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Learning and Education in Trinidad and Tobago

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 13, 2003

[This lecture was delivered at the National Association for the Empowerment of African People's conference, "African People and Education," that was held at La Joya, St. Joseph, Trinidad, on November 1, 2003. Professor Cudjoe is the president of NAEAP].

"Memory is a powerful collective instrument for preserving identity. And it's something that can be carried not only through official narratives and books, but also through informal memory. It is one of the main bulwarks against historical erasure. It is a means of resistance."

- Edward Said, Culture and Resistance

"I do not come armed with decisive truths... My final prayer: Oh, my body, always make me a man who asks questions."

- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Over the last weekend I attended two of the evening's performances of Pan Royale 2003, the Trinidad and Tobago Jazz Festival that took place on the grounds of Queen's Royal College. As I sat there canopied by the softness of the moon's lingering light, listening to the music and admiring the ornateness of the central tower, I thought of how much this institution had given to the world since its inauguration in 1858. I thought of the intellectual production of scholars such as W. D. Inniss (educator and mentor of Eric Williams), Eric Williams (historian and political leader), C. L. R. James (renaissance man, par excellence), Rudranath Capildeo (physicists), V. S. Naipaul (Nobel Laureate) Victor Stollmeyer (international cricketer), Louis Halsey Mc Shine (physician), Sir Hugh Wooding and Karl Hudson Philip (lawyers), William Demas and Lloyd Best (economists) and Peter Minshall (the High Priest of Mas) and the contributions they have made to our society. When the Lydian Singers joined Lydian Steel and climaxed their performance with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from The Messiah, interspersed with the haunting melody of Krishna Soogrim Ram Tassa Drummers, I knew they had tapped into a crevice of our culture that only needed to be explored to realize the most fecund and creative dimension of our people.

Trinidad and Tobago has much of which it can be proud. It possesses a deep reserve of linguistic and cultural capital upon which it can begin to reconstruct itself anew. Looking at how the Lydian singers and the Signal Hill Alumnae Choir transformed the basic ingredients (the folk song, the calypso, the steelband, the tassa, etc.,) of our culture into a new and dazzling synthesis, one could not help but think how splendid our society would be if, like these groups, we could put these elements of our cultural heritage together to organize a coherent society that uses its own indigenous talents, practices and endowments to take us to a new level of development--the developed society envisioned by our Prime Minister in Vision 2020.

From the outset, let me say it is all too easy to dismiss the Prime Minister's vision since we, in Trinidad and Tobago, have developed the discourse of cynicism to a fine art. Dr. Brian Harry, head of TIDCO, has observed that we are a "people who feel very passionate about being negative." We know all the ills of our society, yet we can never grasp its positives (one may even call it the positivities) and use them as a basis to move forward. Dr. Harry insists: "Developed nations have a can-do attitude. If we believe we can do, then we summon the intellectual capacity/reserves to achieve the things we want to do. A can-do people believe there is nothing they cannot do; nothing they cannot achieve. If we can only change the way we act and think, we can do anything we want to do as a society."

To speak of our cultural capital which Pierre Bourdieu claims is equivalent to one's economic capital is to ask whether our educational system has been transmitting such cultural capital from one generation to the next in a healthy, meaningful and purposeful manner. In fact, Bourdieu argues that the way in which "the cultural arbitrary" is transmitted from one generation to another "is equivalent, in the cultural order, of the transmission of genetic capital in the biological order." So that whether we like it or not, education must be seen as the transmission belt through which we convey and implement the socially desirable outcomes of the nation.

Such a proposition raises the following questions: Given the billions we spend on education in this country, are we getting our money's worth and if we are not, are those persons who we pay to deliver those services (that is, teachers, administrators, etc.,) really doing a proper job and if they do not do we hold them accountable? Such a question does not negate the role of parents or the community. It is neither a PNM question nor a UNC question. It is a people's question; a citizen's attempt to make those who are charged with delivering a vital service responsible to their clientele and to demand that they deliver the services for which they are paid.

