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Emancipation and Self-Reflection

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 23, 2008

Most of us will revel in African sartorial splendor during the next week. Such displays signal a magnificent achievement of which the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) should be proud. It has made African Trinbagonians aware of their heritage and, at least for a week, makes us reflect on the land of our origin. As we reflect, it is well to ponder how this awareness coincides with our threatened re-enslavement in our adopted land.

In a not-so-uncoordinated moment Sat Maharaj, "Religious Schools on Top" and Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie, "The Long-Term Solution" (Guardian, July 17) advanced theses about why East Indian children are doing better than African children in primary and secondary schools. Each used the SEA and CXC results respectively to bolster claims that there are things inherent in Indian schools (mostly rural) that are absent in African schools (mostly urban) which explain our retrogression in the field of education (Sat) and its implications for the growing crime rates (Dr. Tewarie).

Sat notes that religious schools copped 87 of the top 100 places whereas the government schools received the other thirteen. He did not tell us how the next 900 places were distributed but concludes that "the Government has a lot to learn from the denominational schools" which should be expanded. "These schools excel because of the role given to religion in the educational system. The secular and the sacred must form part of our school curriculum."

Dr. Tewarie makes a connection between the urban areas in which crime is rampant and the poor showing of African students in those schools. Although he does not say that one is the cause of the other, the conditional nature of his propositions suggests that crime may be "affecting the quality of education received by our children in those school" and they may be "spawning the raw material on which criminal gangs are being built." If these propositions are true, such schools may be "the source of our cultural nightmare and would require special attention."

No one in his right mind would dismiss the results of the SEA and CXC examinations or deny they tell us something about the non-performance of African children. However, I am not inclined to believe that the "religious" character of schools is the key to students' performance on examinations. The long histories of Hinduism and Catholicism assist in creating an atmosphere in which children learn. They impose discipline among teachers and students and imbue them with moral and cultural ballast that serve them in good stead.

Non-denominational schools are failing because teachers and students are not subjected to a similar discipline and are not inclined to teach our children. Invariably, high teacher absenteeism and low expectations of students prevent learning from taking place. In fact, one wonders if the principals and teachers bring the same zeal and commitment to their jobs as do their counterparts in the denominational schools.

Both SEA and CXC are exam-driven. Such drilling does not conduce to students becoming educated and well rounded. Learning that priorities outcome over process denies students "the resources, encouragement, and space to reflect and discover for themselves where their interests and strengths might lie." It also encourages a culture "that privileges conformity and a narrow academic model of competitiveness." (Kenneth Paul Tan, New Politics for a Renaissance City?).

Poor school performance and a rise in crime rates may be coterminous rather than causal factors. As Dr. Tewarie observes, such behaviors suggests a failure to involve the community, the family, and the students in a partnership that emphasizes academic excellence and civic responsibility. Among the students, it might also signal a lack of self-esteem, self-confidence and faith in their life chances. Most of these children believe they will not live to see their thirtieth birthday.

The lowered performance of African children suggests that the breakdown in urban communities has reached epidemic proportions which calls for a re-emphasis on civic values that target the family and the community and alert government to the festering of this social wound. As Barack Obama suggests in another context, these are our children rather than African or Indian children who are calling out for help.

We cannot ask government to do what parents have a responsibility to do but there must be a national consensus that our children are at risk. Unless African people understand that transformation begins with our actions then we are setting up ourselves for a return to voluntary enslavement for which we can blame no one.

The education department should partner with organizations such as the ESC and NAEAP in the academic enterprise by offering after school, summer and other enrichment programs. Just as Sat knows how to educate Hindu children, many of us in the African community know how to educate our children and liberate them from poor performances, diminished self-confidence and the loss of self-esteem.

The emancipated has the power to rearrange the shards of broken promises that formal emancipation generated but it will take the cooperation of all of us to make the society whole. Self-reflection, commitment, and targeted action ought to be the dominant sentiments of Emancipation Week.

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