Noble: Is education still the path to social mobility?

EPL Infrafred Sauna

In his 2007 work Categorically Unequal, sociologist Douglas Massey argues ‘education is the most important resource in today’s knowledge-based economy’. It is, therefore, not surprising to witness the passionate debate on this topic and to read the very different views of Mr Fitzgerald Hinds (Express, 2 February) and Mrs Kamla Persad- Bissessar (Guardian, 3 February) about the way forward.

Mr Hinds set out the position that the PNM government desires that we live lives different to what is in the West Bank or Gaza, even while acknowledging that there is no immediate and permanent answer to the crime problem. He emphasised the funds committed to the police service and the presence of four secondary schools.

Photo: Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General, Fitzgerald Hinds.
(Copyright Power102FM)

Accordingly, the future is something the people must do for themselves. According to Hinds: “… you have to take up the fight and the challenges for your own personal growth and development … make use of the opportunities a little more so that you can benefit … don’t lag behind.”

Mrs Persad-Bissessar contextualised the problem as an economic one as ‘poverty is attacking every person’. She promised to restore the ‘laptops in schools’ programme even as she promised a tax reduction.

Brechin Castle, opposite to the Pt Lisas Industrial Estate, is to become an agro-processing plant, Tamana a solar energy plant and Port of Spain a creative and pan building area. She plans to restore the $500 ‘new-born grant’ for single mothers and to bring back the food cards. The dire needs faced in our hospitals—beds and medication—were to be identified but no solution reported.

Mr Hinds’ personal history (a wharfman father, self as an attorney and children as medical doctors) speaks to social mobility, which is at the heart of educational ambition. If we could understand this phenomenon then we may create a better society.

He, like many others, promotes education as a self-help issue: hard work leads to greater rewards. But the unanswered question is: are young people from different backgrounds getting on the ladder at about the same place and, given equal merit and energy, are they able to climb it?

Photo: UNC Political Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar

This is not a narrow issue about Laventille but is a question that confronts us all. If there is no equality of opportunity and hard work does not result in better results, then what?

Equal opportunity for life’s chances is vital for the success of our economy, not just as a crime reduction plan. It is an engine for national productivity and growth while simultaneously reducing social incivilities.

Economic growth depends on the success of our educational and other systems in liberating all. Both Dr Keith Rowley and Mrs Bissessar are examples of social mobility via the route of education.

The successful takeover of a near moribund Alstons Ltd in the mid-80s by Anthony Sabga, then a rank outsider, and the continuing business success of the ANSA McAl group demonstrate the value of cracking open the doors of opportunity. He was not seen as the equal of those who had destroyed the business, yet he rescued and built it into a regional powerhouse.

“Only one competency lasts … money is just a commodity. Talent supplies the edge” (Charan, 2011). Talent is not the preserve of one ethnic group. All the successful global companies (Google, Amazon, Exxon Mobil) care only about how you think about problems. Geoff Colvin (2008) adds: “What has changed (in the business world) is that people are doing much more with what they’ve got.” Is this not the very essence of life in a poverty-stricken household?

2012 graduation ceremony for Sharpstown High School in Houston, TX. 455 students entered the class as freshmen, 217 made it to graduation.

Suggesting that the opportunity of today and of the 60s and 70s are the same is mythical. When our economy grows and there are rising educational levels, our children do better than us in absolute terms. The timing of your birth is, therefore, a huge factor for social mobility.

The opportunity, which presents itself at critical moments, turns into wealth as we store income. Culturally, the Afro-Trinidadian has to take responsibility for self-defeating divisive actions, which inhibit wealth accumulation. The book Sharks and Sardines (Ryan and Barclay, 1992) is instructive.

Mr Hinds fails to recognise that now, the most capable, more ambitious children of the lower-class will not overtake the slowest children of the classes above them due to inbuilt barriers—private schools and lessons, costs of transport, segregated neighbourhoods, access to better health care—all created in the mid-70s to 2000 by the differential stock of wealth.