Trinidad and Tobago spends a lot of money to educate its citizens. During 1983 to 1993, the education budget reached an all-time high of T.T $1.2 billion in 1984 and plummeted to TT 0.78 billion in1989. The authors of the National Task Force on Education noted: "Government expenditure has averaged about 13.6% for the period 1983-1993, declining to a ten year low of 12.0% in 1992...As a share in the Gross National Product, educational expenditure has been declining over the last six years from 6.3% in 1989 to 3.9% in 1993." From 1994 to 2004, the government spent a total of T.T 16.9 billion dollars in education, averaging about 10.84% of the national expenditure, roughly about 3.29% of the Gross Domestic Product. For this fiscal year, the estimate is T.T. 2.84 billion dollars, approximately 13 per cent of the national budget. The question is this, are we really getting the kind of value for the money we are spending?

When we started our freedom ride in 1838, the British government gave L34,000 to British Guiana and Trinidad (Tobago was not yet a part of Trinidad) "to be applied to purposes connected with the dissemination of religious instruction in one form or another throughout the country." In other words, when we started our educational journey we were being shaped to be good boys and girls to serve the ideals of the British Empire and the planter class at home. In Trinidad, "the clergy or the missionaries who were prompted to undertake the education of the slave were looked upon with an unfriendly eye. Not infrequently, open and acknowledged opposition was added to covert distrust and dislike."

In other words, to teach Africans or even to make demands on the system was a revolutionary act. Once education opportunities were offered Africans jumped onto the bandwagon and education as our means out of an oppressive situation. In this context, the life of Maria Jones, an enslaved woman who took advantage of the education system, became paradigmatic of the dedication of those slaves who gave themselves to the liberating possibilities of the word. Maria began her education at the age of sixty. Rev. Cowen who assisted her with her narrative, describes Maria as possessing "a strong, masculine, craving mind [with] a deep desire to know....The more she acquired the more she desired; the eagerness with which she sought instruction, not only from the school teacher, but on every hand, from anyone she could press into her service, is impossible to describe." On April 6, 1838, Thomas Belby, Secretary of the Mico Institute in Trinidad that was responsible for the education of Africans, wrote the following letter to the Port of Spain Gazette: "The apprentices themselves not only felt a great desire to receive instruction but, I believe have fulfilled their daily tasks in the neighborhood of our school with cheerfulness and satisfaction to their employers; and it is not an uncommon thing to see them, after school, chanting their hymns of joy and praise sitting with pleasure and delight listening to the voice of instruction."

Although we started our journey with tremendous disadvantages, we persevered and raised ourselves out of a quagmire of deferred dreams. It was not all sweetness and light for African people. On October 17, 1849, Rev. George Cowen, the first English schoolmaster employed by Mico Charity to promote the education of Africans in Trinidad, wrote to the Baptist Missionary Society in London: "In Trinidad our schools have not a very large attendance....You can have no idea of the deplorable state of ignorance that prevails in these parts. Among the adult population scarcely one in a hundred can read at all, and not one in five hundred so as fully to understand and be improved by it." Rev. Cowen must have been speaking of my great grand mother. My grandmother who was born around 1865 could not pay to go to primary school. As a result, she could not read and write until the day she died, a condition that she always rued. In those days one had to pay to go to primary school. Today, all and sundry can go to primary school since education was made compulsory in 1935. Our Education Regulations says that education is compulsory until the age of twelve.

However, when we hear of the catastrophe that took place in Point Fortin last week where Lawrence Reid, an obviously-disturbed brother, was accused of burning his seventeen month old child on a pyre of tires in his front yard our hearts go out to him. When we note that his three children "never registered at birth and have never attended school" and he ran the nurse and social service officers who came to "vaccinate" his children, we wonder how well and how effective our law of compulsory education is being carried out? Do we even keep the records of those who drop out from our schools after the age twelve? Last week, a caller to our office suggested that this is one area in which CEPEP can be effective. Why can't we employ some of them, with the necessary qualifications (perhaps persons with a few "O" level passes), to do this kind of work? We can make them School Attendant Officers who will follow up these children and be sure they are enrolled in school.

