The Dismal State of our Public Education
B. Waine Kong
What is the difference between a housekeeper and a doctor? In many instances in Jamaica, its one generation. Against all odds, through mentoring, education, perseverance, taking advantage of opportunities abroad and focused individual effort, some rise up from poverty and achieve greatness. But no one succeeds under only his or her own steam. It really does take a village to nurture a contributing member of society. Education is the vehicle in which the privileged transfer privilege and the lack of education is also the vehicle in which we transmit poverty, powerlessness and frustration from one generation to the next.
For the aficionados of cricket, do you know the intent of a “Test Match”? I am told by knowledgeable sources that it was a test of loyalty to the crown. Operatives were strategically placed in the crowd to identify people who applauded the English team and criticized the Jamaican team. In other words, only those who identified with the oppressor were chosen to be educated and offered leadership opportunities. So, our government and educational institutions became overwhelmed with those who celebrated the ways of the British and devalued anything Jamaican as butto (Bantu). It didn’t matter how smart, skillful, eloquent and charismatic you were, if you did not speak the Queen’s English or didn’t know how to use your knife and fork you would be excluded. So, these things are highly valued in Jamaica. Does it really matter how food gets into your mouth? I am certain that many British oriented Jamaicans would say yes. But in oriental cultures, people use chopsticks and many advanced civilizations use their hands. Does it make them less civilized?
In my reading of Sidney Poitier’s book “Life Beyond Measure”, I had a good laugh when he wrote that before he was rich and famous, he fell in love with a Jamaican beauty and went to a family dinner to ask her father’s permission to marry. Her father vetoed the marriage because Mr. Poitier did not have table manners and could not use his knife and folk correctly. Years later when Mr. Poitier had married someone else and had in fact become rich and famous while the Jamaican beauty faltered in her relationships, the father had an occasion to meet Mr. Poitier and confessed that it would have been different if he had known the humble Sidney Poitier was going to turn out to be the great Sidney Poitier.
The elitist approach to education we inherited was designed to guarantee that Britannia ruled. We are now independent but Britannia continues to rule. Traditional Jamaican high schools are undeniably one of the great educational experiences in the world but only for the few who are chosen. At the same time, we relegate the majority of Jamaican children powerless and untutored. Can anyone believe that our children only go to school for a half a day? Because we lack classroom space, we must accommodate split shifts. In Japan, children go to school for eight hours per day, six days per week and in addition, are required to do an enormous amount of homework. The final insult is to convince the poor in Jamaica that their condition is a result of their own weak-mindedness, lack of character and ambition.
A massive overhaul is needed. Presently, our society is populated at the bottom of the economic and social ladder by darker-skinned people. In a true self fulfilling prophecy, we do not provide relevant educational opportunities because we believe it is would be a waste of resources, we then pull the rabbit out of the hat and declare that their impoverished circumstance is their fault, not recognizing that we placed the rabbit in the hat in the first place by not investing in them. The poor are made to feel inferior, unable to learn and treated like outsiders because they have committed the crime of being poor. To say that the poor are treated like criminals is an understatement. Somehow this must change. We must start by asking our police and government bureaucrats to be as respectful to poor people as they are to the rich and on a long term basis, reconstitute our educational menu.
While we should build on our strength and exalt what is currently exemplary, we must also include more of our children under the umbrella. No child should be left behind. The children of Jamaica should never feel that they are incapable, helpless and unable to change their circumstances. But this is what I encounter.
Our present state of affairs is that we spend lavishly on the education of a few who then abandon us. Less than 20% of the doctors, nurses and pharmacists remain in Jamaica after we train them but we do not invest resources on the ones who stay. The brain drain from Jamaica to the United States, England and Canada is astounding. What about the needs of our own society? Will we have to end up importing the doctors, nurses and pharmacists we need from somewhere else?
Our schools can be agents of positive change if the curriculum is relevant to people’s lives. Our government should stop thinking that our people are burdens and mouths to feed rather than talented and gifted people who will advance our cause if they are offered an education. You cannot begin to imagine the inventions, productivity and solutions for our problems that will follow if the masses of Jamaican children felt empowered, valued, self confident and safe! We have a long way to go to remedy the historical neglect for this segment of society.
It is Jamaica’s shame that up to a third of our citizens are illiterate and must buy their driver’s license. It is a disgrace that with the outstanding gene pool we have that so few pass critical exams or can even write a decipherable sentence. How will we compete on the world stage? The solution is in the resolve of our society, strategic planning and the appropriation of adequate resources. Let’s make academic success the rule rather than the exception. If you think educating our people is expensive, try ignorance.