February 11, 2001
By Raffique Shah
IN ordinary circumstances, most people would welcome politicians visiting schools and interfacing with students. Those of us who come from the “old school”, a time when “civics” and related general knowledge subjects formed part of the curricula in both primary and secondary schools, especially welcomed public officials and other decision makers speaking with, and answering questions from, students.
The lack of basic understanding among teachers and students of how government works, how the economy is structured, is appalling to those who were taught such fundamentals at an early age. So when teachers seize the initiative to expose their students (and themselves) to public officials like Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and Opposition Leader Patrick Manning, they ought to be commended.
But such sessions, especially when politicians are involved, should be confined to normal times. We do not now enjoy such luxury. The political hiatus in which we became enmeshed following the last general election has plunged the nation into a crisis of immense proportions, and worst of all one that allows for obscene politicking in which interpretations of the issues are clouded by race, rancour and partisanship.
This is why I agree with parents who take strong objection to Maharaj being invited to speak with their children at school. I believe, though, that such objections must extend to Manning as well, and to other protagonists in the current impasse. If Maharaj were to confine his address to matters relating to his ministerial portfolio, to how laws are drafted, how they reach Parliament, how they are proclaimed, and similar matters, one can have no quarrel with that. Or if Manning were to explain the role and functions of the opposition, that would be useful to students.
The reality, though, is that the impasse between President Arthur Robinson and Prime Minister Basdeo Panday is on everyone’s mind, and that includes students. This is especially true of those who are about to leave the cloistered world of the classroom and enter institutes of higher education or the rough and tumble of the job market, and more important, those who will qualify to vote soon. So even if Maharaj and Manning are mindful of these dangers, if they try to steer clear of contentious issues, the children are likely to lead them there during question time.
And that’s what has happened so far in the few sessions that Maharaj has held, and the one at which Manning was the invited speaker. For example, students asked Maharaj what was the rationale behind Panday insisting on naming seven losing candidates as senators and ministers. Maharaj’s answer depicted why he ought not to have been in that forum at this time. Panday, he told the young ones, had the power as Prime Minister to invite anyone to become a senator or a minister, so he was acting within the boundaries of his powers.
Of course if some smart student had asked him what made the “shameless seven” indispensable to the Government, why the PM could not source others who may be more qualified or talented for the Senate, Maharaj would have found some spurious answer for that as well. As an aside, I am myself intrigued by this thought. Daphne Phillips, for example, was a full Cabinet member during Panday’s first term in office. In fact, she was even granted a weekend of celebrity status when Panday named her to act as Prime Minister shortly before the last election. Now, if she does return to the Senate, it would be as a junior minister, a virtual “gofer”.
But that’s only part of the sinister side of having politicians in the classrooms at this politically turbulent time. What I fear most is their propensity for abusing the lecterns to muddle the minds of minors. Maharaj has repeatedly attacked the Chief Justice and the President of the Republic, nowadays using taxpayers’ money to buy full pages in the newspapers to peddle his one-sided views. Will that not colour the children’s minds, cause them to lose respect for the President and the Chief Justice? And if they can disrespect persons holding such high offices, who the hell are their teachers, especially now that they have a mandate from the Minister of Education to abuse their teachers?
Worse, our schools are the last bastions of innocence (in a manner of speaking) insofar as race relations go. It is heartwarming to see children of different races hug and help each other, share their meals or snacks, and generally live in a world in which race does not count. That is in stark contrast to the divisiveness that certain politicians thrive on, the poison they have planted in the minds of their supporters who can see the world only through racially and politically-tinted glasses.
With such politicians having access to these untainted minds, there is reason to fear that divisiveness will invade the schools, adding rising racism and partisanship to acute disciplinary problems that already besiege the system. As it stands, teachers have hell maintaining discipline in schools.
If we add racial and political polarisation to this volatile environment, the result may well be an explosive cocktail, the adverse effects of which none of us can begin to fathom. Politicians, using the gift of the gab can create this additional spectre that will grow to haunt our schools for years to come. Just picture in your minds Indian children on one side, Africans of the other (don’t ask me where the Chinese or Syrians or Whites fit in), raining bottles and stones on each other. Or students of one race or political persuasion lying in ambush for those of the “opposing” side. It’s a frightening thought.
But it’s not unthinkable or impossible, not when political animals like Maharaj are let loose in such fertile surroundings. Which is why I believe teachers, or better still TTUTA, should call a halt to politicking in the classrooms. In another time, under more politically stable conditions, yes. Not now, though. In the spirit of the Carnival season, the students may well ask, “Who let the dogs out?”
Copyright © Raffique Shah