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Happy Indian Arrival Day: Documenting Indian/Trinibagonian History

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 01, 2014

"A child is as much wronged by being left uneducated as it is by being left unfed." Antoine Fortune, Public Opinion, October 30, 1888.

I endorse Sat Maharaj's offer of grants of "about $100,000 to local historians who wish to document 'authentic' East Indian history in the communities" (Express, May 25). Although I don't know what Sat means by "authentic" history or what constitutes misrepresented histories "by the children of converts," I still think his thrust is correct. We need to pay greater attention to our past so that we can better understand our present.

Indeed, we are woefully uneducated when it comes to understanding the history of the peoples of our society. While I concede that we have many skilled persons in our society (that is many excellent medical doctors, lawyers, financiers, etc.), we have few individuals for whom education includes an understanding of who we are as a people and a commitment to use that knowledge to better our society.

As the nation sinks deeper socially, culturally, and morally because of its top-heavy financial weight, we need to find ways to get us out of this morass. Although the entire nation was aghast at the assasination Dana Seetahal, few wondered at the mentality of those persons who used the guns that took her life.

Needless to say, there is a correlation between the education we receive and the quality of the citizens we produce. Children's education determines the social and cultural level of our society. In 1888 when some forward-thinking members of our society were clamoring for compulsory education for our children, Antoine Fortune, a member of the Trinidad Literary Society, made the following observations about the importance of education in shaping our society. He said:
  1. That the object of society is to protect individuals from wrong;
  2. That those who cannot protect themselves are as much entitled to protection as those who can;
  3. That children are as much entitled to protection as adults;
  4. That education is as necessary to a child as food;
  5. That it is as much the duty of parents to educate their children as it is to feed them;
  6. That a child is as much wronged by being left uneducated as it is by being left unfed.
During this period children were not compelled to attend primary school so few received a formal education. In fact, primary school education only became free in 1900. Yet the thrust of Fortune's concerns are still relevant today. Does our primary, secondary, or tertiary education prepare us for the demands of today's society? Do our educational programs contribute to lifting the social and cultural standards of our citizens? Does the creation of more universities (we now have approximately six universities) guarantee that we will construct a better society?

Today the Ministry of Education is jumping head over heels to accelerate its early childhood education program, implementing what it calls "seamless education" and repackaging its "values education" program. Through the International Children's Academy for Neurodevelopment (ICAN), the Ministry is in the process of accessing "the whole child at the foundational levels of development to first look at how well the child receives, processes, stores and utilizes information and then seeks to address issues through targeted intervention to improve processing levels" ("Support for a Seamless Education System Program"). The Ministry has even been encouraging something called "Happiness" Education.

Without being a pessimist, all these efforts will go for naught if we do not give serious attention to educating our children and adults about who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. Philosophically, the Ministry's Seamless Program argues that a "child's ability to adequately process information is a significant foundation cornerstone for preparing the child for education, learning and development" without telling us what is the purpose of this education, learning and development and what it intends to achieve? In other words, what are we educating our children for?

ICAN's goal revolves around the nature of cognition. Thus, it raises the following question: How, within the context of our short history, can ICAN address the "conscious mental activity" of our children without having an elementary understanding of who we are as a people and without being aware of the elements that have gone into constructing our conscious and unconscious selves?

Although a large percentage of our citizens possess more credentials than the previous generation, are they more educated than the previous generation? Do these credentials prepare them to function in a more purposeful manner in the society than the previous generation? Can we not argue that a person is profoundly mis-educated if he or she does not have a rudimentary knowledge of the history and culture of their society?

In his majestic text, Revolutionary Ideas, Jonathan Israel demonstrates how the philosophical ideas of "the Radical Enlightenment" were the driving force of the French Revolution whereas Thomas Piketty in his best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century has argued that economic deprivation was the real cause of that revolution. As we look at our society, do we see individuals who are willing to speak with such degree of authority about the intellectual and philosophical ideas that undergird our society? How many of us are even excited by such a discussion?

No society can go forward without trying to understand the ingredients that make us what we are, and this is where the relevance of Sat's idea comes in. If we do not excite our citizens about what makes us who we are, I am not too sure we can stem the degeneration that is taking place in our society today. If we don't know where we are going, how can we respond to any call for national regeneration?

We need to know the origins of Indo-Trinidadians, but we also need to know the history of all the groups that contributed to making us who we are. Indo-Trinidadian history is as much Trinidad's history as is Afro-Trinidadian history. Much of our history predates the coming of the Indians in 1845. Yet, the real key to our salvation lies in knowing all our history and figuring out how all these strands come together to form the biography of the Trinidadian and Tobagonian.

And while I am at it, may I say Happy Arrival Day to my Indian brothers and sisters.

Professor Cudjoe is writing a biography of William Burnley (1780-1850), the biggest slave owner in Trinidad. He can be reached at and tweeted at @ProfessorCudjoe.

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