analytical abilities).

These, however, did not stop the debate whether these attributes are sufficient to produce a well-rounded graduate ready for employment.

The objectives differ from one individual to the other. Some think in addition to cognitive skills, students should learn leadership, develop communication skills, cultivate virtues like ethics and tolerance.

They should also be exposed to broad intellectual and cultural experience and encouraging lifelong learning to think independently and become useful.

None, however, explains at what level each of these requirements should be taught or if they should be taught or acquired.

In effect, the expected outcomes of a learner are complex and depends on what any individual thinks is right.

What is perhaps constant may not be intelligence (ability to apply knowledge in making judgment, reasoning, and understanding) or knowledge (the sum total of skills and information acquired through experience) but the character (the mental and moral qualities unique to an individual), what Einstein probably meant.

There is still much we don’t know about learning to make conclusive judgment about the graduates coming out of universities.

In Outliers, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell tells us that there are hidden patterns in an ordinary person’s life.

He argues that “it is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and effort we make on our own behalf. It is rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

Some of the professional celebrities have had thousands of hours practising their trade to seize their opportunity.

In contrast, if graduates have no opportunity for practising to gain any form of experience it means then that they will forever not be in a position to be good enough. It is in our interest to help graduates practise to be good. Let them make mistakes as no one is ever born perfect.

While employers say what they want in students coming out of universities, Gladwell sees it differently, arguing that “success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”

The character of our graduates is not unique to Kenya. It is a global phenomenon. Just watch Simon Sinek on millennials.