In 1935, reading, arithmetic, singing, drill, agriculture and nature study were the compulsory subjects of instructions in our schools. When I grew up it was mandatory that we work in the school garden. I also attended woodworking classes at Arouca E. C. School. After leaving primary school, most of us could read and write. Today, we live in a more sophisticated age, at least this is what we are told. In 1993, the National Task Force on Education, chaired by Carol Keller, one of our most distinguished sons, offered a White Paper, "Education Policy Paper, 1993-2003" that gave "a guiding philosophy for educational development...for the next decade." It said our educational system "will establish and maintain the ethical and moral values necessary for civilized interpersonal and intergroup relationships in our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society." It was supposed to achieve this goal through a program of "values education (multi-cultural sensitivities, aesthetic development, religious understanding, etc) [that] is a foundational element in the curriculum." After listening to the raucous debate in the Legislature a few days ago can we say that we have achieved those noble goals?

Looking towards the future, the National Task Force saw "a sound basic education" as a means for boosting economic development, protecting and sustaining what is best in our cultural heritage and acting as a bulwark against any decline in moral values." Can we say our moral values have improved over the last ten years and do we show the necessary respect for one another? Do we display the necessary moral discernment to create a more civil society? Indeed, one wonders how astute is the moral sensitivity of our religious leader when one of them, invited to open our Parliament, insults our Legislature rather than apply the healing balm that they all needed so desperately. Let us always remember that those who have been placed in positions of religious or civil authority over us should treat those obligations carefully. The words of our National Pledge admonish:

I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life
To the service of my God
And my country
I will honour my parents,
My teachers, my leaders and my elders,
And those in authority.
I will be clean and honest in all my
My words and my deeds.
I will strive in everything I do
To work together with my fellowmen
Of every creed and race
For the greater happiness of all
And the honour and glory of my Country.

In 1993, we spoke of our promise in education. Today our system is plagued by poverty and illiteracy. In 1992, the Ministry of Planning and Development established the poverty line of $623 per capita. At that time, 35.9 per cent of the nation's households were estimated to be poor. Today, the story is quite different. According to Social and Economic Policy Framework 2004, for the period 1990 to 2001, approximately 12.4 per cent of the population earned less than TT $ a day and 39 per cent earned les than TT $12 per day which suggest that thirty three per cent of the population earned less than $4,380 dollars a year . According to the CIA website, 26 per cent of our population now lives below the poverty line.

Our literacy rates are not that hot either. Twenty-three per cent of our adult population is functionally illiterate. Paula Lucie Smith notes that when one is asked to demonstrate these competencies, "23.1 per cent of the adult population can cope with some every day reading and writing, but not all. For example, they cannot read and understand some parts of the newspapers and simple directions on a medical label. The bottom line is that only 45.2 per cent or less than half, of the population can read and write."

Such a state of affairs led the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce to observe: "The current education system does not serve the majority of the nation's children. Our children enter primary school and the only concern is their SEA passes. Should they be successful and gain entrance into a good secondary school, the pressure is on to get CXC passes. The current education system suits the academically inclined who have the support systems to help with homework or pay for extra lessons." Romain Riley, a member of NAEAP, insists: "Teachers are not teaching our children. All the children who are excelling take lessons all over the place. Those who do not have the money to pay for lessons stay behind. Today, teaching is just a job to get some dollars. When they get there, they can't deliver."

The problem is not only one of teaching. It also has to do with an approach to pedagogy that suggests that a student needs not master the skills of a particular grade before he goes on to a higher grade. If a student has not mastered standard two he is still likely to be sent up to standard three because of his age, a system of passing through rather than being educated through the system. Such a criminal act cripples a child for his entire school life and ensures that mental blindness will fill his days and nights forever more. How is a persons supposed to survive when he cannot negotiate basic signs? What happens to the ten percent of our population who we know cannot read three of the following words: to, at, love, bet and sun. Surely, the picture gets worse when we speak about the mathematical, scientific and computer illiteracy of our present generation of students. Dr. Keith Rowley warns that as a result of "the politics in the education system in the year 2000, thousands of children in high school are now waiting to fail?" If such trends continue, it is almost certain that Africans will become the permanent serfs of our world, thrust back into a form of mental slavery that our parents climbed out of in 1838.

