Monday, 17 September 2012

The Higher Education


There is an increasing amount of tertiary education but there is  little higher education in Trinidad and Tobago .

To justify this statement we have to distinguish between education and the system of education; between formal education and all the informal ways in which people learn.

We also have to notice that certain terms that are used in discussions about education obscure the reality in which the people of our island live. Take for instance the terms ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ that are commonly used to describe the system of education. They sound objective, even scientific. But what these conventional and  structuring terms have suppressed for a long time is that half of our young people exist in a festering gap  between the Fourth and Fifth forms of the Secondary institutions and Year One at the University.

No society in which this gap exists can congratulate itself on providing proper or appropriate education for all.  Wherever in the world this gap exists and is not addressed, there are distressing social problems, including the invasion of the schools by behaviours associated with those people who have been consigned to a twilight world turning, for them and for us, into a frightening dark. 

An education system plays a part in educating people if the system is devised from within and is shaped by facing the  facts, by  taking into account everything that is around you including poverty, social inequity, and unexpressed grief and longing.  Only such fearless looking will make  it possible to find out what is needed,  and to discover after all, miracle of miracles,  that you have the resources to create a system that matches people and place. 

Think of the science of materials and the acoustic science, the higher education, possessed by those who with no formal tertiary education, no labs, and no research assistants experimented and experimented, and came up with pan.

I haven’t said as yet what I mean by ‘higher education’, because I plan to build up a sense of what it means in stages. Higher education includes the ability and the civic determination to turn ‘higher education’ into an instrument through which you ‘see’ your world, and also  a tool that can play a part in the common project of fixing that world.

We can get some more insight into higher education by remembering the late Lloyd Best  whose thought should be part of the higher education of all the citizens in our country. Best  coined the term ‘the validating elites’ to describe the many people who had tertiary degrees but who did not have what I call  a  higher education.

These Trojan horses lazily acquiesced in and validated the importation or ‘outsourcing’ of political systems, educational goals and economic arrangements that, ironically,  created an imitative society in the early ‘independence’ period.  These dictatorial elites  chain us even now  in expensive dependency with their unexamined yearning for ‘first world’  or ‘developed country’ status, and their (profitable) penchant for ‘outsourcing’. 

Those of us who survived ‘a sound colonial education’ and tertiary degrees from abroad learned not to reject it or succumb to it, but to turn it upon itself in the spirit of Caliban but with far greater technical resources than Caliban ( So: “You taught me your language and now I am Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison,  Jamaica Kincaid, and C.L.R. James taking you beyond all boundaries and asking you , what do they know of higher education who only tertiary education know?”).
Slowly, slowly we learned to use the tertiary education to which we were subjected to find and give voice to  ourselves and our own world.

Perhaps it was more necessary and therefore easier for some of us to interrogate the foreign  tertiary education that we made sacrifices to get than it is  for those who now get tertiary education free without having to leave their own country. The interrogation of what is handed down as higher education is even more  urgent today. Indeed we have to go back to basics and ask ourselves (belonging to a particular society and participating in the world) what is education,   and what is education for?

To ask such a basic question is to see the necessity of maintaining a distinction between higher education and  ‘tertiary education’ (which belongs to the  more or less  organized system of education in a country). And as we grasp the visionary notion of higher education that I am trying to outline, we will begin to see why we need to ensure that the free creative spirit of what I call ‘the higher education’ enters primary and secondary levels as well.

Let us invent another saying: tertiary education is not always  higher education, and you can possess higher education without holding a tertiary education degree.   Very few of the region’s  great artists and intellectuals who grew up in the first half of the twentieth century had a tertiary education. The same can be said for our great entrepreneurs and businessmen.

John Jacob Thomas the nineteenth century founder of Creole language studies did not go to University. Neither did Sam Selvon, George Lamming or Wilson Harris. Ralph de Boissiere who wrote two of the most important Trinidadian novels of the 1950’s did not even finish his secondary education. Dissatisfied with what the Queen’s Royal College was offering him, he requested his father in writing to take him out of QRC  and allow him to pursue private studies to become a pianist. (He learnt soon enough that the Muse of his dreams was the muse of words not music.) Praise be that our greatest intellectual  in the twentieth century did not win the island scholarship that would have sent him to Oxford long before Vidia Naipaul  got there.

All the people I have mentioned above have one vital characteristic in common: they   knew what they came into the world to do, and they taught themselves to do it. The achievements of    C.L.R.  James as cultural historian, political thinker, artist and philosopher point to the fact that self-education and knowing what you want to be and do are  fundamental ingredients in higher education.

Let me begin to shape a definition. Higher education is a state of grace. It implies being alive to the world that is made up of the self and others. It is fired by curiosity and wonder. It is shaped by thought. It involves us in the task of integrating  all our learnings from all our experiences. Its true foundation is the cultivation of cultural literacy. Yes, as  formerly colonized people we have to turn to  cultural literacy. To be culturally literate is to know and understand the forms of self-expression in your country, to acknowledge and value the meeting of peoples and cultures, to feel your own place in your blood, and to be open to the silent voices of all the spiritual ancestors.  You could put it gnomically: higher education is knowing why birds are rushing into built-up areas like vagrants clamouring for handouts,  or snipers picking off anything you are trying to grow in your garden.

The outcome of higher education as I envision it,  is  the holy birth of  social consciousness, respect for the environment, respect for other people  and a feeling of responsibility to use our gifts and skills for the enhancement of life in our spheres of existence.

We have spent billions on our education system over the last ten years. And each year our society  becomes more troubled. Why doesn’t the education we have been providing make an uplifting  difference to the way we live among ourselves?

There cannot be one answer but this I  know:  the  architects of our system,  the  teachers,  and the parents  will themselves have to possess and be possessed by the  higher education. Only so can there be a joint venture between all those with a stake in the future, only so will heart join mind to fashion from the bottom up  an education system that will include every child and be able to take them all the way, each according to his/her needs and aptitudes.  Only then would it cease to be such a frustrating task  to urge upon the powers that be that all the education made available by the State should be  suffused with the elements and qualities I have been calling ‘the higher education’.

But if that happened the powers that be would not get to be the powers that be.

Speech delivered at the Prize-giving of the 2009 CHOGM Essay Competition for tertiary level students on November 27, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. This piece resonated with me on so many levels. I am an entrepreneur and a UWI dropout (Lit Major) but I have never stopped learning and valuing my ability to teach myself. I have seen, up close, what this inability to teach yourself looks like; resumé after resumé of job applicants with degrees but void of "higher education." I am particularly fond of the case of Israel where the education system is configured to fill the gaps and take advantage of creative genius from an early age. Today, they reaping the rewards as an entrepreneurial and technology giant, despite the fact that they're a tiny country surrounded by enemies. What's our excuse?