Education as freedom

6th February, 2018 0 comments

The University of Guyana should be commended for creating the space to address topics relevant to the development of the country through its Turkeyen and Tain Talks series. A recently concluded forum addressed the theme ‘Education as Freedom, Education Reform and Socio-economic Development in Guyana’ from a number of diverse and highly relevant perspectives. On a more philosophical level, it raised questions regarding how we as a people define education and the role it should serve within our society.  It captured the essence of a long-standing debate between the more utilitarian approach to education, whereby education, nation building and human capital are intricately linked concepts, diametrically opposed to the ideas of progressivism, humanism and democratic education.

It highlighted the emancipative potential inherent in educational pursuits on both an individual and communal level. It also probed the questions of who should be the individuals in authority to make key education decisions such as defining the content of our education or how education services and resources should be distributed. On a more practical level, I believe that the forum sought to examine the extent of progress we have made in shaping and defining an education system that is relevant to the Guyana we know in 2018 and beyond. It raises the fundamental questions of, to what extent and in what ways has education served to liberate us as a people from the pre-existing oppressive system and who is the Guyanese the education system should be producing?

Solid arguments can be made that we have done little to free ourselves from the vestiges of the colonial education structures that we inherited over half a century ago.  An analysis of various structural and education delivery dimensions of the system would bear this out.  Structurally, for the most part, we have retained the highly elitist and delimiting education system we inherited. We have been successful in significantly increasing access to education at the primary and secondary levels. Quality education has been highly elusive, however, with the number of students mastering the expectations at the various levels progressively decreasing as each cohort moves to the higher levels of the system. A proper analysis would show that as they ascend to the critical secondary level only about thirty percent matriculate, and less than half of those actually access tertiary level education. Such a pyramid does not provide equal opportunities for all students to attain their full potential. It gives credence to the mindset that the school one attends is as much a determinant of one’s potential success as it was fifty years ago.

In addition, our system is rigid and narrow in many ways. It provides few opportunities for second chances or re-entry, all realities that run counter to the concept of education as freedom. Until a few years ago, there was such blind adherence to outdated rules that when pupils who would be above age eleven by grade six were discovered in the system they were skipped a grade or two to ensure they wrote the eleven-plus examination at the ‘right age’–damning them to sure failure. Students who attain the age of sixteen are still forced out of the secondary system regardless of their level of attainment and degree of competence as per similar archaic rules. There is no facility for students to re-enter the system to rewrite one or two subjects they might have failed.

There are few second-chance options for adults or dropouts who might not have had the best initial experience and wish to re-enter the system. Which institution in Guyana allows you the freedom to come as you are regardless of qualifications with the intent of building the capacity of the masses for a more productive citizenry? Education as freedom also relates to what it is we learn and how we learn it.  Theorists have argued that the content of our education system is the same outmoded irrelevant colonial product.  For the most part, we all learned the same things in our day the same way pupils do today, regardless of the prevailing concepts of relevance, critical and divergent thinking and problem solving.

In secondary schools spread across this country all of the students in any given class go through the identical curriculum at the same rate with little accommodation of exceptionality at either end of the continuum.  We have had students, in our system, who by grade nine had excelled beyond the CSEC expectations in particular subjects; but who was forced to progress at the same rate of their counterparts. One student was writing his own mathematics equations by sixth form to challenge himself since there was nothing new his teachers could teach him.  Both our gifted and students with learning disabilities suffer similar faiths of unfulfilled potential.

As it relates to relevance, we must investigate why the reforms aimed at through Community High and Multilateral schools failed.  There are key lessons to be learned since the evidence shows that we have reverted to preexisting practices and our children are overwhelmingly opting to specialise in highly Westernized, service oriented pursuits that have little relevance or viability within our local context. We must ask ourselves, how can we create more balance in the system by improving the quality of the available options? For the most part, the highly academic CSEC route is the only fully developed pathway within the education system in Guyana, despite the value and relevance of technical and vocational education.

The reality is that our freedoms are curtailed in many ways both by the limited available options and the rules that govern the system. The majority of our students are pressured into ‘streams’ at age fifteen that ultimately force them to specialize, limiting their study options and potential choices later in life. As an example, the need to declare a major upon entry to the University and the absence of the flexibility to devise special majors that might combine different areas of pursuit can be likened to academic tyranny. The interests and talents of the average sixteen or seventeen year old Guyanese are so varied and complex that we do them a disservice in the way we rigidly structure the menu of available options.  At the same time, those who are financially able or fortunate enough, opt to attend external liberal arts institutions that afford them the freedom to wade through those varied talents to find their “true calling’ and fulfill their innate potential.

Such is the desirable nature of Education as Freedom. The freedoms alluded to above must be afforded in equal measure to every citizen of our country and should in no way be determined by economics or other factors.  It is therefore incumbent on us, within our respective contexts, to examine and address these issues. This forum has opened the door to question the extent to which the system creates the enabling environment within which a broader cross-section of citizens have the opportunity to contribute to shaping and defining our education structures, thereby ensuring they reflect the full extent of our diverse social and other contemporary realities.

The University of Guyana is ideally positioned to lend its voice but must be supported by other stakeholders in answering the question: Who is the Guyanese the education system should produce? If the Ideal Caribbean Person, as defined by CARICOM, is one who among other things: “Demonstrates multiple literacies, independent and critical thinking, questions the beliefs and practices of the past and present and brings this to bear on the innovative application of science and technology and to problem solving; values and displays the creative imagination in its various manifestations and nurtures its development in the economic and entrepreneurial spheres and in all other areas of life”; we are duty bound to ensure that education affords all the freedom to self-actualise.

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