During the last few months, I have asked questions about the educational system. Every Tom, Dick and Harrysingh has tried to make a joke about my concerns. In a statement at our Emancipation Day celebrations, I raised questions about the enrolments at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the various practices at TTIT. I asked what an education should mean for a citizen in a multiracial society and the role education should play in our society's development. Simple questions to be sure but I was depicted as having asked for quotas, affirmative action and seeking to lower standards. The highest Indian guru in the land declared in Parliament that I was anti-Indian and unpatriotic. Yet African underachievement persists, what constitutes merit for university admission remains, and the systematic attempt to deny the Black man his equal place in this land continues to be a hot topic of discussion.

The latest manifestation of these problem revolves around a provision in the "Social and Economic Policy Framework 2004" (SEPF) in which COSTAATT, in a desire to promote improved student recruitment, retention and graduation rates, sought to "establish targeted recruitment programmes for male Trinidadians aged 17-24, especially Afro-Trinidadian males" as one of its principal strategy and measures. COSTAATT also sought to "establish mentoring programmes for male students to improve retention and achievement rates." Not concerned with the nuances of language or the distinction between the general and the specific, Subhas Panday, brother of the infamous Basdeo, thundered that this was an open form of racism against others in the country and that the UNC would take this matter to international organizations. He could not understand how an educational document could outline a proposal for the general male populace (all males) and then zero in on specific sub-set, Afro-Trinidadians males between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four. Had the Pandays, the Ganga Singhs and the Wade Marks looked a little more carefully at the document, they would have understood the context in which that declaration of policy was made and why the emphasis on African males. The introduction of SEPF document reads as follows:

The main body of the SEPF comprises the Human Development Agenda which presents policies that would ensure that economic growth becomes more inclusive and socially responsive and that all citizens particularly those of the more vulnerable groups, including, the elderly, unemployed, unskilled youths and the disabled are afforded equal opportunities for personal growth, self-expression and active participation in the rapidly emerging global community of which Trinidad and Tobago aims to be an integral part. Over the medium-term this objective demands a steady decline in poverty and unemployment as well as growing opportunities for education and skills development.

It is in this context that our government sought to place the specificity of the Afro-American problematic by asking how to treat such a vulnerable group. One does not have to be an inhabitant of Mars to know that Afro-Trinidadian males between the ages of seventeen to twenty four are a vulnerable group no matter how we choose to look at them. This group of young men is vulnerable to crime and AIDS and the chances of their being killed violently are much higher than any other group in the society. Although the 2003 Human Development Report ranks Trinidad and Tobago's level of human development as 54th among 175 countries and suggests that Trinidad and Tobago's classification "is shared with major developed countries such as Norway and the United States" one would be hard pressed to convince an Afro-Trinidadian from Laventille that this is true.

Things are also the worse at the level of incarceration. Professor Ramesh Deosaran who has done several studies on crime concludes that that "we seem to have a situation where the well-off districts in the country are heavily victimized by serious crimes which are generally committed by offenders who come from poor backgrounds." Although he is not sure whether poverty causes crime, he is certain that the wealthier a person becomes the more vulnerable he or she becomes as a victim of crime. He says: "From the overall data, inmates of African descent comprise for the highest proportion of convicted inmates at the nation's prisons (61%) whilst East Indians followed with 26%, 'Mixed' ethnicities with 13% and 'Other ethnic groups less than one percent." More importantly, of this 61% of African prisoners, 63% were 36 years and younger. When we hear that more prisons are to be built or to be upgraded, whom do we think they are building these prisons for?

If it is true that Afro-Trinbagonian males are among "the much more vulnerable groups" and it is the government's stated policy to afford them "equal opportunities for personal growth, self-expression and active participation in the rapidly emerging global economy," how does it become a racist act to insist that COSTAATT establish target programmes for such a group? If it is true, as the Green Paper on the Financial Sector of Trinidad and Tobago suggests, that "Education and health are important elements in the thrust towards the achievement of developed-nation status [in 2020]" and "these are vital to the development of the human capital base, which is of paramount importance to fostering a competitive and productive society," how can a serious government, especially a PNM government, offer an erratum for such an enlightened policy? We, at NAEAP, support such targeted programmes for Afro-Trinbagonian males and ask the government to honour such a policy. We also support the conclusion of the Cabinet Committee to Review the Financial Sector that "the Trinidad and Tobago of the future must provide its citizens with adequate educational opportunities for the development of individual potential and the attainment of a decent standard of living." Therefore, we are pleased that our conference has ratified a resolution that we will send to our government when this conference is finished.

