What does to educate really mean?

Dear Editor,

Most of us may not be aware of the relationship that exists between states that maintain publicly funded education systems and their citizens. Speaking generally, modern states invest in the education of their citizens with the hope that their education systems will feed back into their respective societies, influences that affect the rate of social and economic change, and the direction of their cultural evolution. This relationship could be termed a social contract.   Doubtless the most important agents of these influences are the individuals which schools produce.

The most cursory analysis of our local environment would reveal two paramount characteristics: a) technological backwardness, and b) man’s inhumanity to man. Violent crimes of all kinds, gross disrespect for the law, and anti-social behaviours at all levels of society abound.   No Guyanese with any civic sense can have lived through the last fifty years without experiencing a profound sadness at the general decline and deterioration in our society.

The accumulated evidence strongly suggests that the Guyanese school system is not feeding back into the Guyanese society a sufficient number of individuals who are capable of contributing positively to the rate of economic and social development, or to the direction of Guyana’s cultural evolution.   Indeed it may not be surprising if research were to find that the system is actually producing a greater number of functional illiterates and miscreants devoid of self-esteem than individuals who can make positive contributions to society.   There are two major reasons for this situation.

First are the poor economic and social conditions in Guyana and the consequent inability of the education sector to attract (or, the lack of political will to allocate) a sufficient amount of needed resources (financial and otherwise).

Second, despite political emancipation since 1966, Guyana has failed to exploit opportunities for the serious questioning of the fundamental assumptions and purposes that underlie and inform current education practice. The world of which we are part has changed drastically since 1966.   Trade relations and patterns are no longer what they used to be. Multinationals, trans-nationals, oil, and illicit drug cartels all of which threaten and corrupt governments have emerged.    Advances in various technologies while shrinking the world into one global village, with all that this implies, have further marginalized countries like Guyana.   In fact, both our internal and external environments have drastically changed.    As a consequence our current obsolete vision of education which remained virtually unchanged since our colonial era is vastly inappropriate.    Most of what has taken place in education in Guyana in recent years in the name of ‘education reform’ can be termed expansion, that is, more of the same. To continue to educate our youth with the assumptions and methods that were deemed appropriate for a colonial and servile people at this crucial period of our history is a profoundly self-destructive mistake. As a result we have been reeling from the consequences of our self-mutilation and self-destruction.

What Guyanese need to do most urgently is pause, stand back and reflect upon the critically important issues and questions in the education of Guyanese today.   For example: What does ‘to educate’ really mean?   What is educational freedom?   What is it that we want our schools to do? (What are the purposes of the nursery, primary and secondary schools respectively?).  And there are many more.

As we approach the end of the second decade (2020) of the twenty-first century, and the threat of increasing marginalization looms large, should education in Guyana still mean imparting certain facts and skills to students smart enough and disciplined enough to learn them as it was in our colonial days?   Should we continue with the ‘elitist’ type of education in which twenty-nine out of every thirty students are allocated to schools with less than adequate resources for a good secondary general education at the tender age of eleven, because they chose to be born to the wrong parents?

Each year approximately fourteen thousand  ten and eleven year-olds write the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA).   Approximately five hundred, or less than four per cent are awarded places in the top secondary schools in Guyana. Which small developing nation can continuously suffer this kind of severe bloodletting and haemorrhage and survive? How many young potential inventors and innovators, creators and producers of wealth have had their God given talents and capacities abruptly aborted? Can we still simply assume as stated in some very important official documents, that the primary purpose of our school curriculum is to meet the needs of society and the demands of the labour market? What about the needs of the education system’s most important clients – the young individuals? Should not their intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual needs be considered?   Are we dealing with young human beings in our schools, or are we dealing with objects and things? Is education in Guyana supposed to be a democratic process in which the rights of all children are to be given due cognizance and respected?  Are we in the process of building a democratic nation?   If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative then there can be no difference between processes and goals. We cannot plant limes and hope to reap oranges! Similarly we cannot promote division, elitism and classism and hope to build a nation of one people with a common destiny.

The relationship between school knowledge and the production of social inequality must now become a salient issue in Guyanese education. Social justice cannot be achieved by distributing the same amount of a standard good to children of all social classes. Education is a social process operating through relationships, which cannot be neutralized or obliterated to allow equal distribution of the social good at their core. That ‘good’ means different things to middle class and working class children, and will do different things for them or to them.  The given economic, social and political context in Guyana demands that we (including the universities whose entry requirements dictate secondary level curricula) rethink most urgently the issues of democracy, equity, social justice and quality and their implications for education for social cohesion and nation building in Guyana.

Finally, given the added context of the recent revelations in Guyana’s oil and gas sector, and having due regard for the age-old caution that certain “types of people and their money will part”, I would suggest that the most urgent task facing the entire Guyanese ‘leadership’ at present in a modern world, with modern technology, modern opportunities and modern problems is the task of modernizing and democratizing education in Guyana.  Such a process will not only ensure that our youth will be more capable of making positive contributions to the development of this nation in vastly superior numbers, but will also bring into being a greater measure of social justice than is presently the case.

Yours faithfully,

Clarence O Perry

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