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Raffique Shah


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Dumbing-down dangers

September 05, 2004
By Raffique Shah

WHEN the UNC Government introduced universal secondary education during its tenure in office, many parents across the nation applauded the move. It was seen as the most progressive move since Eric Williams freed parents from burdensome school fees at that level back in 1959. Or when Williams, cashing in on the first oil boom, plastered the country with junior and senior secondary schools that absorbed everyone barring the dyslexic and the dunce. Today, with Panday's "model school" students having reached the CXC level of education minus the passes, and Eric's schools churning out more delinquents than scholars, we really need to critically re-examine our education system before plunging into the deep end, as politicians are wont to.

I do not pretend to be an expert in the field, having to my discredit only two levels of education-secondary up to Cambridge School Certificate (now CXC or GCE) and Sandhurst, which offered a good mix of military and academic subjects. But I dare say I can enter the debate on the future of our system because I firmly believe many of those who are qualified and empowered to decide on our future course remain trapped in the myopia of mediocrity. Last week, Tertiary Education Minister Colm Imbert announced that UWI at St Augustine would increase its enrolment, and by the stroke of a pen, one technical institute has been made a "campus" of the new University of Trinidad and Tobago.

The popular decision to fast-track our students from poor-to-ordinary grades at the CXC and A-Levels to technical diplomas or university degrees has resulted in a decline in the standards achieved by these "graduates". I have seen many a UWI graduate, or worse, "post-grads" from several American universities, write simple applications for jobs that were replete with green verbs and pink adjectives.

I am not suggesting that there aren't very bright, well-rounded students emerging from our education system. Indeed, I would argue for a special school for such students to allow their minds free rein, although I know I would be slammed for promoting elitism. But the facts are there for anyone wanting to seriously examine them. The reality, however, is that the percentage of students who can be included in this lot is little different to what obtained 50 years ago (note well, detractors, percentage, not numbers). Which signals that while we may have progressed in quantity, we have stagnated, even declined, in quality.

The other argument used for re-directing the focus of our institutes of higher education is that we need to tailor our curricula to meet the needs of a modern, industrialised country. In other words, once our "graduates" know how to drill for oil or "tighten nuts" on an oil platform, or if they are capable of hacking into computers, they are well equipped for the diverse requirements of an increasingly industrialised and technologically oriented economy. But in striving to meet these needs, we must consider whether or not we are sacrificing all-round development at the altar of materialism. Sure, it's wise to produce employable young people, especially in this oil-and-gas-endowed country. But should we, in another generation or so, be a society devoid of thinkers, of philosophers, of intellectuals?

I need add that this problem of declining standards in education is not confined to this country. In England, the debate over current A-Level standards and the quality of graduates from once highly acclaimed universities there, rages. In a piece titled "Drilled, Not Educated", The Guardian's Jenni Russel argued that the annual rise in A-Level passes can be attributed to sheer growth in population, in the numbers of students sitting the examination. "Parents of children with three As are furious when their children aren't offered Oxbridge places, because they don't understand the statistics--Twenty years ago, when 15 per cent of the population sat A-Levels, 10 per cent in every subject were awarded an A grade. This year more than a third of the age-group sat the exam, and more than a fifth got an A grade. No wonder universities are having an impossible time distinguishing between clever students and brilliant ones."

And in even more telling letter to UK Education Minister Charles Clarke, his Cambridge colleague Colin MacCabe, now Professor of English at Exeter University, wrote: "Nobody who teaches A-Level or has anything to do with teaching first-year university students has any doubts that A-Levels have been dumbed down. When you and I took A-Levels we were competing against all other candidates: 30 per cent were bound to fail and the 70 per cent that passed were divided proportionally into five grades. Only around ten per cent of those taking the exam could get an A. This year fewer than four per cent failed the exam and more than 22 per cent got As."

He added: "An A-Level should not be a competition pitting pupils against their peers, but an absolute standard. And once we have set an absolute standard, it should not surprise that we do get better results every year. There is considerable evidence that the overall standard of secondary teaching is higher than ever, and that more pupils work harder than in our day. There has, however, been much greater change in A-Level marking and one that comprehensively changes the nature of the A-Level as an intellectual test. In our day students doing arts subjects were marked on their ability to write essays. Grades were awarded on the basis of the candidate's ability to generate an argument in relation to a question. The writing of the essay has been the key intellectual form in undergraduate education for more than a century."

Professor MacCabe argued against "continuous assessment" which was introduced in the UK in 1987. He accused the minister of "throwing away a first class undergraduate system presumably because you believe it's cheaper to provide a rote system." And he said he was shocked when the minister said that "the universities have got to learn that their only job is to teach skills which are directly relevant to the economy." To cap off his argument, MacCabe wrote: "Predicting the job market has been impossible since industrialisation more than two centuries ago. What universities can do is train people to think, assess, and make judgments in relation to the wide variety of disciplines, secure in the knowledge that such training is both good in itself and of value for almost any future intellectual activity."

I could not have put it better. I should like to read what those who are guiding us down the path of job-oriented education and training, not to add "dumb" graduates, have to say on the issue.