The Whole Truth About Us: Sunity ponders T&T’s historical shortcomings

So thorough has been the brain-washing that it is virtually impossible for many to connect our present dysfunctions to their obvious origins in the past.

Photo: Fort King George in Scarborough, Tobago. (Courtesy
Photo: Fort King George in Scarborough, Tobago.

The social values and taste patterns that drive the high import bill, the historic fear that inhibits the productive sector and ostracises risk-takers, the power-seeking crimes levelled through sexual aggression, the casual brutality that marks inter-personal relations, the authoritarian management culture that disempowers employees, the education system that delivers certificates without solutions, the political system with little capacity for representation, the ethnic divisions based on illogical distrust, and the low self-esteem that seeks significance in money and material—all these and more are legacies of the plantation culture into which modern T&T was born and continues to be shaped.

Until education policy comes to terms with these realities and begins to understand the role of the colonial education system as an enduring instrument of empire, we will keep wondering why the billions being spent on the education system are yielding such limited returns.

The colonial education system, so celebrated to this day, is doing its job very well. Not only has it succeeded in inducing the mass amnesia necessary to the interest of empire, but it has converted us, its own victims, into crusaders for its cause.

It is one thing for British Prime Minister David Cameron to dismiss demands for reparations by urging the Caribbean to “move on” and forget past crimes against Indigenous, African and Asian humanity. After all, he might think he has strong personal reasons for doing so.

Photo: Britain Prime Minister Dave Cameron.
Photo: Britain Prime Minister Dave Cameron.

His great great-grand uncle, the Second Earl of Fife, was paid reparations valued today at US$6 million for the 202 enslaved persons that he had to give up when slavery was abolished in Jamaica.

PM Cameron’s position, therefore, could be explained either as an ugly past with which he does not wish to reckon, or as a profitable past that he does not wish to spurn.

But we? How could we consider moving on without first trying to understand the past and hold history to account before laying it to rest?

Even in our personal lives we know that suppressing the past is to be dogged by a ghost, one foot in reality and the other in limbo.

And yet so many are not just content, but anxious to move on, fearful of the forces that might be let loose if we open Pandora’s Box of the past.

It is here that education can serve as a process for engaging the past and negotiating terms of peace for the future.

Photo: The Hatuey play ends today at the Central Bank Auditorium.
Photo: The Hatuey play ends today at the Central Bank Auditorium.

In presenting Raoul Pantin’s play ‘Hatuey’ which ends its run this evening at the Central Bank Auditorium, the Lloyd Best Institute—of which I am the director—put on a special matinee performance for secondary school students. The response from schools was tremendous as was the students’ response to the play.

Many schools embraced the play as a dramatic interpretation of the encounter between the Caribbean’s Indigenous people and Europe. A couple of schools, however, admitted that they do not teach history.

It seemed shocking—until one understand the challenges of teaching history in a country like ours. From whose perspective should history be taught?

For a while, even as late as the early second half of the 20th Century, the teaching of history, directly and indirectly through other disciplines, was frankly Eurocentric and based on a curriculum developed in London for little minds out in the colonies. Soon enough, recalcitrant intellectuals and artists all over the Caribbean began challenging the perspective and back-chatting the empire.

Who exactly was the ‘he’ in his-story? And what about her-story? And their-story?

Although history is made up of many immutable facts it is perspective that gives it meaning. And for us, a people of many tribes, the question of from whose perspective should history be told has so complicated our relationship with the past that we either sanitise it beyond meaning, propagandise it in the interest of the tribe or just not go there.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. (Courtesy Information Division)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

As challenging as it might be, however, we should allow ourselves no option on this issue of history in the classroom. It is core to our understanding of ourselves and our land and to the evolution of our identity. Societies that advance on key indices of progress are the ones that have settled the question of who they are.

In the Anansi world that we inhabit, however, self-knowledge is elusive. Who we are always depends on what situation we’re in.

The Prime Minister has talked about bringing history back into schools. Hopefully not in the old dead way designed to alienate us from our own story and environment. What we need is a high quality multi-disciplinary team working to create, at long last, a relevant and dynamic history curriculum that locates us at the centre of our story while engaging us with the stories of others.

Our history is not only in books. It is all around us including in Banwari Trace in Penal, on top of San Fernando Hill, at Mucurapo, Arena, the Gulf of Paria, the tip of Moruga and in hidden valleys, stretching from Diego Martin to Belmont and beyond. It lies in the waters of the Scarborough Harbour and at the feet of Laventille Hill; it criss-crosses cocoa and sugar plantations from Golconda in South Trinidad to Friendship Estate in Tobago.

Photo: A Carnival meggie. (Copyright Georgia Popplewell)
Photo: A Carnival meggie.
(Copyright Georgia Popplewell)

It is here, there and everywhere. Beyond the confines of the classroom the land is vibrating, anxious to release its secrets to us, eager for us to listen, engage and discover ourselves in it.

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About Sunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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  1. Nice article.
    As for emulating the refined British, I don’t think you are naturally inclined to adopt behavior that served to place you at a disadvantage unless you yourself are going to use it to place someone else at a disadvantage. It would be quite difficult to see merit in “refined ways” that did nothing to refine or uplift you.

