The editorial in last week's issue of one of Belize's leading newspapers was dedicated to a critique of our educational system. My only quarrel with the editorial is that it limited its scope to Belize City's south side primary schools. I would argue that Belize's entire educational system, from ABC to UCB and from Santa Elena in the North to Otoxha in the South, is in serious and urgent need of major surgery. For clarity I am defining the Belize educational system as the entire package including the philosophy (or lack thereof), the curriculum, the process, the books, the hours, the structure, the vacation months etc. .1 recall at a recent workshop on "the new Belize primary school curriculum" a colleague shared this new twist to an old adage " If it ain't broke, break it". I sincerely believe that it is time for us to break up this system, throw away all the parts and start building a relevant BELIZEAN system from scratch. As the cited editorial suggested -It's just not working.
Belize's current system is based on a hodge-podge of imported philosophies and ideas, most of which are in fact adopted wholesale (i.e.without being adapted) from the USA or the UK. In some cases "innovations" are adopted long after they have been declared failures in their country of origin. The feeble attempts made every now and then to add a Belizean flavor result in nothing more than the pouring of old wine into new bottles. The current system is neither fish nor fowl, neither USA nor UK compatible, and certainly not Belizean. OH that we could call it Belizean but it is not -no matter what the recipe used it still remains a mixture of imported (and mostly irrelevant) ideas.
I continue to be amazed that Belizean educators are surprised that our imported educational system results in the mass ~ exportation of the educated product. The entire system is designed to educate our young people for export. A typical exportation route sees the child in San Antonio Toledo educated out of the village and into high school in Punta Gorda. If the train doesn't stop there the student is exported to sixth form in Belize City and if we are really successful the "educated" Belizean is exported abroad, usually to the US. Whether the educated product gets off the train after Punta Gorda high school, or sixth form in Belize City or in the US it is very unlikely that the educated product will return to its place of origin (in this case the village of San Antonio). The education received is just not relevant: not to San Antonio, not to Belize City, in fact not to Belize. I hasten to note that many Belizeans who did not take the exportation route have been able to function successfully in Belize in spite of the irrelevant education, not necessarily because of it. They are the ones who have been able to transfer and adapt the foreign concepts and attitudes to the Belizean reality. The few who have "succeeded" in Belize cannot be used as justification for the many that the system has failed. Education is a tool for transforming culture and Belize is in dire need of cultural transformation at this time. I will propose that one of the main purposes of public education is to develop effective citizens for our country. To this end I suggest that our country's educational goals should reflect three important factors: the nature of organized knowledge, the nature of the Belizean society and the nature of the learner. I will concede that factors one and three were probably given due consideration in our current system but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that even passing consideration was given to the nature of Belizean society. What we need is a Belizean Educational System based on a Belizean philosophy derived from Belizean needs. We have the necessary expertise to develop such a system -what we lack is the vision in some, the commitment in others and the political will in all. This lack of vision, commitment and will is regularly evidenced by the perceived need to bring in foreign consultants to shape our educational system for us. Belizean educational experts resident in Belize are frequently called upon as consultants to work on educational projects abroad yet these same experts are ignored when there is a need for their expertise in Belize.
In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois observed that Ďthe training of men is a difficult and intricate task- itĚs technique is a matter for educational experts but it's object is for the vision of seers". Our Belizean youth need a system which will mold men and women out of masons and waitresses instead of the present system which seems more intent on molding masons and waitresses out of our men and women. Forget the turf wars, bring on the seers so that they can get on with designing a curriculum to which our educational experts can then apply their techniques.
The title for this article was borrowed from a speech delivered by Booker T. Washington over a century ago. He related an incident in which a ship had been lost at sea and had run out of drinking water. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel hung a signal stating its need for water and begging for assistance. A passing ship signalled back "Cast down your bucket where you are". The ship in distress sent its signal twice more and twice more the response was the same. The Captain of the ship in distress at last heeded the injunction, cast down his bucket and it came up full of fresh sparkling water flowing from the bar of the Amazon Delta system.
Belize, cast down your bucket where you are! The solution to our problem is here -not there! As I write this article there are more than 60 Belizeans doing courses at UCB towards a Masters degree. I had the good fortune to teach courses last summer and this summer to this group, some of Belize's best and brightest educational leaders. It was awesome to listen to this concentrated mass of brain power discuss, question and dissect pertinent educational issues. Never before, to the best of my knowledge, was the Belizean educational system subjected to such intense analysis. They are our future -these are the people who need to be empowered to shape our educational system. They work in the Belize schools, including the Belize City south side primary and secondary schools. Their's is the kind, of expertise that we need to retool the system, not the kind of expertise that we insist on importing from abroad. Belize, cast down your bucket where you are! The reshaping of our educational system will not be an easy task- it will need courage and strength of conviction.
As James Baldwin pointed out in his Talk To Teachers in 1963 : "The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and to try to change it and to fight it -at no matter what risk". We will need to ask ourselves some hard questions.
Why are we educating our people ? Is it our responsibility to prepare our people for transfer to institutions abroad? Should not our system be geared primarily to producing citizens who can function best in Belize? These questions should provide enough fodder for lengthy discussions and hopefully the emergence of some vision, commitment and political will. I would have preferred to hope that there is a possibility for some action since I am not much of a discussion/committee man myself.
To end off on a controversial note, I will ask one final question. Why are we dedicating so much time to the teaching of mathematical operations when a ten dollar calculator can give the needed answers in nano-seconds? Ask any of the market vendors who ply their trade on Saturday mornings at the Queen Square Market. In anticipation of some of the answers to the last question I will submit that no school of engineering would try to justify teaching steam engine repairs today "to teach engineering principles". Could not the time spent on teaching this and other prehistoric academic vestiges be used to teach our students how to use a calculator, a keyboard or a computer? Wake up Belizeans, Belize is in serious trouble and our youth cry out for help. If we do not lift them up they will pull us down.