Such a position leads us to an important deficiency in how we teach our teachers to teach reading. If the figures I cited about literacy rates are correct, then it stands to reason that training our teachers in reading should be a high priority in our system. Alas, this is not the case. Not one lecturer at our School of Education possesses a masters or a doctorate in the teaching of reading. Nor, for that matter, does our UWI's School of Education offer a Certificate of a Bachelor's of Education with the teaching of reading as a specialization. I repeat, there is not one lecturer at UWI School of Education who possesses a MA or PhD in the teaching of reading.

The history of this exercise is interesting. In 1985-88, the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine offered a Certificate of Education in the Teaching of Reading. About 50 reading facilitators were trained to work with Primary School teachers to improve their skills in the teaching of reading. By 1990 few reading facilitators were attached to the Curriculum Division of the Ministry of Education. Today, there are fewer than twelve Reading Facilitators in the system whose tenure is coming to an end. Is it really too much to ask the School of Education offer a Bachelor of Education with the Teaching of Reading as a specialization? Failing that, can we not offer a Certificate of Education with Reading as a major? In fact, reading and comprehension should be an integral part of every subject area. No teacher should leave the School of Education without having taken a course in reading comprehension. It is the only way we can begin to break the cycle of illiteracy that plagues us. If we do not teach our teachers how to teach reading they will not be able to teach our students how to read? Now that we have decided on universal secondary education it is imperative that we prepare our teachers to teach reading in their classes. A teacher should not leave the School of Education without having done a course in the teaching of reading.

The same is true in the area of mathematics, scientific and computer literacy. I was struck by Professor Stephan Gift's observation about our students' failure rate in mathematics and his admonition that teachers need to teach mathematics carefully to stop the downward spiral of our students' performance. Robert Moses has argued that "the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color is economic access. In today's world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy." He also advises that because "the new technologies give rise to computers and an every-widening use of symbol systems and quantitative data," schools and curricula "must put mathematical and scientific literacy on a par with reading and writing literacy." This suggests that African people cannot really hope to become successful economically unless and until they begin to master areas of science and mathematics.

The education system is not working for African students. I do not know whether some Indians teachers teach our children and/or offer the same tenacity when they teach African children as they do when they teach students of their own race. In their classes, too many African children can be seen sitting at the back of the class and there is a sense that many of these teachers attend to our children last, almost as an after thought. For example, I was told about a situation that took place in the electrical class at the Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School. The teacher of that class placed all of the Indian children at the front of the class and all of the African children at the back of the class. When the African children complained that they were not hearing, the teacher responded: "If all yo' listening, you go hear." The grandson of one of our most famous athlete who was in that class went home in tears. He pleaded with his grandfather not to go to the school to complain, so scared was he that he would be discriminated against if the teacher knew he had told his grandfather. He said to his grandfather: "Goin' to school would only make things worse." Responsible education officers in the Ministry of Education should look into matters such as these.

Correspondingly, I do not know if African teachers are as diligent as they ought to be when it comes to teaching our children and if they understand their responsibility towards them. Although I am sure that they understand their responsibilities theoretically, I am not too sure they know what a burden has been trust into their lap and how carefully they must guard the lives that are sent to them for their care and guidance. In this context, Africans must understand that whatever monopoly they felt they once had in the system disappeared a long time.

I am sure that the time is coming when Africans will have to look at different ways to educate our children. A caller to our office remarked that the elite "are doing something different with their children than we do not realize. Going to CIC or QRC will not necessarily cut it. There is little creative thinking going on there. We must find a way to educate our children." African parents are not satisfied with how teachers teach their children. They try to get around it by sending their children from one school to another one. But is this the only way to ensure that our children receive a proper education? Given the monopoly the religious bodies have on our schools, African parents many soon have to find different ways to teach their children.

