It was so surprising that some students in a second year politics class at tertiary institutions claimed that they did not know what a manifesto was and never saw or did not know what a constitution consisted of. These were students who had gotten entry into the universities based on A-Level passes and who also had completed an entire year at university which consisted of lectures on politics, public administration as well as other courses. Even more astonishing is that many in that class, in the case of Trinidad, did not know of Dr Eric Williams and had no wish to even visit the Eric Williams collection which is lovingly sustained in the library at the University of the West Indies. The word ‘Banwari man’ met with blank stares. Indeed, it is more than disheartening now when one enters a classroom, one is faced with blank stares and the emphasis is on note taking. Regurgitation and recall, cramming and plagiarism are now common occurrences. The concept of ‘reading for a degree’ unfortunately is now considered a colonial inheritance. Rather, in the education rat race, one can purchase a first degree, MBAs as well as doctoral degrees in record time and even by distance. Many try to blame the teachers and lecturers for this emerging phenomenon. The problem, it appears, though particularly from the point of view of the lectures and teachers, is more complex. It seems that the issue may be due to the kind of parenting, the nature of the curriculum offered and the introduction of new technology which has made reading almost obsolete. Reading is an endangered skill. Inevitably, in discussing the challenges of education, it is often appropriate to regress. In my case for instance, I went to St Christopher’s Anglican School in Siparia. I recall teachers such as Ms Smith, Ms Hunte, Ms Paul, Ms Searles and most particularly Mr McIntosh. These were teachers upon whom many modelled themselves. They were generalist educators, engaging their young students in the art of civics, social studies, public speaking, even gardening. They were indeed major sources of inspirations.
At my alma mater college, Iere High School, teachers like Patrick Jugmohan made one understand the difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks, volcanoes and plains. Ms Bhagrangee, Ms Dial, Ms Ramkissoon, Mr Westmas and of course last but by no means least, Rev Beharry all laid solid principles and concepts for young, questing minds. Similarly, at the University of the West Indies one cannot help but remember the old master himself, Lloyd Braithwaite, or the supreme lecturer John La Guerre (who taught without concept notes). Many saw Gordon Rohler as the ‘true’ Othello, while Earl Lovelace placed the fear of God into many by requesting something “new.” It is not that today we do not have good and even great teachers (we also have the not so good). For instance, whenever I call my mother I am constantly being asked to listen to my sister who is a principal of a primary school in south—with her methods and her children, and to my brother who introduced the concept of ‘restorative justice’ even before it became a buzz word. Colleagues across the globe are concerned at what has now become referred to as the massification of education, and it is heartening to know that these are issues that are discussed in both the board rooms, university conferences and even in the lunch rooms. All, it is evident, is not lost. Indeed, in a recent conference it was refreshing to listen to the passionate presentation of our Minister of Education as well as to the plans of the chair of the Teaching Service Commission. No doubt, there is concern by all parties and steps are being taken to halt the downward spiral—at least from the perspective of policy and by the introduction of new teaching methods and philosophies as well.
Nevertheless, there are dimensions to the problems which cannot be solved by the teacher or the lecturer alone. One of the major actors, of course, is the parent. While many parents may be illiterate, what is important is the recalling or ‘oral’ history and ‘oral accounts.’ Early childhood specialists will advise that learning begins in the womb—the more the child hears, the more his/her ability to understand and recall will expand. Children also learn from seeing—dogs, cats, chickens, plants. Children tend to understand the basic concept of life. Story telling too is one mechanism that strengthens comprehension skills and understanding. On the other hand, where the home environment is abusive, where there is obscene and abusive language, the child will also have no option but to adopt similar language and behaviour. All parents, though, do want better opportunities for their children. Perhaps, the methodology used by them may be wrong. Many parents are working parents. Hence the child moves from a daycare to nursery school to primary school. At a very early age, the child is virtually institutionalised.
There is little time for bonding with the parents since the weekends are spent in house work and grocery. The child becomes routinised...lessons and more lessons- no fun and even less caring. Perhaps this may account for the alien beings we have with us in the classrooms. Apart from the home environment, the wider society also exerts a strong pull. The values in society are reflected in the values adopted by our children. It is important to ask then, what are our values—fete, Carnival, holidays, parties, Louis Vitton, Ann Taylor, designer perfumes and clothes, money cars, blackberries, ipods and clubbing? Many of the ‘oldies’ cry for the finer things—music, poetry, opera. They certainly do not have a place in this society. In them trying to place values in our curricular, it will no doubt be an uphill battle. Technology, while it has allowed for development, has also retarded us. We cannot spell and many depend on spell check. Many cannot add, we depend on the calculator. We talk of critical thinking; in the old days everyone, even the dog thought critically. The massification of education is certainly upon us. Indeed, in thinking of the students—these alien beings (where did they come from and when?), I will end with a poem, the name of which I have since forgotten. It goes like this: “I see them on the streets and in my dreams...lost people... people who cannot think, who will not think and therefore are lost forever....who can help them? It is only they who can help themselves... the lost people of the lost world. Oh set my people free that they may live forever....” The final actors, then, are the students themselves. It depends upon them to make a conscious effort to be educated and also liberated.