the world’s oldest first-grader and the decline of u.s. education

The First Grader is a moving  film based on the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old Kikuyu man who attempted to enroll in a primary school to learn to read and write shortly after the government had announced that the education would be free to all.  He went to extraordinary lengths to be admitted, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that he finally was.

He’d fought the British in the Mau Mau uprisings/revolt between 1952 and 1960.  The anti-colonialist Kikuyus preferred the term Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) was abjured by the British, as it connoted what they were fighting for: expropriation of their traditional agricultural lands by the British post WWII, especially.  It’s a long and complicated history, even in the Wiki version.

Turning the tables on their Colonizers, the Wiki says that s the movement progressed, a Swahili backronym was adopted: “Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru” (MAU MAU) meaning “Let the foreigner go back abroad, let the African regain independence”.  Yes, indeed.

The British and other Western powers aided the divisions of the Kikuyou and Luo which served their purposes, of course, and the fighting was bloody and terrible, most notably due to the Crown’s harsh attempts to quell dissent, and colonial histories have often referred to the revolt as ‘intra-tribal’, denying their accountability in land grabs and failures to bring the original Kenyans into positions of power.

Those suspected of being anti-colonialists were put in gulags, and tortured for not foreswearing their oaths to Uhuru (Freedom!), and their political movement.

This short clip expands the scene in which Maruge is instructing the first two heart-piercing little girls in ‘Uhuru’; it’s my favorite scene of the film.

And yes; learning must be fun, and should be about how to learn, and the ways we might each learn differently, some very kinetically and rhythmically, or in many other ways.

You won’t be surprised to learn that teacher Jane, who’d made an ‘executive decision’ to allow Maruge into class was chastized, threatened, and finally transferred to a teaching post 300 miles from her home village.  Since she wouldn’t allow Maruge to accompany her, he went to Nairobi to appeal directly to the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

“We have to learn from our past; we cannot forget.  We must not forget; but we must be better.  We need good teachers; we reap what we sow with our children.”

Those lines and many others are especially pertinent to the continuing degradation of education in this nation.  I won’t defend all teachers per se here, as even before Dubya’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Obomba and Duncan’s ‘Race to the Top’, our kids weren’t having any fun in school, and had plenty of miserable teachers who were quite content with the factory model of education.  Ours was also a school in which teachers were punished by being demoted to any of the special education and chapter programs for extra help.  Those areas not being chosen fields of study, they often did more harm than good. But I do know plenty of great and dedicated teachers, and had some of them myself.

But in a far larger sense, in the present climate where teachers are virtually forced into ‘teaching to the test’, learning how to learn, and how to think critically, ask imaginative questions, all seem to have taken further hits.  And when the standardized tests come back low, teachers are blamed for it, rather than the system itself.  We all have read about school closings in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and other metropolises, all the while those same areas are building more jails and prisons (a burgeoning growth industry).  I did try to find aggregate numbers for ‘failed’ school closings leading to privatized and chartered ones, but failed at the task.  But we know that is becoming widespread.  The subject of ‘failing schools’ has gotten quite a bit of  scrutiny by Diane Ravitch; at the link she offers her advice about better options.  In the article she links to Timothy Slekar’sThe myth of failing schools and the unforgiven sins of wealth and power’:

‘A kindergarten class overcrowded with 35 children who lack basic healthcare, nutrition, and access to books and safe neighborhoods is NOT an example of failing students and an ineffective teacher. This is a graphic example of societal, political, and economic neglect. None of which was caused by the school or the teacher.

No, there are NO failing schools, instead these schools stand as testimony to failed politicians, failed vulture philanthropists, and know-nothing FAILED educrats.

When a child shows up to school after 5 years of fighting for basic survival the failure is not with the school or the teacher–NO, the failure belongs to those in power. The failure belongs with those that hide behind enormous wealth and political power–those that have purposely created a society that deny NEEDED (not wanted) resources to children and families fighting to survive in a world of plenty-plenty of inhumane specimens that create false scarcities and fictional narratives that absolve them of the harm they have inflicted.

Someone has to say it!  Public schools are not failing–they are just merely living examples of political, societal, and economic failure.

From a recent report by the Chicago Teachers Union, ‘Privatization: The Black & White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools’ comes this brief synopsis:

While the policy of neighborhood school closings and charter openings has not moved education in Chicago forward in any significant way, the benefits to charter school operators, private testing companies, real estate interests, and wealthy bankers are growing. Far from being a system of reform that improves education, the policy of closing schools in one area of the city and opening schools in another has been the failed status quo in Chicago for nearly 20 years, and key outcomes are:

  • Increased racial segregation in schools
  • Depletion of stable schools in Black neighborhoods
  • Disrespect and poor treatment of teachers
  • Expansion of unnecessary testing
  • Decreased opportunities for deep, conceptual learning
  • Increased punitive student discipline
  • Increased student mobility
  • Minimal educational outcomes

“When it comes to matters of race and education in Chicago, the attack on public schools is endemic,” said CTU President Karen GJ Lewis.  “Chicago is the most segregated city in the country, and our students of color are routinely deemed as second-class by a system that does nothing but present one failed policy after the next.”

