Some more equal
When Bajans meet for the first time, whether at home or abroad, it only takes a short while into the conversation for certain questions to be asked in one way or another: where did you go to school? where do you live? What are your family connections? Your answers determine how you’re pigeonholed thereafter.
Unfortunately, our present system of education is one of the pillars upon which these class biases rest.
I remember a case in point in the 1970s when I taught at the Garrison Secondary School. I was teaching fifth form students how to write letters of application since they would soon be on the job market.
To my surprise, one female student sitting right in front of me wrote that she had attended one of the older secondary schools. Up to fifth form, this student had still not come to terms with the fact that she was “only at the Garrison”.
Nothing much has changed. In 2011, I’m hearing of 11-year-olds crying for hours, some until they actually vomit.; not only because they didn’t get into the school of their choice, but because they are assigned to a so-called “newer” secondary school.
While I agree with broadcaster David Ellis that these youngsters need to be counselled so as to get past these hurdles, I wonder how long it would take to undo six years of psychological damage inflicted on children by parents, teachers and the wider society.
By damage, I mean the messages subtle and otherwise that have been sent to them from kindergarten up. Remember the sheep in Orwell’s Animal Farm bleating: “Four legs good; two legs bad?” Similarly, the message has been drummed home to these children from very early: “These schools good; those schools bad.” By association, those who attend the schools are also so labelled.
To say that the female student to whom I referred earlier was ashamed of her school but not of herself is a specious argument. And that is the major issue I have with the Common Entrance Examination as it now stands.
Thousands of children are left every year with feelings of despondency, inadequacy and failure from which many may not recover. The “bright” ones may be disadvantaged as well, since at some later stage they may have to suffer the consequences of false notions of superiority.
But back to my teaching experience. I had almost given up on trying to get a young male fourth-former to write more than a few lines or say anything in class. Until I had the brilliant idea of allowing the class to talk about anything they wanted to during one lesson.
To my amazement, the young man volunteered, and to use a popular cliché, he blew us out of the water! Auto mechanics was his passion. He was obviously reading books on the subject. He drew diagrams on the board to illustrate his points. He held us spellbound for about 20 minutes answering every question we asked him.
How easily I could have missed this student’s intelligence because I expected him to respond in the traditional ways.
Let me make the point that I think excellence should be rewarded. But as it now stands, our educational system has too narrow a view as to what constitutes excellence. And while I want to take nothing away from the high achievers who do work very hard, isn’t that brightness often enhanced by the resources their parents have, including money to pour into extra lessons?
In any case, new research shows that there are several kinds of intelligences and not just the so-called academic kind on which we place so much emphasis. These must be explored and reflected in the way we design our curricula.
Can elitism be completely avoided? Perhaps not.
But above all else, our system of education must find a way to clearly demonstrate its belief in the value and significance of every single child.