The First Grader & Critical Theory
Based on a true story, The First Grader features Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan man who survived brutal British suppression of the 1950s to claim the right to a grammar school education offered for free to all his government’s citizens. With no age limit, he shows up at a local school until granted admittance by a compassionate, no-nonsense teacher and a reluctant administrator.
In this article, I will argue that The First Graderaccurately portrays both andragogic learning and critical theory, in two separate characters, proving that the two can be meaningful frameworks that work in tandem. I will also offer learning experiences that could enrich not only Jane’s classroom but also the lives of Maruge and his child co-learners. And finally, I will explore the missing piece from the course that coincides with a glaring problem I felt endangered the power of the film.
Andragogy & Critical Theory
Maruge is an andragogic learner. He is self-directed, taking the initiative and possessing the drive necessary to come to the grammar school day-after-day to attempt to enroll. He fits all of Sandlin’s (2005) assumptions, including the characterization of having life experience, tragic in his case, that has resulted in his drive and motivation.
I believe he also possesses the singular worldview that Sandlin (2005) refers to, undeniably created by his history as a freedom fighter against the British Empire and the loss of his family and internment in the prisoner camps. Despite repeatedly being dissuaded to pursue an education, he refuses to see the value systems of his naysayers.
His teacher, however, uses critical theory as a framework for her career and actions.
“Critical theorists,” writes Kilgore (2001, p. 55), “argue that structures of privilege and oppression based on categories like race or ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, physical or mental capability and age are reinforced because the logic that maintains those structures becomes a common-sense lens through which people view and interpret their everyday experiences.”
Jane is consistently, sometimes passively and sometimes outright, to deconstruct these “false binaries” (Kilgore, 2001).
A woman, she faces rumors that she is promiscuous when she refuses to bow to threats concerning Maruge. A professional educator, she wants to make room for Maruge in her classroom, no matter his age or tribal loyalties. What’s more, she isn’t afraid to call out the tribal prejudices of the school superintendent (Chadwick, 2010).
It’s also worth noting the power of the two protagonists.
“Within every classroom or training room is a web of these relationships structured by power,” writes Dennon (2003, p. 21). Cervero & Wilson ask us to think of power as the capacity to act, which is distributed unequally among us. They explain that we are always exercising power in our interests. In other words, we exercise power to get what we want. Unequal power relationships, by their very nature can threaten participatory, democratic classrooms.”
Maruge and Jane both have power, however unique to their own personalities.
The aged Maruge wins over his young co-learners, developing a rapport with them, defending them, helping them, and winning them over. They want him there.
Similarly, Jane sends her students into a mini-rebellion, denying their new teacher, pelting the superintendent with rocks, and chanting her name until she is called back to town to retake her role in the classroom. They both use their power to create positive change in the community and I believe that that same power can be used in the learning experience I’d develop for the pair.
Proposed Learning Experiences
What would I assign as a learning experience for our lead characters?
It’s obvious by the remarks of the superintendent and others (Chadwick, 2010) that there are still prejudiced about the old tribal divides that embattled the country. Eighty-four-year old Maruge may be on the of the oldest men in the area to tell his story about British colonialism and the battles he fought to help Kenya gain its independence.
“Once we are mindful of our assumptions,” write Merriam and Bierema(2007, p. 277), “then we can move into Brookfield’s process of hunting and checking assumptions and entertaining different viewpoints. When we do this, it creates conditions for individual and collective clarification of ideas and sometimes changes to ideology and behavior. Another key aspect of critical action is making interventions that are timely. Once we have completed the critical thinking process it is time to put our new perspectives into action in a way that does the most good.”
Because of Maruge’s power within the classroom, I believe that he and elders from other tribes should be invited to speak and dialogue in front of the children. Essentially, they should be invited to tell their stories so the children can better understand their history.
Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) identify four themes about learning that exist within non-western and indigenous populations: interdependent, communal, holistic, and informal learning. Each of these themes would be represented in oral lessons and communications from members of the old tribes. I also feel that such a display, showing respect to each of the old tribes and making them feel that their narrative matters.
“The notion of interdependence is linked to the communal nature of learning in non-Western systems, rather than the more isolated Western teaching-learning transaction. It is the responsibility of all in the community to teach and to learn” (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 237).
An Imperfect Story
While the power of the film is undeniable, I was distracted from the narrative. Like most films I watch, I looked into the creators. It’s worth noting that both the director and the screenwriter are white. I can’t help but admit that I was disappointed in learning that fact — that the story of a trailblazing black Kenyan was told by a white English man and a white South African. It feels like the appropriation of a story.
I was also troubled by the single story, as characterized by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She speaks of how dangerous it is to rely on a single story to paint the picture of a whole society (Adichie, 2009)
For many people, this will be their only reference for the Kenyan education system — an overcrowded primary school where students must provide their own books and pencils and an adult education center where learning feels near impossible. The single story of a struggling education system will be what many westerners think of Kenya in the future.
Maruge and Jane don’t have the typical teacher-student relationship. Early on, Maruge realizes the power Jane has with the administrator at school, understanding that she is the one he must win over. She is a uniquely powerful woman in their small town, willing to use critical theory as her sword to win the respect of her students, admiration of her community, and her own fight to teach Maruge. And while he is an andragogic learner, the two develop a strikingly strong relationship. It’s this relationship and the power dynamic arounds them that could lead them to make an even larger impact on their community, helping to heal some of the tribal divisions of their past, moving forward into a more honest, transparent future.
Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. Lecture presented at TEDTalk, Oxford, England.
Chadwick, J. (Director), & Peacock, A. (Writer). (2010). The First Grader [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: BBC Films.
Drennon, C. (2003). Naming the Power Dynamics in Staff Development. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy,20–23.
Kilgore, D. W. (2001). Critical and Postmodern Perspectives on Adult Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education,2001(89), 53. doi:10.1002/ace.8
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2018). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.
Sandlin, J. A. (2005). Andragogy and Its Discontents: An Analysis of Andragogy from Three Critical Perspectives. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning,14, 25–42.