If you ask most university students anywhere in the world why they are in school, they will most likely tell you they are there preparing for a career in a certain profession. That is fine. But that was not the original purpose of university education.
The nineteenth century Oxford University scholar John Cardinal Henry Newman described a university as a place where men are educated and not merely instructed. Instruction is the transmission of functional or technical knowledge. One is instructed for instance in the useful arts, in trades and in business. For Newman, university education has a wider scope. Its aim is the communication of what he called "liberal" knowledge, which he defined using terms such as "knowledge that is sufficient for itself", or "knowledge capable of being its own end". This idea is as old as Aristotle.
The interaction of students during the show is also a very noble thing.
African borders insulate its people from one another. If Africa hopes
to develop socio-economically, it has to bring down the barriers that
separate its people.
But in our materialistic world, who pursues knowledge for its own sake? Plenty of young people, if their response to the television quiz show Celtel Africa Challenge is anything to go by. "It is amazing what these kids know," says Mr Paul Ochieng, Dean of students, Strathmore University, Kenya. "As a university with a bias in business, I was apprehensive we would not get the calibre of students to compete against liberal arts or students pursuing science based degrees. But we were pleasantly surprised."
The students know lot of stuff, from contemporary African music to ancient civilization, from Latin to history of grand slam tennis. They are clearly citizens of the information age, adept at exploring electronic encyclopedias, at home with pay TV or on the streets with I-pods, while still comfortable with foolscap notepads in class.
Celtel is a mobile phone company operating in sub-Saharan Africa and the quiz show is part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme." Celtel chose to invest in education because an investment in education is an investment in the future," says Mr Bashar Arafeh, the company's vice-president for East Africa.
The show also gives a different dimension to television in Africa. The tube is a great educational tool, but it has come under criticism for promoting negative societal values and making the disruption of family and social life acceptable, if not actually hip — especially among young people with impressionable minds.
Nowhere are the effects of television more vilified than in Africa. Like everything else in Africa, the small screen is a perpetrator as well as a victim of the continent's material and increasing moral poverty, and if western TV content is adverse for western culture, it is truly insidious for Africa. Some African governments like Kenya's have tried to promote local content and at the same time regulate foreign content. But this does not quite work.
Celtel has organised Africa Challenge to be televised in five Eastern and southern Africa countries — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi every week from February 17 to May 25. One of the TV stations, Kenya's NTV, is available on YouTube. The series will feature 16 universities.
The show has all the ingredients of a local production with an eye to a globalised world. The protagonists are local in three senses: the students are known to their colleagues, viewers identify with the universities, and the countries involved are regional neighbours. The content has a leaning towards Africa with a tinge of the global. The interaction of students during the show is also a very noble thing. African borders insulate its people from one another. If Africa hopes to develop socio-economically, it has to bring down the barriers that separate its people.
Celtel is already doing this by developing and implementing mobile telephone technologies that don't recognize boundaries laid by colonists. "Europeans are now asking us how we implemented a cross-borders network that brings down the cost of mobile telephony across borders," Mr Arafeh says.
With the quiz show, the company is putting education in its regional platform too. Africa's living legend Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Celtel is using education to do just that.
Eric Kathenya is the coach of Strathmore University's Celtel Africa Challenge Team.