There has been a great attention to promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as the pathway to faster growth and industrialisation in Kenya.
On the face of it, this is a logical curriculum choice as it helps align the education to the country’s needs and development priorities.
Unfortunately, the discussion is presented in a manner that fails to appreciate the role of education in society. Senior policy makers and politicians have cited the irrelevance of some courses offered at university.
This past week, a Senator called for alignment of university education to the needs pf the country and argued some courses currently being offered add no value. While this is a fair comment and call, the danger arises when the basis of determining what is relevant or not takes the blanket approach of seeing STEM courses as the only necessary course for Kenya to develop.
The assumption made in the call for focus on STEM is on the basis that social sciences courses are not necessary. That all you need in society is technical courses that enable you to innovate and develop equipment. Solving problems requires a multiplicity of skills. This past week I was a discussant in session where a Kenyan author was speaking about the influence of technology on Kenya’s democracy. She made the point that you cannot innovate your way out of bad governance.
The society’s problems are larger than technical. For example, the current clamour for constitutional change requires solutions. Its solutions are not purely technical. Knowledge of political science and sociology would come in handy in such circumstances.
Secondly, there is a consensus that to avoid the unending ethnic tensions in the country, it is necessary to promote national integration and co-existence.
Which technology-based innovation can give one the necessary apparatus to inculcate national ethos and unity? Only who has studied peace studies, anthropology and sociology may be more prepared for identifying mechanisms for ensuring that communities live peacefully.
Then there is the oft stated averment that too much talk does not lead to any development. Applied to the curriculum development, the argument would then be that course that only focus on talking and not developing tangible things would not be relevant.
However, a lot of progress is made in society through discussions and consensus building. Social sciences are largely about this. It builds skills of relating with others and helping to build a progressive society. It complements the contribution of STEM.
To deal with the challenges facing the country, be it treating diseases like cancer, to developing IT applications, skilled personnel in the STEM is an essential.
We have to invest in these courses to enable the country to move forward in its development path. But this cannot be done by avoiding social sciences. What is necessary is a healthy mix.
A relevant education system enables learners to exploit potential, not one that boxes them in one corner. That has always been the rationale for competence-based curriculum. This is appreciating that people have different passions. The education they receive must nurture these and enable them to pursue them for their benefits and for benefit of society.
Growing up as a young person, the choices for university education were either medicine or engineering. Those who did not do well in school could then consider the arts. Several years after leaving school, I realise how the over-glorification of medicine and engineering was misleading.
Real life requires multifaceted skills. It is for this reason that multidisciplinary teaching is increasingly taking root. We have to make a curriculum that is more responsive to society without falling to the trap of assuming all that is required is to support STEM and abandon the arts.
As the adoption of technology in elections, for example, has shown, you cannot solve all problems using technology alone.