What kind of society do we want?
Against the background of numerous political, economic, and social issues grabbing national headlines and our concerned attention, this past weekend was very heartening. As a proud graduate of the University of the West Indies (UWI), I became washed with positive emotion while taking in the two graduation ceremonies.
The graduating students were splendidly dressed not only in terms of their apparel but, more poignantly, they wore consummate smiles reflecting anticipation, happiness, satisfaction, elation, relief, and that wonderful joy of overcoming. My sincerest congratulations to the graduating classes of 2016, and to the academic and administrative staff of the UWI for reminding all and sundry that we are collectively “a light rising from the west”.
Worthy acknowledgement is also extended to the several sponsors of students, their projects, and the accompanying events inclusive of the graduation ceremony. Without their cooperative inputs, Saturday could possibly have been somewhat dulling. Fantastic presentation, job well done!
Arguably, the collection of one’s certificate will tend to remain with the individual for a lifetime. However, I am convinced that the most conscious and awe-inspiring moment at the graduation ceremony came when the Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir George Alleyne, requested the graduates to turn to their loved ones – parents, guardians, spouses, and friends – and give them the biggest applause they have ever given to anyone. Profoundly remarkable!
It is precisely this grand act of appreciation for loved ones and supporters that did not go unnoticed. Many of these persons may not have graduated from university but were willing to sacrifice their time, financial and other resources, in order to make possible a positive difference in the lives of the 2016 graduates.
The mere exposure to higher education, inconsequential of class of degree, would bring a tremendous sense of achievement to the graduates. They will go back into their communities, the workplace (some for the first time), and the society with a “newness” for which all advanced and developing countries strive. Their “enlightened” impact will be very telling for generations to come. Indeed, the recognition of this synthesis presents quite an opportune time for us in the broader society to contemplate: “What kind of education do we need in Barbados and the Caribbean?”
Attempting to respond to this simple question elicits very complex answers which fittingly encourage us to consider a different question: “What kind of society do we want?” According to three academics, higher education exists “to create and disseminate knowledge, and to develop higher order cognitive and communicative skills in [mostly] young people, such as, the ability to think logically, the motivation to challenge the status quo, and the capacity to develop sophisticated values,” and more recently, as “a training ground for advanced vocational and professional skills”.
Surely, these composite benchmarks are instrumental for building the type of society we imagine, and achieving the platitudes of investment contributions which are necessary for national development. Furthermore, another group realising the challenges in the contemporary world assert the view that: “Today’s knowledge economy requires highly skilled personnel at all levels to deal with rapid technological changes,” in addition to meeting the “current societal needs”.
In fact, Barbados and the Caribbean are grappling with issues as these relate to ensuring that higher education institutions are accessible and that wider sections of the population are exposed to programmes which are edifying for the individual and the society on a whole. In Barbados, numerous arguments have been put to state officials by multiple stakeholders.
For starters, there is now an urgent necessity to reconstruct curricula at all stages of the educational construct –– inclusive of primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. Key to this route of reform are the willingness and capabilities for attracting the best yet most cost-effective pedagogy, and the political will for implementation and assessment of policies to ensure that all students, by the end of their relevant classes of instruction, have attained the desired attributes and competencies for moving upward to the next level, or for entering the workplace with the enlightened capability to contribute meaningfully to national development.
A closer examination of the competencies required, reveal that subject specific and generic training and practical exposure are vital cogs for the fertilization of attitudes and aptitudes in order to effectively build capacity in national development. As a developing society, Barbados’ labour force needs competencies in a broad range of disciplines. The broad area of the natural sciences inclusive of the range of new technologies and strands of physics, chemistry, and engineering, for example, are particularly useful points of take-off.
Notwithstanding emphasis on the natural sciences, there is a real need for the social sciences, the arts and humanities, and importantly, the development of persons with the ability to cooperate across discipline boundaries by putting their choice discipline into a broader context. The reality is that knowledge, understanding and the ability to act are crucial to the era that we live in.
Accompanying these points of interaction and engagement are the shaping and manifestation of the appropriate attitudes within the framework of national society and international settings. The productive and competitive spaces that characterise today’s workplace, mean that increased levels of awareness and initiative are likely to increasingly feature with regards to hiring. Research has demonstrated that people consistently identify work in one of two ways –– being primarily about personal fulfilment and serving others or about status, advancement, and income.
Again, considering higher education in the context of what kind of society do we want in Barbados and in the Caribbean, it is useful to reflect upon an essay first published in 1929 by A.N. Whitehead who wrote:
“The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively . . . . This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes. Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts. It works by eliciting the general principles which apply to the facts, as they exist, and then by an intellectual survey of alternative possibilities which are consistent with those principles . . . . The development of students’ intellectual and imaginative powers; their understanding and judgement; their problem-solving skills; their ability to communicate; their ability to see relationships within what they have learned and to perceive their field of study in a broader perspective. [It] must aim to stimulate an enquiring, analytical and creative approach, encouraging independent judgement and critical self-awareness.”
In conclusion, the call is for all Barbadian and Caribbean peoples to embrace the value and significance of allowing for as many individuals as possible to have access to higher level education. At 50 years, our work is clearly not done, and realistically, the country and region have both progressed in other stages of development which require belief and delivery in all of our instructional institutions.
In particular, although not a statement of exclusivity blocking out vocational, technical, and professional institutions of instruction, the urge is for us to celebrate the 2016 graduates of the UWI. Let us embrace the pedagogical work and research contributions being made by the UWI on all of its campuses. There is no doubt that the deep and phenomenal significance of higher education to the national and integrated development of the Caribbean region rests with the graduates being produced and their sometimes underestimated contributions to humanity.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer in Political Science at the UWI-Cave Hill Campus, a political consultant, and up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua).