Recently I spoke with a young professional in his mid-30s, a decent chap with three university degrees with whom I am able to converse whenever we meet. I asked him what drives his peers, the young educated class in this country. His thoughtful response was they were concerned mainly with their own material progress and pursuit of pleasure, with no passion for country and society, confirming the view that, among our new educated elite, is an alarming deficit in social conscience, an inner vacancy. They look on at the society from a distance as something unreal, theatre, unrelated to their narrow preoccupations.
They are not to be blamed. It is their education for which we have paid with great billions over the years. My young friend agrees if you spend 17 years passing through our primary and secondary schools and there is no stimulation of the soul, you should not expect anything more than limited, superficial engagement of the society by the new professional class in the country. We are therefore paying to place our nation in danger, for if our future leaders and elders don’t care, what does the future hold for Trinidad and Tobago but more leaderlessness and rapaciousness? This is a serious national challenge that we have not even begun to think about.
We must understand how this developed, because it was not so with the pre- and post-Independence generations who were characterised by passion, if not clarity. But around 40 years ago, somewhere in the ’70s, there was a global shift in education from the heroic to the pragmatic. Greater emphasis was placed on brain power than on developing the mind; on achieving earning capability than on nurturing sensitivity, social conscience and humanity. English literature and history were pushed to the periphery, for example, and math and sciences gained pre-eminence. How else could you prepare youth for the marketplace? was the thinking then and now.
So the brightest have continued to choose law, medicine, finance, engineering, accountancy; the pragmatic and practical. Fine, but generations of these have entered the professions with little of the shaping influence of the humanities. We ought to have maintained the critical balance in our schools. We failed and the world has seen the dehumanisation of hundreds of millions of young, bright people, among whom were those, greedy self-seeking financial wizards of Wall Street who, in pursuit for their enormous, ill-gotten gains, brought the world to the brink of economic ruin in 2008.
The shift in education either coincided with or was the result of the market fundamentalism that drove the globalisation of production and the liberalisation of trade, reducing the role of the state, emphasising private sector-led growth, creating an environment where, more than ever, the attainment of wealth and status was the principal driving force for young people graduating from colleges and universities. If the world is today more materialistic than ever, then that shift has made the most significant contribution.
The shift in education also produced a marked decline in the quality of leadership everywhere. Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul, Lech Walesa and Gorbachev lingered into the modern era but were the products of a different education, a different time, as were Eric Williams, Cheddi Jagan, Errol Barrow and Michael Manley. All these were the last of the devoted breed, the larger than life characters, driven by more than hunger for power and prestige and grappling with their societies in very profound ways. After them came the ordinary, epitomised by the likes of Tony Blair, George W Bush and those in the region today who lack the conviction to lift Caricom from its stagnation. No leader now on the world stage can stir the heart of humanity as Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson whose landmark speech is 50 years old this week in which he said the “Great Society” must be built in the classrooms where “every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination... where every child can enrich his mind and enlarge his talents”.
The barrenness of modern education is a major reason for a prevailing amorality among the upper echelons in Trinidad and Tobago. When wealth acquisition is the main preoccupation of those at the top, scruples are thrown out the window in every sector and predators prowl in offices and boardrooms everywhere, creating a jungle of lawlessness at the top which is already breeding violence of the kind that downed Dana.
We must take action. I suppose we must count as largely lost those already too steeped in self and we must hope to eventually develop strength of law and institutions to protect the nation from disembowelment by those it spent billions to educate. But we must focus on the children and youth, those now moving through the education system which is more like an assembly line when it should be an open field for exploration of a variety of offerings, from arts and humanities to science and mathematics.
Our education system has been producing academically successful youth who score low in caring and commitment to country. This is threat to the nation’s future. Leaders, parents and teachers, take note.