Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
By Ralph Jemmott
There are as many definitions of education as there are definers of education. The word of course comes from the Latin “educo” which means “to lead out”. That in itself doesn’t say much, as one might well ask, lead out to what? The best definition of education purpose is contained in Charles Silberman text, “Crisis in the Classroom”. For Silberman education should enhance three capacities. The first is “cognition” or the capacity to know, in all the varying aspects of “knowing” and there are so many things that one would want to know.
The second is “operacy” or the capacity “to do”. This signifies that one should do something with the knowledge one acquires, whatever the content of that knowledge. It could be fixing a car or writing a book, composing a piece of music or drawing a painting. Presumably this implies that “the doing” somehow enhances the individual and collective ‘good’. The car gets repaired, the book is read, the music is composed, played and enjoyed or as Julie Andrews would sing “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, hopefully something uplifting and edifying.
The third purpose is the capacity “to be” in the most ethical sense of “being”, what Siberman calls “Sensibility”. My own academic training is in the Humanities and to a lesser extent in the Social Sciences. It is not surprising therefore that I tend to favour the third of the above mentioned purposes. For me a person’s moral and aesthetic sensibility is what is most endearing. Persons like myself tend to favour what used to be called “a liberal education” the cultivation of the life of the mind. Apart from emphasising how much a person knows, (cognition) or what they can do (operacy), the liberal educators asks, what kind of person are you? What kind of positive sensibilities, values and attitudes do you exhibit?
Worldwide the focus in formal schooling has shifted from the liberal ideal to a more utilitarian emphasis on training, the acquisition of hard skills to satisfy economic manpower requirements. This is understandable given the troubled state of many economies. It may also reflect a growing materialism in the culture. Material survival is of course important, one has to earn a living, put rather vulgarly, one has to eat.
But society also needs soft skills if it is to be truly human, civilised, transcendent and worthy of living. This implies that in formal schooling, to make a sharp distinction between education on the one hand and training on the other is to cultivate a false dichotomy. There should be some element of liberal teaching even in technical and vocational training. A plumber or electrician may do sloppy work not because he does not know what to do but because he does not care to do it properly, because his values are flawed. One often wonders whether one would choose between a doctor with great diagnostic skills, but with the bedside manner of a hedgehog or vice versa. Certainly both the diagnostic ability and a caring manner would be most desirable.
Similarly a liberal education should encourage the capacity to do, whatever is implied by doing. Academics are useful because they fashion patterns of thought that may influence the world. Read recently that a lot of bad destructive ideas have emanated from the universities.
Unquestionably what Barbados and much of the region requires at the moment are skilled practical persons. One of the issues facing Caribbean people is knowing exactly what the Caribbean’s manpower needs truly are. In spite of the lofty entreaties from leaders in the university, Barbados must begin to spend more on technical and vocation schooling, remedial compensatory schooling for the less academically able and serious reform education for children at risk of falling through the cracks and ending up face down on the streets, victims of galloping gun violence. We must cease privileging University education above all other forms of schooling. If we don’t develop children’s ‘abilities’ they will become ‘liabilities’.
In promoting technical, vocation and the so-called STEM subjects, Science, Technology, engineering and Maths), there is an ongoing tendency not only to pre-empt the Humanities and Social Sciences but to exclude them too early. The short-sighted argument is that children should learn a practical skill at the earliest age, presumably that means in kindergarten. It is my considered opinion that up to the age of fourteen, children should be afforded a broad based, rounded education that attempts to equip them for a meaningful life not to become a mere cog in an industrial machine. Gladstone Holder once warned that if we too narrowly advance Technology and the Applied Sciences we run the risk of producing a generation of students incapable of understanding an abstract philosophical concept. I think we are already seeing such. More and more we are hearing young speakers falling back on meaningless buzz words, clichés and God-awful catch phrases. We hear about developing a platform or a mechanism to create a space in terms of fashioning an identity to build out the economy because of who we are as a people and we are in this together. God Lord, Spare me!
Ralph Jemmott is a respected, retired educator.