September 5, 2014

Education and society

SVG is one hell of a place. Every day you learn something amazingly new. It is a country where we create and do our own thing without questions being asked. I was a bit confused when I saw a news item in last week’s Searchlight that “Frankie McIntosh received an honorary doctorate from homeland”. I first thought it was from UWI and was happy that he was being acknowledged in that way.{{more}} But on reading the piece I noticed that it was coming from the Association of Writers of SVG. This was something new for I have always known that ‘honorary doctorates’ were given by Universities or other degree – awarding institutions. This has got to be a first! I am sorry that Frankie is at the other end of it because he is someone who is not taken up with the idea of having degrees. He could have gone on to get any degree he wanted in his field. So is this a Vincy innovation! We are really very good at this type of thing since convention means little to us. But what was behind this incredible innovation? If it is to shame our country into accepting that a distinguished son of the soil deserves our recognition then so be it but do not expose him to anything that is bogus!

On now to today’s issue: Last Monday would have been one of the ‘big’ days of the year. It was a time as happens every year, when thousands of parents, guardians, well wishers, children, teachers and education officials are mobilised in preparation for the start of the new school year. Over the past months education has been very much on the front burner as we responded to and highlighted the achievements of our students and young ones at the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment Exam and at CSEC and CAPE. The newspapers have been, over the years, highlighting the top achievers as the country celebrates with them. The school year has started and hopefully things are getting back to normal. Students would have renewed acquaintances and met new friends, grown accustomed to their new uniforms and all the excitement that goes with a new school year.

Now that we have gone through all of that, we as a society have got to begin to ask some serious questions about education. There are those who become offended when you ask questions; some in fact accuse you of being hostile to the “education revolution” whatever that means. But countries all over the world, including the US, have been asking critical questions about education. Society is changing so rapidly that education is often left behind if we are not in a position to anticipate developments taking place. We have to always remember that education can never be isolated from society and developments in society.

While we have highlighted the top achievers we have to ask questions about those who did not make it. What is their future, remembering the slogan, ‘No child shall be left behind’. We seem to forget them and there are few questions asked about them. Who are they and what are their numbers? I am not suggesting singling them out, but in doing our plans and preparations we need to bear in mind that there is a category that demands our attention. What is important is the level they are at since in some cases they would not have another opportunity in the school system. We need to find out the reasons why they have been left behind and seek to address whatever shortcomings exist. What are they equipped to do?

I have over the years been raising the issue of certification as the focus of education. Let me not be misunderstood here. Certification is important at the personal and societal level because the society cannot adequately function without it. I was reading an article recently about education in Mexico by David Toscana. He makes the point that he was looking at an advertisement from a restaurant in Mexico that needed dishwashers. The successful applicant needed to have a secondary school diploma. In our case we have to remember that at one time in order to become a policeman/woman or nurse you were required to have a primary school leaving certificate. Today, passes at the secondary level are demanded. But as I believe, the Prime Minister highlighted recently, we have also to look at qualitative measurements rather than just quantitative.

Today’s society calls for all-rounded individuals. The average individual can expect to have different jobs in his lifetime compared to years ago when persons remained largely in fixed jobs/positions. One therefore has to prepare himself/herself for fitting into different areas of employment and for functioning in a society that is changing rapidly. How is our education system responding to this? We have also to put more emphasis on critical thinking. Changes in society are so rapid today that by the time you leave any institution of learning you are likely to encounter a society that is very much transformed. To function in such a society you need critical thinking to enable you to deal with new challenges and new situations.

I am not sure how many schools have active clubs/societies such as debating, public speaking and reading. These and other relevant ones can contribute enormously to developing the kind of individual needed and in preparing the student for life outside of the formal educational walls. Toscana in his critical look at education in Mexico had the following to say “We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees with no intellectual challenges.” Hence my call for us to move beyond certification!

There is need for a continuing conversation on this matter.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.