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Rethinking What It Means to be Educated

By Tyehimba
November 15, 2004

The 'all ah we is one' syndrome does not allow for proper understanding of the nature of the education system, because different groups characterized by such variables as race, religion and geography have different experiences in the education system. Thus, it is important to address the experience of Africans at the hands of the education system. Inevitably, this involves understanding the motivations and intentions from which the education systems of the Caribbean were created.

Historically, colonizers organized the educational system of the colonized and, after independence, these systems not only remained but were expanded, thus creating a dependence on Western intellectual models in the so-called 'Third World'. Dependence continues due to the simple fact that the industrialized nations have control of more financial resources, research institutes, publishing firms and technology.

The content of the education system is byproduct of our colonial experience, and as a result it is premised on male/European superiority. The education system is a byproduct of Europe's thrust for global economic hegemony, with Christianity and the bible being one of the greatest pacifying tools far more powerful than military might. This is not withstanding that from the 20th century and continuing, the domination of European nations has been overshadowed by its daughter, the United States of America, who has embodied all ideals and aspirations of its mother. The ideals, perspectives and theories at the core of the education system have not drawn upon the full range of perspectives available. With the implicit notions of Western superiority come the related notions of the inferiority of non white people, as well as hostility and suppression at the perspectives that run counter to the mainstream. The consequences of this, is not hard to see in the present state of society. In 1950, as he looked ahead to the demise of colonial society, Eric Williams said that the "role of education should be that of midwife to the emerging social order". Decades later, Williams would remark that it (education) remained the "chambermaid of the existing social order".

According to the history that Caribbean people have been taught in schools and through the mainstream media, Christopher Columbus 'discovered' or 'rediscovered' the West Indies/ New World, in which existed the warlike cannibalistic Caribs and the peaceful Arawaks who dwelled there. This is all a giant myth: surely the indigenous people more properly called the Taino people, did not stand and watch themselves being 'discovered' by the Columbus and his crew. Furthermore, there has been no evidence that any of the native people were cannibals, and it is important to understand why this myth was fabricated. This myth of the peaceful Arawaks and warlike Caribs was fabricated to justify the subjugation and extermination of the indigenous people of the Americas, particularly those that resisted European domination. Queen Isabella declared that the native people should not be harmed or captured, but when told of the barbaric, uncivilized, flesh-eating group called the Caribs, consented for them to be dealt with in whatever way was necessary. This situation is analogous to the Americans and British fabricating evidence to justify their invasion of Iraq. Interestingly, some historians trace the word Carib back to the word cannibal, and espouse that Caribs and Arawaks are incorrect names for the indigenous people. Now with all the distortions surrounding the original indigenous people of the West Indies, there is little or no knowledge of the accidental and planned voyages of ancients Africans to the New World, hundred of years before Christopher Columbus was born. The evidence of this maritime contact between Africans from the continent and inhabitant of the New World is documented in a book titled 'They Came before Columbus', written by Ivan Van Sertima. Though the evidence is in no way under doubt, this part of history, like many others that doesn't fit into the Eurocentric interpretation of history has not been incorporated into the mainstream education system.

Throughout the years, for the many Africans who have depended on the education system to become 'educated', the consequence is that many have become far removed from their African identity. The Christian constructs at the heart of the mainstream education system have been very damaging: reinforcing the denial of the African identity. Anything outside of the Christian norms is seen as inferior and/or demonic. Just mention the word Africa or African and the well oiled defense mechanisms and denials automatically kick in. Because of the negative attitudes towards Africa and African culture, some Africans (who have not yet realized that they are Africans) prefer to label themselves with derogatory titles such as Negro, and Nigger, rather than be associated with Africa in any way. Those that come out of the education system with the highest honours are no closer to understanding themselves that those who left the education system early. In a very real sense, the 'educated' are further away from themselves because they have internalized Eurocentric information, theories and attitudes that blunts their ability to realize that what has been inculcated into them is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw puzzle needed to understand themselves. Their 'education' and consequent occupation allows them to accumulate material wealth that makes is possible for them to comfortably ignore the inequalities and injustices that exist in the wider society.

Furthermore, the fact that a person can attain the highest academic qualifications such as a doctorate and still be ignorant about basic things such as the difference between race and nationality, raises serious questions about the education system. So deep is the disconnection from self that many remain powerless to challenge the status quo, or worse yet even realize that it should be challenged. The so-called education system conditions individuals to act out the scripts given to them; slaves to fears, insecurities, greed and the wider social forces. The brain is configured in such a way that quite often the psyche of an 'educated' person cannot comprehend that Africans had a long history before the start of European and Arab slavery; or even that the knowledge of ancient Africans provides the foundation for religion (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc) astrology, engineering, science, mathematics, architecture, medicine, philosophy and much more that people take for granted. For instance, while doing Mathematics in secondary school, I challenged the teacher as to whether the so-called Pythagoras theorem was invented by Pythagoras, and explained to him that Pythagoras studied in Africa, where Black Africans taught him. Now, the Maths teacher dismissed what I was saying without even considering it, his conditioning just could not allow him to think of Mathematics being taught in Africa, by Africans before the birth of the biblical Jesus the Christ. If he had done his own research, he would have found a lot of evidence that shows conclusively that the so-called Pythagoras theorem along with other geometrical laws were in existence thousands of years before Pythagoras, who was born in the year 569 BC.

Now, most importantly the dynamics of the 'education' system must be understood in the context of societal demands for greater literacy, occupation mobility, personal growth, financial security and social respect. The present state of society emphatically demonstrates the failure of the education system, particularly the failure the Eurocentric/Judeo-Christian constructs inherent in the education system to empower the people. However, if people gain an understanding of the workings of the education system and how it perpetuates ignorance/poor attitudes, then they can engage the 'education' system with better discernment, and so get the best out of what is available. Rather than accepting everything that is taught or succumbing to blind faith in persons because of their social status, the accepted norms and educational content can be challenged in the areas that they lacking.

Often, people say 'education is the key to success' and generally they mean passing through the mainstream education system will make one successful. This shows that not only does the definition of education need to be challenged, but the definition of success. For Africans, education must be understood in terms recovering from the poor ideas, attitudes and mental constructs arising from the cumulative physical and mental trauma of 500 years of Colonialism. The education system, the mainstream media and religion (particularly Christianity) interact to maintain the dominant societal norms that are strongly opposed to Africans espousing perspectives based upon beliefs and experiences, or even identifying themselves as Africans.

There needs to be serious dialogue and reassessment of what education means, and what it means to be educated in the truest sense of the word. It is only the essential truth that can empower people, and the pathway towards this involves re-examining African history in light of the distortions, suppression, and misinformation surrounding it. The problem is not so much that there are a lot of poor attitudes, biases and ideas in the education content, but that alternatives perspectives are sidelined thus allowing the present state of affairs to continue unchallenged. There are little or no examples in the mainstream of solid alternatives from which people can fashion better ways of thinking and behaving that can allow them to be exist with integrity and understanding. To truly become educated, people need to take responsibility for educating themselves, because to leave that task in the hands of the present education system or the mainstream media can only lead to self-delusion.

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