Spread those effects across the nation, and you have a recipe for American learning disaster caused again by a form of Disaster Capitalism.  Really, it’s a policy much like that of Africom and NATO, seeking ‘failed states’ (and even helping to create the associated chaos), then swooping in to secure resources for Profiteers.

And who will go to college in the future except the sons and daughters of Elites or those willing to go into massive debt they hope they might be able to repay one day?  Tuitions are soaring, jobs for graduates are disappearing at an alarming rate, even those requiring graduate degrees.

In another venue, FDL’s ChePasa had spoken of his post on Mario Savo and the Berkeley Free Speech movement, including Savio’s ‘”Gears of the Machine” speech at Sproul Hall.  He’d explained that the movement was a large part of the reason that Ronald Regan and his friends began to put an end to the free tuition at California’s state colleges, neither of which I’d known much about.  The message was: Don’t educate them, or they might turn into dissident Punks!  Rabble rousers!  A fascinating account by Todd Gitlin on protesters closing down the Oakland Induction Center in Oct. 1967 is there, as well.

There are apparently now only a handful of colleges with free tuition, and even those come with many caveats.  Twelve of them.  Average college loans right now are about $30,000 per student.  Average  Yeah, that’ll take a lot of Occupy Debt Jubilees to mitigate, won’t it?

What will this nation become given these hideous trends away from public education for all, and college available to a select minority?  A nation of increasingly dumbed-down servants of the Masters of the Universe, the only jobs available will be those that can’t be exported to other nations where labor costs even less, of course.  Sure, it’s the plan, but it really sucks; how can we reverse it, short of revolution?

Can we as individuals help kids who don’t fit the factory interchangeable parts model?  Perhaps mentoring programs through the schools; many do seem to have them.  For kids with learning disabilities, i.e., those who don’t learn in ordinary ways, ‘Brain Gym’, a book of Educational Kinesiology and whole brain learning is very helpful, and is a little more mainstream than when I tried to introduce it to our schools.   There are Brain Gym exercises are on youtube now, both fine motor and gross motor, but they might not make much sense without the book.

If you’re not worn out from too many videos, at least take a peek at the actual Maruge in this doc-short.  What a smile!  Thank you, Maruge, for your fighting Uhuru spirit!

(cross-posted at

4 responses to “the world’s oldest first-grader and the decline of u.s. education

  1. This is such a wonderful piece, wendye! Today is Saint Nicholas Day by my calendar, and you have given me the gift to send all of my children in these wonderful videos. They do tell of the struggle to make education free to all as it should be, and also free of political restrictions in the classroom, which in this day have become so onerous that the actual attempt to teach by creative public schoolteachers has now become impossible.

    Something has to give, and it will give, as responsible parents seek their children’s welfare elsewhere. I am reminded of the last Chris Hedges article I read of his teaching experience in a prison – where he discovered such creativity and real striving for truth in those incarcerated, many for terrible crimes and for life, but still human – I see those examples of inspired playwriting and I see the children chanting (there must be chanting!)

    The parallels you raise are telling. Thank you.

  2. it was a balm to have such an inspirational story to spin from during the hard days i had recently. yes, the constraints of political restrictions are choking off ‘best education’ from the national to the state…to the internal politics of schools. merit pay is just a hideous idea, pitting teacher against teacher, and creating the butt-kissing of principals and superintendents.

    if i were queen, i would also insist on teacher sabbaticals now and again, so that teachers might go out into other worlds to experience life anew, and try on some new ideas and methods when they come back; perhaps even to be inspired by joy, and service to humanity and the planet, soak up the sunlight and starlight and be renewed. so many teachers here got too used to their plans year after year that even they seemed a bit bored by it all. :)

    yes to the chanting, and to music, art and creative *everything*! yes, if playing mozart in math class helps, do it! if drawing lazy eights and doing cross-body exercises to music helps, do it! create schools of light and splendor, filled with art and color and wonder. but above all, make learning a joy, and find ways that allow children to learn in their own special ways; we are not machine, and not interchangeable parts.

    my favorite part about steiner’s beliefs was that introducing children to symbols too early would create a backlash by say, sixth and seventh grades. better, he said, to encourage kids to learn poetry, song, and recitation, symbols when they were more ready for the disconnect they imply. just opposite of kids learning to read in pre-school, having homework in first grade, and all the associated pressures.

    oh, i hope you’re right that parents will demand freedom and the best education. reading diane ravitch, it seems a hard one to parse, especially for the inner city kids whose education is suffering so badly; many of those parents want charter schools, but at what price, and with what to offer? probably a wider range than is and was expected, eh?

  3. I went looking, wendye, for Sylvia Ashton-Warner (spelled her first name incorrectly over at fdl – mea culpa. Found this trailer to the movie Sylvia – skip ad if you are able to:

  4. ‘i’m not a teacher. i merely supply the conditions’. nice…

    i went looking for the invictus poem that madiba is said in the film to have read to his fellow prisoners on robben island.

    ‘Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    ~ William Ernest Henley

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