In this context, African people may have to give serious consideration to organizing a Charter School, a publicly funded school, in which parents, teachers and community leaders come together to create their own schools to shape an education that is best suited to their children. I am not saying that there should be a mass exodus from the public schools. This is neither desirable of possible. But some parent must have the option to create alternative ways to educate their children with the assistance of the state. Such schools will have to be funded publicly to carry out their tasks. Class sizes will decrease so that real teaching may begin to take place again. In these Charter Schools, more innovation may take place, less bureaucracy will reign and more learning will take place. There is the additional advantage that these schools will specialize in various areas of the curriculum and will have to justify their existence by their results.

Whenever I begin to speak about these matters, I am aware that parents must involve themselves more centrally in the education of their children. Too many times parents refuse to become involved in the education of their children because they are afraid of being seen or thought of as being illiterate. Just think about it. If it is bad now, given the way things are going, it will be many times worse in the future. This is why I endorsed the suggestion that there should be a mandatory educational component in programs such as CEPEP and URP. If such a component is introduced, I am sure the entire approach to education will be changed in our communities if our children see their parents trying to come to grips with mathematics and reading, trying to use the computer and just picking up a book to read. Children learn by imitation. Seeing their parents read makes the need to know and to read culturally convincing.

This is one reason why we must change our approach to teaching and learning. Teachers must always present themselves as vulnerable and recognize that there is nothing wrong with not knowing something. It could be the first step to learning. Robert Moses acknowledges: "Presenting myself as a learner, in front of my students, helped me to understand what they were experiencing, and helped them to feel comfortable asking for help." This is why the story of Maria Jones, our enslaved sister, is so inspiring. In the immediate aftermath of slavery, "while many of those who accompanied her to the school simply looked and laughed at what they considered 'buckra's' foolish attempt 'to make nigger know book,' Maria manifested determination enough to present herself to her teacher, at the age of sixty years, with her head white and her eye dim, to lean the alphabet." She realized that not matter how old one is, it's never too late to know"

Our challenge is awesome: how do we reclaim all those brothers and sisters who are lost in a world of blindness, trapped by their inability to read the simple signs of life. Many challenges that lay ahead that cannot be dealt with today. The most immediate arises around the questions:

a) How do we test our schools on an individual basis to see how well they are doing;

b) How do we transmit our values, or our cultural capital, to our present generation when they cannot read or write and when we de-emphasize Trinidad and Tobago literature in the curriculum. Some scholars believe that we transmit the store of our cultural capital through the teaching of our literature and our history. It is about time that we band the reading of Shane from our curriculum;

c) How do we design our curriculum to teach our students about the process of human development that can be defined as "building identity, character, analytical and operational capability, and self confidence?" Student must be told and shown that they are worthwhile human beings;

d) How does chronic poverty and unemployment impact upon the non-education of Africans?

We must organize our teachers, our parents and our communities around our students needs. This is the major challenge that faces African people today. If we do not claim our young men and women, the prisons will. African students cannot be saved unless we master writing and reading; scientific, mathematical and computer literacy. No educated person in the twenty first century can exist without those skills. What transpires in our educational system today, particularly what transpires as education at our university, reminds that we live in an age of "packaged and commodified information" which the critical mind always has to question . Like Frantz Fanon, "I do not come with decisive truths." All I ask is that I always be a man who ask question. Whenever members of the public cease to ask questions; whenever we locate anyone or any institution beyond the scrutiny of the public gaze; whenever we anoint anyone so holy that he cannot be questioned, we abandon the fundamental precept of education and place our democracy in serious jeopardy. Stanley Aronowitz notes: "The visibility of the education system may be measured by the degree to which schools contribute to the stability of the social order by helping students to know their place within it and their responsibility to maintain it."

I make no pronouncement. But if we do not understand that the education of our children is our business we would have taken a backward step into the twentieth century. Indeed, the business of our children is too important simple to leave it to the education department, the teachers' unions or even the teachers. The time has come when we must state boldly that the education system has failed African people and we must do something about it. Since none of us possess any decisive truths, we must be prepared to reason together about how best to fix this thing called education. Only we, in our collective unity and wisdom, can we change how things operate today.

Just think it over; there is much to do. Why shouldn't we start the process of questioning today?

Works Cited

Edward Said, Culture and Resistance (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003).
Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory, p. 4

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