Thu | Aug 24, 2017

Editorial | By any means necessary … including dancehall

Published:Tuesday | February 28, 2017 | 2:00 AM

In a 2016 National Public Radio (NPR) article on his book on how to teach in America's mainly black urban schools, Christopher Emdin gave an anecdote of his own experience as a student.

One day in the 10th grade, the classroom door slammed. Young Emdin dived under his desk. His maths teacher marched him off to the principal. The boy, he believed, was being a class clown.

Emdin, however, had perceived real danger. He thought he had heard a gunshot. Days earlier, a shooting had happened outside his apartment building.

The point of the anecdote was of teacher-student (mis)communication, which Emdin addressed in his book White Folk Who Teach in the Hood ... And the Rest of Y'All Too. The essence of his argument was that young people in America's urban environments often have different cultural and linguistic experiences than their white teachers, which affects how they are taught and learn. "People who perceive themselves to be colour blind oftentimes have biases hidden in their colour-blindness," Emdin said in that NRP interview.

There aren't many white folks teaching in Jamaica's schools. But the issues raised by Emdin are not so alien to Jamaica. They manifest themselves sometimes in a social gulf between teachers and their students in inner-city communities. But it is usually more apparent in the ongoing debate over the use/acceptance of Jamaican Patois as a distinct language that ought be taught and used in the island's schools and whether the majority of Jamaicans understand English, the language of pedagogy. The consensus to the latter, among linguists, seems to be no.

Which brings us to two issues: One is the project launched last week in Jamaica by Christopher Emdin and the Jamaica National Foundation; and, second, the use of Patois in schools. Emdin, 39, is now an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Sciences and Technology at America's Columbia University. His speciality is urban education, with a focus on maths and science.

He worked with the American rapper GZA to develop a hip hop competition in New York, centred on lyrics about maths and science. It has been immensely popular.

Emdin and the JN Foundation have now brought the concept to Jamaica, under a project called Science Genius Jamaica (SCG), utilising Jamaican dancehall music, which, like hip hop, is often grounded in misogyny and nihilism.




But there is no doubt that dancehall is immensely popular. "Almost as soon as you put on a dancehall song, and it's catchy and creative, the young people grasp it," conceded Floyd Green, Jamaica's junior education minister. Promoters of the project hope that will happen in the case of the songs to be composed by the grade nine students. Without the nihilism.

The language of dancehall is mostly Jamaican Patois. Mr Green's, and implicitly the Government's, embrace of this dancehall-meets-education project should be music to the ears of people like Professor Hubert Devonish, who heads the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, and is often a lonely voice, except for Carolyn Cooper's, pressing for acceptance of Jamaican Patois, the mother tongue, and for bilingual education in the island.

Given global realities, this newspaper insists on all Jamaicans being literate and functional in English. The majority of Jamaicans start at a deficit in this regard. If the bilingual education approach suggested by Devonish et al is a means to this end, so be it!