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Education: Myths and Implications

By Tyehimba
October 11, 2004

Formal education is put forth as a great equalizer where persons can gain upward social mobility and satisfy their material desires. Education is that mechanism that is touted to provide equal access for all to develop their human potential. Formal education, some advocate, is the key towards success. Though education has provided some opportunities for 'upward' social and occupational mobility, it has failed to bring about holistic development of our population. It has reinforced the status quo, and perpetuated half-truths, lies, and colonial assumptions. Far from being impartial and objective, the education system reflects the norms, values, biases, assumptions, and socio-economic priorities of the ruling elite. From kindergarten, children are indoctrinated according to the dominant values of the mainstream.

Over the years, the formal education system that has been borrowed largely from colonial rulers or Europeans in general has shown a gross inability to deal with the specific needs of Caribbean children. In Trinidad and Tobago, this has been especially damaging to African children. The historical circumstances of Indentureship allowed the East Indian community to preserve their culture, religion and language, with the strong family and ethnic ties softening the impact of colonialism. Now, many Hindu/Islamic schools and institutions dot the landscape, ensuring their traditions, ideals, and religious beliefs are preserved. On the other hand, Africans educational experience has been decidedly different, as a result of a far longer and harsher experience under European domination. Unlike their Indian counterparts, Africans brought to the Caribbean were not allowed to practise or keep their ancestral connections, values, belief system, names or languages.

Many see the education system as being one of equal access and equal opportunity, and the reality of it being a microcosm of the heavily stratified wider society is ignored. Though it is often propagated as the way to transform the society, it is very much a part of the society it is supposed to be changing. So the illusion of the education system embodying equal opportunity is reflective of the general illusion that exists in society about meritocracy, fairness and justice.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the educational system involves an 11 plus exam (SEA) that is a process adopted from England. In 1944, in Britain, arising out of the Spens Report and the work of the Chief Government Statistician Sir Cyril Burt, the Government established the Butler Education Act. This Act created a system where children were given intelligence tests at age 11, and based upon these tests were sent to secondary grammar schools or technical/vocational schools. Grammar schools were dominated by the sons and daughters of the middle/upper classes, whilst technical/vocational schools mainly consisted of working class pupils. This assessment system was based upon the later discredited research of Cyril Burt that claimed that intelligence tests such as the 11 plus exam and IQ were scientific and impartial measures of intelligence, that allowed a child's potential to be determined at age 11. Burt put forth that intelligence is innate, and children with little chances of reaching higher educational levels can then concentrate on the types of skills appropriate to their intelligence level, and teachers and schools can specialize in educating children of different innate capacities. Burt said, "capacity must obviously limit content. It is impossible for a pint jug to hold more than a pint of milk and it is equally impossible for a child's educational attainments to rise higher than his educable capacity permits."

The academic /vocational division, based on Burt's pre-war psychological studies of twins and IQ that claimed to prove different pupils had different intelligence levels that could be accurately measured at age 11, explicitly mirrored the growing economic division between non-manual and manual occupations. According to Burke's theory, why should resources be wasted on students who are not capable. In this respect, the education system was designed to channel pupils into one or other of these general areas. Burt was later found to have falsified his research data.

Burt's theory, like many other European 'scientific' theories had an ulterior motive: to scientifically prove the superiority of Europeans and the inferiority of Black people. When African and other non-white children performed poorly at the hands of the Eurocentric education system, it was taken to be a sign of inherent inferiority rather than being the failure of the Eurocentric education system to provide for the needs of lower income or non-white children.

In Trinidad the continued effects of Cyril Burt's bogus theories can be clearly seen. Those that do well at the common entrance exam are sent to so-called prestige schools while those that don't do well are sent to Junior Secondary schools. The Junior Secondary schools, as well as the students who attend them, are bombarded with stereotypes, low expectations, and negative attitudes not only from teachers, but also from members of the wider public. At 11 years old, society decides that certain children are not so intelligent, and will not be as successful as those that enter 'prestige' schools. So from age 11 numerous children experience the psychological trauma of being made to feel inferior, and less than intelligent than students that attend other schools. After years of teachers, parents and others reacting to them as such, it is no wonder than many come out of the education system with deep feelings of inferiority and/or anger. They see their academic failure as totally their own personal inadequacy rather than the result of the inequalities and flaws of the education system.

