By G Oguda
Kenyan journalists are breathing fire over the unrelenting criticisms they have received regarding the manner in which they covered the visit of President Obama.
I will tell you something.
Criticism is good, and highly recommended for anyone keen to grow. My late grandfather taught me that anyone having a low affinity for criticism is a pathological failure. When you listen to dissenting opinion, he told me, you have the rare benefit of receiving reviews for free – there are people in this country who pay school fees for their kids in ivy-league schools with proceeds from professional peer-review. The brighter side of criticism is that it sharpens you. Criticism is the proverbial fiery furnace that melts you into fine gold, anybody who cannot withstand criticism isn’t ready, or fit, for leadership.
Kenyan journalists think they’re the only Kenyans being unfairly singled out for criticism. Take it from me that nowhere is criticism so virulently withering, and downright disheartening, than in academia.
The moment you take to the podium to present your project work, in front of peers and faculty, you know hell’s fire is going to scorch you however much you’ll be flooded with ice blocks. Your powerpoint patchwork is attacked from Slide 1, your presentation skills dismantled block by block, your unprofessional demeanour also receives a rap.
But academia teaches us that criticism, of any kind, is not powerful enough to destroy, you only breathe power into criticism by the nature of your response. I have seen students break down in front of faculty when their projects are being assessed, they get discouraged and give up scholarship altogether. This category are losers in life.
I have also seen students stand their ground and answer back at criticism pound-for-pound. I have also seen students open their notebooks and take down the points raised that their projects were deficient in and when they are given a second chance to make amends, they return sitting on the shoulders of giants.
This doesn’t mean that you should sit there and roll over when bigoted faculty members railroad your ideology merely because they’re older, or more vocal, than you. Academic peer-review should, as a matter of principle, be based on content rather than contempt. I come from a generation that was despised even before you made your case, one of the lecturers gave me a C because I was among the group that chased one of them away for taking us through a curriculum that was used by Ptolemy.
At the University of Nairobi, during my undergraduate days, when students were called to the podium to present group assignments, it was always the bold members, usually the vocal, who were picked to present. Reason being that our tough upbringing had given us an evolutionary advantage by endowing us with a thick skin. My generation of young scholars were brought up to believe that lecturers were mean with compliments and brutal with criticisms. Virulent criticisms perpetuated by a culture of boot-licking and free-loading has helped Kenya raise a critical mass of timid professionals bereft of confidence and self belief.
So, why are Kenyans journalists kicking a storm over this issue?
Because the Kenyan culture socializes us to take criticism personally. We are taught, from day one, that whoever criticises you is jealous of your achievements – if there are any – and is interested in your downfall – if ever you were higher placed. Criticism is a bitter pill to swallow, not because the person offering it do not need the same medicine but because the person receiving it, more often than not, suffers from an acute sense of false importance shielded by an imaginary defence ring of harmful praises and cheap hero worship. And we like it that way.
My late grandfather taught me that parents are always tough on the kids they love the most. The nature of executing sanctions may vary, but if you look around and compare children whose parents showed them tough love against those who were entertained whenever they broke societal rules, chances are that you’ll find the first category of kids doing well in life.
And that is something I wouldn’t wish to see change.