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Spinning Top in Mud

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 15, 2011

Trinidad and Tobago ought to pause a moment; catch its collective breath, and then ask: where are we going as a nation. Anyone who viewed the video about Niyoka Folkes, a student of Barataria North Secondary School or saw the pummeling she received or the photographs of her bruises that appeared on the newspapers, cannot help but wonder at the sad turn of events at our public schools. That even an adult jumped in to add her blows seems to a dispassionate observer that our society might be going mad.

Tim Gopeesingh, the minister of education, admitted that violence among our children has become more prevalent and concedes that the "beating" of Niyoka signals a disturbing trend. His determination to place additional guidance counselors and school safety officers in schools is commendable but his efforts must go further than that. He is correct to point out that this escalating problem has its roots in previous governments.

Under the circumstances, most citizens look forward to the findings of the government-appointed task force that was appointed to look into this matter. Whatever recommendations this committee comes up with they must begin at the level of the head: that is, how we inform and influence our students' behavior and how the state articulates its educational goals.

Over the past decade-to use the Minister's frame of reference-we have seen a society in a mad rush to obtain academic credentials. The previous government mantra, "from nursery to tertiary," suggested that once a person possessed academic credentials -and that is all that formal education gives a person-then the society would be heading towards nirvana.

Alas, this has not been our experience. The more degrees and formal education we receive the more the social and cultural levels of the society drops. In fact, one can construct a graph that illustrates a correlation between the bestowal of these pieces of paper (degrees) and the relative diminishment of the social and cultural levels of our society.

Nor do I think we should offer the out-played beliefs that the central cause of this breakdown has to do with a corresponding breakdown in family life. There may be some truth in this observation, but the social breakdown in our society has a lot to do with the system of values that we, as a society, has constructed (and espouses), the mindless accumulation of degrees we confer, and the feverish concern with material progress.

In 1969 Dr. Eric Williams captured the atmosphere that pervaded in the island during 1911, the year of his birth. He described the educational system as follows: "The illiteracy of the masses, the semi-literacy of the numbers of the literate, the numbers of children excluded from the primary school, the exclusiveness of the secondary school, the predominance of the English influence and the subordination of all things Trinidadian-all these necessarily determined the cultural life of the island and influenced its literary [and cultural] tastes."

Social behavior has deteriorated over that period. We have deviated from the relative respect we had for one another; the concern we had for our neighbors; and the imperative that we be our brothers and sisters' keepers.

Chief among the English influence of which Dr. Williams spoke was the ability of the state to influence social, cultural, and civic behavior via the ideological apparatuses that it put in place to control "the natives." Although the center of government lay more than three thousand miles away, the colonial power controlled our approach to life almost as efficiently as Adam Smith's "invisible hand" dictates public behavior in economic life.

In the 1950s when I attended primary school we began each day by spending an hour on religious education the sole purpose of which was to inculcate certain values-in this case-religious-into our young, receptive minds. We also spent some time on civic education, a thing of the past. Collectively these practices inculcated certain behaviors by which and through which our students lived and died.

C. L. R. James chronicled a similar process at secondary school. He says: "I had been brought up in the [British] public-school code...From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me. I learnt it as a boy, I have obeyed it as a man and now I can no longer laugh at it."

This is where we can learn a lot from our colonizers. They knew that if they wished to rule a group of people who were different they had to capture their minds rather than their bodies. Once they captured their minds, then they could control their bodies and, by extension, their behaviors.

It is a technique that we ought to apply to our educational institutions today. From September, our schools need to devote one hour each day to the inculcation of desirable values into our children. We may have to sit down as a group-as in a panchayat or a palaver-to determine what those values ought to be. Without a concentrated effort to capture the minds of our young people and outline virtues by which they must live we are only spinning top in mud.

Some may argue that this might be a little too late. As an educator, I am convinced that this the only way we can turn back the savagery that we are producing among our young students.

One hundred years ago our students did not have the spacious buildings and the modern accoutrements that their counterparts of today possess. Concubinage or shacking up was prevalent but students (and teachers) were guided by common values. It's only by transforming the ways in which our students see the world-that is, by capturing their minds-that we can hope to reverse a trend that will continue to spread if we do not active in a urgent manner.

It is imperative that we act immediately to save our society.

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