Education poses perhaps the greatest challenge to leadership in Trinidad and Tobago. Even as we drown in incivility and violence at one end of the societal spectrum and in arrogance and corruption at the other, our educated classes have proved patently unable to devise or implement any reasonable solution to the problems faced by our society.
Perhaps the intelligentsia has not been able to come up with a solution because a common definition of the problem is lacking. We are clever, but perhaps not clever enough, each idea master only able to frame a problem in their own vocabulary, unable to bridge knowledge and language gaps to arrive at a general diagnosis of our challenge. The upshot is a cacophony of definitions and inaccurate solutions for symptoms commonly seen.
We know that we have a problem of crime and that this manifests as murder and assault, white-collar crime and corruption. These sit at opposite ends but are not strangers, since one needs the other for its perpetuation. But if crime is a problem, what is its cause? If crime is a symptom, what is the underlying problem?
It is here that leadership comes into sharp focus, since a thorough examination of the issues faced by our society can locate both their cause and solution firmly in the province of leadership.
This is not a generally accepted argument, and there are many, including some prime ministers past and perhaps present, who have felt that they too are victims of the system, of a political culture gone horribly wrong. Faced with the powerlessness of their role and a hardened and unproductive national culture, political leaders slide into decline themselves, enriching themselves as compensation for having seen the true nature of the undefeatable beast.
The rest of us remain without a mirror. Perhaps we are unable to face our own reflection in much the same way as Wilde’s Dorian Gray was unable to witness his portrait, so we look everywhere else for our solutions, instead creating more problems.
Yet one cannot escape the sense that a good leader could address the problems of this country. The cynics among us may scoff, but T&T may yet rise, and we are certainly further along than India or South Africa or the Vatican were when Gandhi, Mandela or Francis rose to prominence, changing very rapidly what was thought to be virtually unchangeable. There is hope for us yet.
So what then is the prime quality of a leader, and how do we get one who can lead us to a more elevated space? It is here that education rises to clear the cerebral fog and rides, as they say, to the rescue.
Education is far more than certification, a point frequently misunderstood, with disastrous effects, by most people here. In its broadest sense, education is intellectual, moral and social instruction (and this is the definitional latitude with which I seek to endow my argument). One might argue that the reason we have weak leadership is that the quality of our education has fallen dramatically as we fundamentally misunderstood what education is and what an educated person must be.
Our education has focused on what a person knows, and not on who they are. Denominational schools seek to provide some moral grounding at primary and secondary level, however this is sandblasted away at the tertiary level. At government schools, which are free of religious constraint and almost free of philosophical or humanist consideration, moral and social instructions appear to be bypassed just as quickly. Generations of our young, divorced from a wider community of values, whose commitment to the nationhood project is tenuous at best, is what ensues.
This is not as simple a problem to resolve as it is to articulate. We have spent years emphasising that a person is “bright” when they pass their exams. Beyond the childhood instruction that children receive from parents—increasingly not to be assumed—most of our young are on autopilot, receiving little in the way of conscious character development except through everyday experience.
Proper education is of course the antidote, but this involves a tough self-examination, because education as we know it has failed us. The inverse correlation between the development of our national character and the education of our leaders is obvious.
People trained to think critically, but without any moral or social anchor, display two dangerous attributes frequently seen in our leaders today. That is, they are destructively critical and play in unanticipated spaces. Destructive criticism demolishes new ideas, but replaces them with nothing. The outcome is a society which cannot shift, because the social and psychological costs for innovators and change agents are simply too high. We all stand in a line of mediocrity, ready to train our guns on whoever steps forward. Eventually the best of us retreat into our own spaces, jaded by the wanton misuse of power conferred by trained intellect. The battle is won by the certificated masses who shout loudest in favour of no change.
Playing in the spaces is an even more corrupting and insidious force operating in our society, and this is almost exclusively the province of the certificated. This is where we sail very close to the letter of the law, of rules, of regulations, using the training conferred by “education” to say that what we want to do is possible since it has not been expressly outlawed, whether we know it to be good for the society or not. This use of justifying argument for one’s personal advancement tears at the fabric of a young society and makes us all vulnerable since we are rapidly descending, with the education system’s help, into a place where we are each a republic and the notion of the common good grows distant.
This is not to say that we should stop our people from studying. Far from it! Rather, my proposition would be that we need a more expansive perspective on what education should be, and we should seek to deliver such a holistic diet to our children, so that we may one day have better leaders. If we can confront ourselves positively, and make the changes we know we must, T&T may yet become a great nation. It is in service of this end we should stand.
• Rolph Balgobin is an independent senator