Noble: Equal opportunity via education—the unfulfilled Independence dream 

On 30 August 1962, young boys from San Fernando, Rio Claro and Tobago stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tunapuna crew and others from Woodbrook and Ellerslie Park. We were all form one Queen’s Royal College students, present at the Queen’s Park Oval to hear Dr Eric Williams address the Youth Rally. He said:

“You in your schools have, like the Nation in general, only two alternatives—you learn to live together in peace, or you fight it out and destroy one another. The second alternative makes no sense and is sheer barbarism. The first alternative is civilised and is simple common sense. 

Photo: Late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.

“You, the children, have the great responsibility to educate your parents. Teach them to live together in harmony, the difference being not race or colour of skin but merit only, differences of wealth and family status being rejected in favour of equality of opportunity. 

“I call upon all of you young people to practice what you sing today and tomorrow, to translate the ideal of our National Anthem into a code of everyday behaviour, and to make our Nation one in which ‘every creed and race find an equal place’.”

He continued:

“[…] At the birth of our Nation, four of its leading personalities, four of the people with the heaviest responsibility for its guidance—in the Cabinet, Parliament and the Judiciary—are scholarship winners, educated abroad at the expense of your parents, the taxpayers: the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, The Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of Representatives, and the Leader of the Opposition. 

“When you return to your classes after Independence, remember, therefore, each and every one of you, that you carry the future of Trinidad and Tobago in your school bags.”

Photo: Students at the Gandhi Memorial Vedic School are keen to make a point, during a visit by Ministry of Education officials.
(via Ministry of Education)

Education matters. More than being a mere source of information, words transmit hope and build political consciousness. One cannot exercise the power of autonomy without an education. Dr Williams understood this.

As part of the first cohort of successful Common Entrance students, we understood the notion of ‘equality of opportunity ’. We imbibed the reality that we were being educated at the expense of our parents, the taxpayers.  

How else could we have been together in that classroom? Our very lives were a testament to these ideas. Why would my Rio Claro friend, with his roti in a paper bag, believe he could sit in the same classroom with another who rode to school on his bike and had a lawyer father? 

This then heresy—education at that time was exclusively for the monied—was driven by Dr Williams’ revolutionary ideas about education. 

Photo: Is education a level playing field?

Sparrow captured the moment’s zeitgeist with his 1962 classic: ‘Dan is the man in the van’. He captured it succinctly:

According to the education
You get when you small
You will grow up with true ambition
And respect from one and all
But in my days in school
They teach me like a fool
The things they teach me
Ah should be ah block-headed mule

His conclusion? Cutteridge wanted to keep us in ignorance! (KO Cutteridge was the author of the famed West Indian Readers taught in our schools up to the 1960s.)

We, the first products of the Common Entrance classes, were proof that the colonial education was being dismantled. 

But that breakthrough did not last long. Those who had money soon learnt that ‘extra’ lessons were a way of corrupting the system and staying in control. Poor parents who faced the daily choice of paying for transportation and food had no money to pay for lessons. 

But Sparrow (1967) continued to urge, 

“Children, go to school and learn well
Otherwise, later on in life, you will catch real hell
Without an education in your head
Your whole life will be pure misery; you’re better off dead
For there is simply no room in this whole wide world
For an uneducated little boy or girl
Don’t allow idle companions to lead you astray
To earn tomorrow, you have to learn today.”

The second phase of modernisation of the educational system (1972)—the setting up of the junior secondary schools—set the stage for societal corrosion, for which we are still paying the price. Removing the post-primary classes with a more structured experience was a great idea. The implementation was awful. 

The curricula were improperly created, and teachers were perpetually absent and poorly trained. The public’s expectations were skewed—those schools were not designed to replicate the traditional prestige schools. We complicated the student allocation system with many students, particularly those in the urban areas, not attending schools nearby. 

On a shift system, those schools were academic/vocational disasters. The World Bank (1983) acknowledged the bi-directional societal impact of the programme’s poor implementation. But did anybody care? 

Whether one agrees or not that Cro Cro (Corruption in Common Entrance) is racist, the secondary schools’ selection and allocation criteria have become increasingly obscure. 

Photo: San Juan North Secondary students cheer on their team during their National Intercol final match-up with Naparima College at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 4 December 2018.
Naparima won on penalties.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/ CA-Images/ Wired868)

This villainous behaviour was illustrated by Nigel Henry (2019). Even though the Chief Education Officer animatedly challenged the Henry assertions, it is instructive to read the Visser v Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education 2019 judgment to appreciate the twists taken to keep things hidden. 

The Vissers were unhappy with the placement of their son. Given his academic history, he underperformed per the exam results. They challenged the Ministry of Education, seeking to review the actual scores. It took two years to resolve, and the papers requested were destroyed in the interim. 

The Judge commented in her summary: “The conduct of the Defendant in the instant action must be condemned in the strongest language.” 

Why did the Ministry act in this way? Why would they linger on a pressing matter? Why destroy the paper? 

Image: A satirical take on whistleblowing.

In essence, we are back to pre-1962 days. A few lucky ones are trained to serve the resident multinationals, while others migrate on our dime. In an OECD study on the migration of qualified professionals, the Caribbean was a leading contributor; Trinidad was ranked #5, with an estimated 75% of its professionals leaving. 

The economy is not benefitting from the Education investment; there is no means of economic transformation. 

The trauma of the 70s has given birth to our crime situation, for which we now blame the Police Commissioner. Gypsy is wrong. It is not the black boy who is at fault—it is the system we have corrupted. 

Meritocracy leads to a cumulative advantage; the more you have, the easier it is to pass on that advantage to your children. 

There is another way. We can make room for all our children. This was the dream at the 1962 Independence celebrations. 

Photo: Two spectators take a selfie during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade celebrations.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/ Wired868)

Will we, on the 60th anniversary of Independence, gather the courage to stop the rot? Will we fight for equality of opportunity? 

If we do not, we need to prepare to live Hobbesian (short and brutish) lives, where we fight it out barbarically, destroying each other and our Nation. 

The choice is ours. God bless our Nation!

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  1. To put it succinctly, Williams believed that “what you know” should build the nation. Since then, is only “who you know” that matters. The verb is consistent. Alas the change in pronouns

  2. As usual, a well written, educational and thought provoking article. So much so it prompted me to ask,
    how could a young lady whose grades were a on par and in some cases better than those of her classmates (for them it was virtually a breeze) could not get into UWI medical school but later was accepted into a similar program offered by the prestigious John Hopkins university?

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