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Emancipation and Education


August is usually a very challenging month for parents as they have then to marshal whatever resources they have to equip their children for school. There is no doubt that most Vincentian parents today fully appreciate the importance of Education. The majority, coming from poor backgrounds, realise that this is all they have to pass on to their children.{{more}} Furthermore they see Education as a way of providing for their children the opportunities that they never had. It is also for them an investment which they hope through their children will bring rewards to them later. The excitement surrounding the Common Entrance Examination must, therefore, be seen in this context. What remains puzzling in all of this is that this enthusiasm by parents is, from all accounts, not reflected or manifested in attendance at parent teacher meetings. They obviously do not fully appreciate the important role they have to play as parents in the education of their children. Traditionally, that was seen as the preserve of the teachers, and some parents have not moved away from that position.

But Education has always been a complex matter, and certainly cannot be isolated from the society that shapes it. August 1, Emancipation Day, is also in this sense a starting point for tracing the development of Education. Education was out of place in slave society. The plantations around which slave society was organised had no need for educated persons. Labour on the plantations demanded brawn not brain. Whatever limited education was introduced through the missionaries was for the teaching of the catechism. With emancipation and the restrictions placed on the ownership of lands by the emancipated, Education was virtually the only available avenue away from the pressures of plantation life. Education meant British education and was a passport to British civilisation that was supposed to separate those who were considered ‘civilised’ from those who were still controlled by what the elites of colonial society considered remnants of ‘African barbarism.’

Education is never neutral, and those who acquired the highest levels of British education were provided with the values and mindset that were supposed to create for them some distance from the community out of which they emerged and was still peopled by their family and friends. Rather than stimulating changes in society, Education reflects the society, its goals and values. The Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the search for socialist transformation spurred research into Black History and created calls for the recovery of the history of black people and into options for a different kind of society. In turn these movements of the 60s, 70s, and 80s were supposed to have impacted on and help to transform the society. The collapse of the Grenadian Revolution and the negative impact this had on Caribbean society aborted what might have been achieved. Today the growth of materialism and the focus on self have forced Education into a phase where the emphasis is on certification, another passport to material enrichment, and to the occupation of privileged positions in the society.

Emancipation was the start of a journey of liberation which was expected to have carried the legal freedom gained in 1838 to its logical conclusion. The Independence we acquired in 1979 failed to transform the society that remained in its essentials broadly colonial. There have naturally been changes in education over the years, but the system has never been geared to transform the society, rather it served to equip those who have benefitted most from it with the skills and opportunity to take over what the colonial system and society had to offer. It brought into the picture a group that had no interest in overturning the colonial structures since those could be made to serve their own interests. Our education is still producing bureaucrats to propagate a system that has largely been changed only legally and constitutionally from what existed in 1838. Those who have been educated under the system that exists do not accept any responsibility to assist the community from which they sprang. Education becomes a fashion parade to advertise the fact of movement from one level to another and to demonstrate how different they are from those that they have left behind. The system has built-in graduation exercises which are part of that fashion parade.

Education is really taking on or perhaps has taken on a different meaning. It is now to a large extent mere ‘certification’, handing out certificates that guarantee a better life and a privileged position in society. But we have to examine this trend closely for our economy is in such a tail spin today that there is no certainty of the kind of material benefits expected from those who parade their certificates. There is now no guarantee of jobs. Our education has prepared us to look for jobs, not to create jobs. We might just be coming to an interesting meeting point where those we have provided with opportunities for further study now have to contend with an environment where jobs that were supposed to ensure material comfort no longer exist. How will those equipped with the certification we provided for them react? It has to be said, too, that while we boast of the opportunities we offer for study we seem to have paid little attention to what happens after. The government is unable to provide employment opportunities for the hundreds who graduate from our educational institutions every year with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This is a serious issue for our private sector is still underdeveloped and unable to accommodate the numbers who are out looking for work.

Where we go from here is going to be important. We have to act fast because there is nothing more dangerous than developing a class of unemployed educated persons. If this crisis pushes them into creative enterprises then we will all benefit but if not then that is another story, with different consequences.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.