What the youth really need is effective mentorship

At a recent dinner event in Mombasa, a gathering of young professionals mingled with each other to discuss the big strategies that will ensure that they have a prosperous future. Amid the usual give-and-take debates that often characterise such events, a vibrant live band animated the crowd with a string of impressive musical performances. Perfectly aware of the crowd’s obsession with the “big things”, the lead vocalist performed a rendition of a Nigerian hit song and, with tongue in cheek, he unleashed the lyrics, “ Forget about the big things oh, start making plans for the small things.”

Obviously, many in the room were oblivious to the truth and sagacity hidden in this song. Putting it simply, our youth today have been equipped with the technical capabilities to build grand ambitions but remain largely untutored on matters of character. And because of this, the need for mentorship is more urgent than ever.

A recent report by the British Council revealed that young Kenyans want quality education, fair access to career opportunities and a more visible role in public life. These three requests seem reasonable and the hope is that the relevant stakeholders will act on them expeditiously. Of the three demands, it is access to quality education that has the greatest impact in providing an authentic path to prosperity for the youth.

It is indeed gratifying to see that, despite the cultural nuances that glorify corrupt forms of wealth acquisition, Kenyan youth still believe that a good education is a key ingredient to attaining their final goal, which is simply to lead a prosperous and happy life. The famous Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy brilliantly observed in his classic novel, War and Peace, that “one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy…. while one has life, one must live and be happy!”

Perhaps the greatest source of discontentment facing our youth today is the spectacular disconnect between the academic journey presented in our education institutions and the harsh realities faced in the real world. In his book, “A Guide for the Perplexed “, E F Schumacher argues that often the education provided in schools and universities equip us with incomplete maps of life and knowledge which lack many of the things that students care about.

In a sense, this is the same feeling that many young graduates feel when they begin their working lives in the real world. They question the relevance of much of the content that they were taught, and they often feel drastically underprepared to navigate the challenges that real life throws in their direction.

So how can young people overcome this significant challenge?
First and foremost, we need to clarify that there are two levels of education which are fundamentally important. The first level is the conventional type of education which aims to develop the scholastic aptitude skills of the learner in preparation for a profession. The objective here is to produce more doctors, accountants and engineers which every country certainly needs for economic progress. In this respect, Kenya does well in comparison with its peers in the region.

However, the second level of education is more concerned in cultivating a virtuous individual who is not only capable of both critical thinking and creativity, but who also has a life-long love for learning. It is in this area that our education system falls terribly short. Luckily, this was never a real problem in the past because the family could always be counted upon to impart wisdom on the young minds. Sadly though, the demands of modern life have placed a great strain on the family thus weakening its ability to perform such functions.

Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise—-as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.

– Allan Bloom

It therefore seems that mentors are the last frontier of hope for our youth. These are the men and women in our everyday lives who are committed to living a heroic life. From them, the youth can draw rich experiences which can assist them to discover their true north. There is also much to be learnt from the great written works such as Cicero’s ancient treatise, On Friendship, which emphasized the importance of virtue in friendship and how true friendship cannot exist without it. Perhaps it truly is time that our youth stopped obsessing about the big things and start making plans for the small things.

Ken Gichinga is the Chief Economist at Mentoria Consulting;