  2. Your post is very flawed and full of fallacies. You rightly pointed out that History is full of biases. And that idea that without understanding your history will prevent you from moving forwards is just a nice sounding meme. History will necessarily be about a particular perspective. Success in the future is about understanding what will influence success in the future and who to ensure we have the raw material for success. For example, the future will have less people going to formal schools and large buildings to work unless you are actually producing something of value with your presence. It has nothing to do with our past, and the latter only affects that if it put us at a disadvantage in the future. Most of the literary items you wrote about will not help our future. And the problem with crime and antisocial behavior has nothing to do with the legacy our European masters left us with but rather what policies and ideas we implemented along the way. For example the problem with antisocial male behavior that is fueling crime is a simple one. It presents itself in most developing and even developed countries. Over the past decade we have left male needs to the dustbin. We have made normal boy behavior abnormal, we have rooted fathers out of the home, we have encouraged mothers to go off and pretend they are men to be successful and we have feminized our education system. And we have a serious single mother problem that is fueling the crime problem. None of those things are rooted in our legacy, but rather in the politics and policies we have choosen and still choose to implement. I can go on and expand on this, but i wont because i am not even sure that this comment will be published.

  3. “You never know the history that you walking on eh!” A line from my play ‘Searching’ staged earlier this month on San Fernando Hill for Bocas LitFest South. It brought to life the search by young people from the community of Princes Town for their First People heritage – their passion, eagerness, sense of futility at erased and silenced narratives … their need to know. The play was well received. Question from the audience – When is this going to be in schools? I did not have a straight answer. I wish I did.

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    Britain doesn’t accurately reflect the version of them we got from Enid Blyton and Mary Poppins. But I see your point.
    I think part of the problem was a lack of closure because of so many issues that were never addressed.
    Stuff like reparations have as much to do with respect and acknowledgment of the sufferings as anything else.
    I wonder what thought went in to what replaced corporal punishment. I guess teachers would have to tell us more about that.
    I doubt corporal punishment would have been as successful in high school anyway. So there must have been something else.

  5. I do wonder if that Hirsinger comment accounts for many trinis inability to be productive without someone constantly over their shoulders. And remember our ex PM outlawed corporal punishment in schools years ago. Since then there has been an increase in violence in schools so not sure how much water that theory holds. No studies have been done to show value of respect vs corporal punishment-many of us grew up getting licks but we knew what for; you respected elders and there was a unified message on morality and ethics from society. Slavery ended so long ago; how come we don’t emulate the refined british instead, post slavery days?

  6. I experienced “education” in T&T in the 1950s/60s as brutal and opressive.
    My (afro-Trinidadian) primary schoolmistress tried to teach me what 12×12 was by beating my hands with a ruler. Caning was permitted at secondary school and in the school next to ours, we could see the teachers swaggering up and down the aisles wielding belts or similar objects.
    Was this perhaps a throwback on slavery days? Is that perhaps a reason for today’s violence and crime?
    We were definitely not taught to be democrats, but to accept a feudal system with a king (headmaster), nobility (teachers) and lackays (seniors and prefects). At 18 years of age, we were suddenly expected to be able to vote responsibly for a democratic government.
    In African former colonies, the system worked until the first “headmasters” (Nkrumah, Kenyatta … ) died or were assasinated, since then there has been havoc. So much for the colonial education system…
    I hope T&T recovers !

  7. education suppose to be a function of the state.consequently,educational institutions are state-owned.the fulfilment of the educational function constitutes a task in which all society participates and is based on the conclusions and contributions made by science and on the closest relationship between study and life,work and production.

  8. But if we left education up to parents, we would find some have more resources and more time to teach than others. And some children will be left behind through fault of their own.
    So we do have to create some sort of standardised system too.

    • I think you are making the common error of mistaking schooling for education. The “standardised system” you refer to is part of the formal education system but inherent in what Sunity is saying here is the existence of a vast informal education system from which NOBODY is excluded. But with our conventional media in the hands of big business, that informal system has arguably lost its potentially biggest asset.

  9. Fabien Alfonso

    “Our history is not only in books. It is all around us”. I do support the rich history we as a nation inherited. Our Ministry of Tourism ought to be promoting the history that’s around us as a heritage tourism drive. There are foreigners who travel just to visit sites and places that tell the historical stories of that country’s past. Such as Cuba. Trinidad and Tobago can be promoted as one of those places.

  10. I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but have been residing in the U.S. for the last forty years. If Trinidad and Tobago was not previously mentioned, anyone reading this article may have thought that this was the history based on the enslavement of Africans in the U.S. Very nice article Ms. Sunity. Thank you.

  11. I also think we have to take responsibility for our self-education. Speaking with elders-grandparents etc-is one valuable resource. Books-biographies etc-are another valuable resource. Old photos, our library. Old tv shows like cross country etc tell us how we were. Our story is there, we just need to look for it. As long as we understand what we read, learn and and hear is just one side of a story. So many people don’t even know their family tree far less the rich history we have. And we have a rich history in culture, trade unionism, trade, sport. But so much of it is mostly unknown and that is our downfall-our failure to document institutional knowledge. So what legacy are we to leave for future generations?

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