First, the bottom class dropped away from the middle and top classes. Then the ultra-rich elites emerged, made possible by the superstar executive compensation of the 2000-15 period and the fate of the trade unions. These gaps effectively block the rise of the talented poor, which disincentivises their peers.

Mrs Bissessar understands the need to help her constituencies. Brechin Castle is a stone’s throw away from Dow Village, one of the early and biggest homes for Ramleela, the annual celebration of Ram’s life. Yet Mrs Bissessar’s plan speaks to an agro-processing plant and not a cultural hive. But Laventille should be a creative and cultural hub.

Photo: UTT Point Lisas campus

This is the second attempt to introduce industry there. The previous one, the bagasse factory to use the sugar cane waste failed. Its carcass is now the Point Lisas campus for UTT! Meanwhile, government buildings are left locked up and in ruins on the Eastern Main Road, despite pleas from community groups.

The poor who become doctors remain unemployed. Young, striving professionals who lack enabling networks migrate. A mid-70s UWI graduate could have bought a house and a car, but his counterpart now cannot, unless her parents can raise the down payment. Hard work always pays?

This inequality brings us the horror stories of Mukeisha Maynard and Amy Annamunthodo, ‘who never had a chance, like so many others only knowing abuse, torture, torment, coercion, Obeah, licks, neglect, sex, rum, poison’. (Guardian, March 2012). Poverty is hell.

Effective social policy saves and empowers lives. The Beetham Gardens’ floods create damaged homes and protests. Sending GG for them is to jail or kill the black men. How will the community then prosper? Will we ever get the truth about the young boys killed in their homes at Wallerfield?

Giving a laptop to a child who has ‘war’ in their home and no food in their belly is a cruel gift, according to Maslow. ‘New-born grants’ to single parents, without teaching them that a child should not be a surprise but a long-term plan, are destructive.

Photo: A mother waits to receive her newborn from the gentle hands of the midwife

We must do the hard and necessary work to fix our household structure. To imagine that by cutting taxes, we could generate revenue and grow the economy is a pipe dream, going against accepted economic knowledge. Capital flight is a reality and a lived experience.

Our politicians must do better. We too must do better. We must let go of our poverty of imagination,  dream big dreams and ‘work deliberately’ (Colvin, 2008).

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  1. The single greatest barrier to implementing solutions, workable solutions, is religion and close-minded religious leaders.

    To make a start in “managing” single-parent households, for example, one has to begin by teaching family planning and sex education to preteens and teenagers. Of course, this has been resisted by the religious fraternity for decades. Without empirical evidence, their argument is that teaching sex education leads to more sex and therefore more children.

    Education in Trinidad and Tobago needs serious reform. Things that ought to be taught in school are not, for example, critical thinking and systems thinking, money and how it works, et cetera. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) should be the core of any curriculum, but CT and ST should also be compulsory, as they inherently teach “how to learn” rather than how to swallow and regurgitate curriculum material.

    Once a child learns how to learn, and has knowledge of the tools to process learning, that child will progress further than one who is taught merely to regurgitate.

    As usual though I do not expect to see any change in the near future, or even in the distant future. The religious fanatics will always win the day.

    • Dude, STEM was part of our education system for years. Its just an acronym. For example, most IT students in secondary school or in the first years of university, are able to write programs in Languages such as C++. Some may be able to write in nore difficult languages like Java or Pascal. What I believe, in fact what I know, is that quality education is not distributed across the board equally. Let’s face it. Not all teachers are competent in teaching and in fact quite a few of them are not only dysfunctional as teachers but dysfunctional as human beings. There are some teachers who are simply in it as a quick paying gig after they finish school to get much needed work experience. I remember one Mathematics teacher who missed an entire 1.5 terms of school with out a replacement . When she came back, she also missed classes to go on field trips and then complained when her class became unruly. Then some teachers come from terrible home environments and routiniely take out their frustrations on students. Most of them unfortunately occupy jobs in the East West corridor, generally accepted as the most problematic area in the country. But then again, it’s what persons accept. The profession is viewed as some sort of holy grail despite the fact that every year, close to or sometimes above half the country fails maths and English.

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