In his book The emergence of a Science Society in England 1800-1965, GW Roderick reports that when the renowned German philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt was asked to explain Germany’s phenomenal rise as the most powerful nation in Europe around the beginning of the nineteenth century, Von Humboldt’s succinct response was: “What you want the nation to be, you must first put in your schools”.
The literature of comparative education would reveal the vital part that education has played in building the nations of America, China, Germany, Japan, and Russia. More recently, within the last fifty years education has been in the vanguard of national development in Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. Education policy-makers in these countries have all had their respective visions of the kind of society and nation that they deemed desirable, and in their respective policies and practices they have given due cognizance to the natural principle that function is inherent in structure.
In the Caribbean region, however, in addition to scientific and technological backwardness, and the existence of vast socio-economic inequalities, the past fifty years have been characterized by numerous reports of armed, domestic and drug-related violence particularly in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and more recently, Antigua and Barbados. These territories have all inherited an education practice that has proven to be inappropriate for their
(industrial and social) needs. Their failure to achieve greater regional integration after the Proclamation of the Treaty of Chaguaramas is illustrative.
It is suggested that the above phenomena, which may even be more widespread in former British territories than we care to acknowledge, are outcomes of British colonial educational and other institutional policies designed to buttress their overall colonial administrative policy of divide and rule. Guyanese have therefore inherited a country that is divided – weak. This is untenable – a house divided against itself, cannot stand. Unless we redirect our cultural evolution, the Guyanese nation will be stillborn.
Education practices in Guyana must assist in the mitigation, and ultimate reversal or obliteration of the effects of centuries of British colonial indoctrination. Among other worthwhile outcomes, our educational policies must aim to facilitate, and nurture trusting relationships between all Guyanese (all ethnicities). Educational practices must help us to understand, accept, and mutually respect each other. This foundation of trust, acceptance, and of mutual respect is an essential prerequisite for the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the emergence of ethnic reconciliation. The widespread achievement of this psychic state would eventually allow Guyanese to cohere socially, and ultimately build a true Guyanese nation in which there is a place at the table for everyone.
This is not only an imperative, but given our present economic and social realities, it is a dominant challenge for education in Guyana. To reiterate, a paramount purpose of education policies and practices in Guyana must be to facilitate, nurture and enable nation-building through widespread reconciliation, and social cohesion. It is, therefore, obligatory for our decision-makers to ensure that steps are taken to remove all impediments (this includes current educational policies/practices), and other obstacles that stand in the way of achieving widespread reconciliation, social cohesion and a national consensus without further delay. We can learn from what is currently taking place in Singapore.
Singapore was granted independence in the same year (1966) as Guyana, and has created one of the world’s highest performing education systems in five decades. During most of those decades educational policies in Singapore emphasized the achievement of high grades and qualifications (matriculation). However, during the past few years it was realized that the same educational policies and practices which pushed the country into the top place in the international rankings for education was at the same time widening the social divide, and was no longer supporting the social mobility they were meant to bring about. As a consequence the government of Singapore has decided that it will no longer sacrifice social cohesion – the building of a more equitable society, and a stronger social compact among its people ‒ at the altar of academic excellence. The purpose of education in Singapore has now been expanded to include the development of character. The new focus of the school system is on keeping students positive and resilient – enhanced self-esteem.
Among the steps taken by the government of Singapore are:
- policies to discourage parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools, and place more emphasis on values;
- encouraging schools, especially in the early primary years, to scrap standardized examinations and focus on the development of the whole child;
- adopting an approach in schools which advocates that the best schooling must include educating children on values and character, as well as how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves and work towards achieving those goals (contest mobility);
- encouraging schools to create a school culture that supports caring, trusting relationships. The focus is on specific skills that assist students to build positive emotions, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness, and encourage a healthy lifestyle.
- At the secondary level young Singaporeans are taught to be empathetic, socially responsible and active citizens in their community. Students work on projects that serve the elderly, and read to latchkey children in daycare centres.
- At the ministerial level, in order to enhance equity the education ministry has also spread resources more evenly across schools by rotating experienced head-teachers to schools that need to be more effective, and pay more attention to academically weaker students.
- Government leaders have expounded a wider definition of success beyond academic grades. Further, the media and elite schools have been discouraged from showcasing top students and their academic achievements.
To conclude, I wish to reiterate that understanding the developmental role of education is not an optional matter for our decision-makers. It is an imperative. There is a tremendous amount of essential preliminaries that have to be completed before our school system can be transformed into a quality education system. The claim of the transformation can only be made when the new system not only meets the needs of its students, but also meets the needs of its teachers, and the needs of the wider society and environment. It will be a long, resource demanding, and arduous journey before this goal could be attained. But it can be attained if we are smart.
Over the past two years I have offered my assistance on numerous occasions, and although I did receive an acknowledgement once, I am yet to receive any official response (written, or oral), as to why my several offers have not borne fruit. I did, however, have a good chuckle when I read recently in the media that President Granger is reported to have recently told an audience in New York: “We don’t need barrels, we need your brains”.
In Guyana the ascent from rhetoric to reality appears to be exceedingly steep!
Clarence O Perry