By Godwin Murunga
The youth question is back onto the front page. Unfortunately, the possibility of sound discussion has been overwhelmed by the focus on corruption, our pet national indulgence. Where corruption is an issue in Kenya, public reactions have a predictable cast of interlocutors.
This time, the actors have included the Cabinet secretary for Devolution, under whose docket the National Youth Service scandal emerged, and an ethnically constituted horde of politicians only capable of shouting themselves hoarse.
Unfortunately, this has also included a few youthful politicians who, just by sheer coincidence or perfect timing, discovered â€œevidenceâ€ that Kalonzo Musyoka allegedly grabbed NYS land. The actors have lined themselves to defend their side while also incredibly convincing themselves that they are fighting corruption.
Academics, who are paid to think, have been noticeable by their silence, except of course for the one and only consultant to the NYS project. His intervention has, however, been depressingly narcissistic; designed to remind all that there is a particular stamp of quality associated with his brand of consultancy and that it must attract a generous fee. To be an academic who believes in the peerless quality of your work is incredible indeed, since quality in intellectual work is based solely on peer review.
I have always known that any academic who repeats with dizzying regularity that his or her work comes with a particular brand of exalted quality is either fake or has interests that have nothing to do with academia.
The mark of quality in the academy is not found on television screens and Twitter but in academic journals and books.
Academically inclined consultants will always use their consultancy work as a basis of serious academic engagement through publishing. Self-publishing does not count here. This is because when you are on TV, few people care to know where and when you got your doctorate, where your ground breaking and quality work is published and who in the community of scholarship is engaging your ideas.
Indeed, the reason why many serious academics in our universities shun the television screen is not that they do not have some substantive thing to say. It is that the nature of media engagement today has reduced the screen into the place for the mundane and the sound bite, the place where sustained analysis gets limited time or is just easily trivialised.
A good many of these solid academics have no business reminding you with such rapid regularity the quality of their work or how much such work must attract in monetary terms. After all, their work very easily speaks for itself.
As a practice, when I hear someone remind us of their academic quality, my first instinct has been to check the catalogue of a good library. And in the few instances where I have done this, it has been surprisingly underwhelming, leading me to wonder why these academics canâ€™t just shut up. We must agree as a society that if someone styles himself as a good academic who is capable of providing sound consultancy and general guidance to society, they must at least have good publications in the past 10 years that have gone through verifiable and rigorous peer review.
To be sure, 10 years is a rather generous timeline since it is in the many things to have a sale-by date. Even frozen food expires.
The academy loves scholars who are prolific in different fields and ways. But if you are only prolific on television and Twitter and nothing in the form of a good publication that your peers are critiquing, then you are a stale academic.
The time for serious academics to occupy the space and speak on the youth question has come. Let it not be that we never contributed, let it be that we contributed but policymakers ignored us and preferred Twitter scholars.
Godwin Murunga is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi. This article first appeared here.