Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Education misplaced

Published:Sunday | September 11, 2016 | 9:00 AMMark Ricketts

"We know what we are but know not what we may be."

- William Shakespeare

A society might be mired in poverty and austerity, but it does not have to be undermined by hopelessness. But hopelessness will persist in Jamaica unless we secure huge investments and until we can come to grips with our educational system, which, in part, contributes to our crime and our lawlessness.

Paralleling all our efforts to get Kingston on track, there must be a concerted drive to reduce crime and violence, and lawlessness and untidiness. To do this, we have to begin with education and eventually look at governance.

It is so unfortunate that our education has made us an elitist and class-conscious nation. The vast majority of Jamaicans have experienced no industrial revolution, like England; had no long history of global trading and exchange, like China and the Nordic countries; have never been exposed to a disciplined manufacturing workforce, like Germany and Japan; had no technological, commercial, and manufacturing breakthroughs, like the US.

What we have had since self-government has been a privileged upper class who we wanted to emulate, supplant and replicate in one fell swoop. To accomplish this, freedom was more important than responsibility, rights more sacrosanct than discipline, and class alliance more meaningful than wealth creation.

Before we built factories to create and sustain wealth, we were building monstrous houses on inaccessible hillsides. And, even today, Prime Minister Holness is exhorting us to overconsume housing by building bigger houses rather than utilising some of those assets in wealth production and generation.

 

Privileged classes

 

Our education, with emphasis on lawyer, doctor, Indian chief, allowed our brightest going off to Cambridge or Oxford to study the professions most likely to catapult them into the privileged classes, and even our own university here in the West Indies validated this class orientation.

In fact, when I was growing up, if you were going off to our agricultural school, or a non-Ivy League college or university in the US, to study a trade, or something practical in the agriculture sciences or hands-on skills related to commerce or industry, skills our country desperately needed, five things were assumed: either you were not bright, or you had no ambition, or English language was challenging for you, or you got a track scholarship, or your parents did not have the savvy to know better.

As for Jamaican girls, the options weren't the greatest. They were 10 times brighter than us boys but they sometimes had to keep their intellect in check, being advised it could be off-putting for marriage.

If they were bright in the sciences and didn't want to do medicine, or they were good at liberal arts and didn't want to be a lawyer, there was always teaching, the public service or marrying into the right address. Alternatively, they could do postgraduate studies.

With our education's emphasis on an artsy intelligentsia, and on class and upward mobility, and with our brightest and best socialised into being snobbish and avoiding many areas of study that our country needed the most, and with our island having had no industrial revolution, we lacked broad-based wealth, skill sets, and manufacturing-wide apprenticeship programmes and entrepreneurial energies. We needed these to make agriculture more efficient and productive, and the mining, manufacturing, financial, industrial, construction, transportation, and hospitality sectors more relevant.

A great failing for us was that education, influenced by religion, made the love of money the root of all evil, so we never grasped the real significance of money and how to make it. We weren't driven by the sense of wanting to be rich; that did not belong to us. That wasn't our mindset.

No way in our class-conscious society would upwardly aspiring parents live above a shop while their brightest and best sold flour and cornmeal; or circle the island on a donkey selling cloth.

 

Unprepared

 

Our 'miseducation' made us totally unprepared to build on the country's asset base, resulting in mass rural-urban migration. That was a disaster, as there was no industry to speak of.

If, following the postwar period, we had had a Ministry of Education and Training, our learning would have been less esoteric and elitist. It would have been more practical, relevant, and market driven.

Times and things have changed since I was a youngster in school, but, even today, it is still evident that our brightest and best have insufficient knowledge of available options for study at the tertiary level, are not pushed hard enough to undertake the more difficult subject choices, and are still not driven by the real needs of the marketplace.

Somehow, discipline and our country's primary needs are not as important as our freedom to choose, even though our country has very limited resources and government supports students. The high failure rate in our high schools tells us that education needs to be fixed, something I will address in the weeks ahead.

- Mark Ricketts, economist, author, and lecturer living in California, was chief economist of the Vancouver Board of Trade in Canada; deputy chairman of the Jamaica Stock Exchange; assistant editor of the Financial Post, Canada's largest financial weekly newspaper; and publisher of Money Index, a weekly business magazine. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.