The World’s Oldest First Grader and the Decline of US 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 histories 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 My. and )




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I mentioned education in my diary as well.

Cassiodorus's picture

I'm wondering if the content was too literary for the folks at FDL.  At any rate, it's fair to assume that college is a mere shadow of what it was when I was attending, unless you are lucky enough to be admitted to an elite private school where the endowment is so high they can pay for you if you can't pay for yourself.

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Your diary?

wendy davis's picture

As in the 'honesty' one?  I haven't had time to read it, but given that the mods never even left-paged mine, and it has 50-odd comments, and many returms for further discussion,  I'm satisfied.  The conversations at Ian's house have made it clear to me tha the Golden Days of bloggin are over.


My posts at my.fdl used to have 150, 200 comments.  Now, so many folks have either been banned outright, or left in disapprobation of the mods as Gatekeepers, that this has become the New Normal.  Aside from that, my friend in Prague who'd said that the passage of the Golden Days were down to Obomba...was quite right.  And so few see nonviolent revolution, nor Revolution of higher consciousness as estimable.  So...we wait for the next crashes, any nimber of see who wakes up in time (hoping that there indeed IS time in some conditions and trajectories. 


Best to you, cassiodorus; dunno that my weird eye/brain condition will allow me to post here very often; the colors and gifs are harsh to me.  eeep.

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hoo, boy;

wendy davis's picture

a new brain, perhaps?  without going too far into it, i had some brain damage a while back, and i get tripped out pretty easily by certain stimuli. (color combos, gifs, and so on)   there's also the fact that i'm not apt to learn html usage, especially when the background is jarring to me.  but hell, please don't worry about it.  if and when i think something might be relevant to post here, i'll try.

but i went with 'very soothing' at my home site, Cafe Babylon.  best to you, cassiodorus, and thanks for the invitation.

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