Furthermore, studies have shown clearly that students from lower income households are assigned in disproportionately large numbers to junior secondary schools where teachers have pre-conceived notions as to their lack of ability. In a study by Ishmael Baksh (1986) it was found that 77% of students in Junior Secondary schools were from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Patricia Mohammed, in an education article, explains how students attending junior secondary schools are afforded fewer opportunities and are also perceived to be intellectually inferior. Students, teachers, and the wider public internalize these notions of inferiority, and as little is expected of the students, the children also expect little of themselves.

On the other hand, persons who graduated out of 'prestige schools' generally have superiority complexes, a sort of false confidence, especially when interacting with persons who attended a 'non-prestige' school. This is so, even if the person has not done well while at the 'prestige' school. Society views them as being more acceptable, intelligent, and having more integrity. Words are confused with intelligence, and as Ivan Illich said in his book Deschooling Society, teaching is confused with learning, grade advancement with education and a diploma with competence.

The very process of labeling produces certain expectations of students that affect the way they perform as well as the way they view themselves. Teachers' expectations of students can unconsciously affect the way they react to students. For instance, a psychological experiment was conducted where a group of students was randomly divided into two groups. The teacher of the first group was told that her group was intelligent and quick learners, while the teacher of the second group was told that her students were not so intelligent. After being taught the same content over the same period of time, the students were assessed and it was found that the first group of students performed distinctly better than the second group.

Most disturbing is the Eurocentric one dimensional view of intelligence, that fails to take into consideration that not only are there different types of intelligence, but that different children learn at different speeds. So there is not properly developed mechanisms to allow children to develop according to their different talents and learning styles. Intelligence is viewed as being fixed, and is measured by how well children perform in academic tests. It is no wonder that some Sociologists view the current educational system as stifling critical thinking, imagination and creativity.

In the University of the West Indies, the government is forcing the administration to significantly increase its intake of students, in a misguided effort to meet the educational targets of Vision 2020. Not only is the physical infrastructure not able to properly accommodate the huge increases, but it shows the state of mind of those that are at the top of the education system. If they lack consciousness, can those that are 'educated' through their system come out as self-realized individuals, capable of reaching their full potential? Of course not. What this means is that many people are passing through the university, being no more aware of themselves, than when they started; just having more words and fancy phrases to express their ignorance.

Education justifies the status quo of inequality by creating the myth that those at the top of the social hierarchy deserve their power and privilege, and that they have attained their status according to merit. Conversely, those that did not succeed in the system are seen as having only themselves to blame. Thus the education disguises the ills of a society built upon greed and injustices such as racism, classism and sexism. It is those that have succeeded and conformed to the education systems that have the means to express themselves in the mainstream. And it is those who embody into the preferred characteristics of society around ethnicity, color, wealth, residence etc who are most capable of 'success' in the education system. By giving the preference to such voices, the mainstream media reinforces the silence of many who have legitimate experiences that the nation needs to hear to heal itself.

Most importantly, educational models that have arisen in a European context cannot properly deal with the peculiarities of a country borne out of centuries of colonialism. This is not to say that the theories are useless or that they should be totally disregarded. Rather, every aspect of our local reality needs to be re-examined and re-interpreted from our perspective, thus developing unique indigenous problem-solving methods that encompass our collective histories, culture and ancestral wisdom. This would naturally involve coming to terms with the fact that the formal education system in Trinidad and Tobago and other places does not truly educate, which must then lead to a greater consideration of the theories and mechanisms that can truly empower people. This is not apart from dealing with other social issues. The myths of meritocracy and equality in the education system is intimately linked to the many other social myths that people have internalized as truth.

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