A review of the inaugural Keva M. Bethel Distinguished Lecture
LAST week I attended the inaugural Keva M. Bethel Distinguished Lecture at the College of the Bahamas at which Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, one of my favourite thinkers and writers, delivered a fiery presentation she called A Modest Proposal towards a Truer Emancipation and a Truer Independence.
Knowing Mrs Glinton-Meicholas, I am not surprised by her poetic restraint, in her paper title that is. As a writer, it is her way to disarm a reader with the deliberate, humorous and or creative use of language right before she spits fire in their faces.
Anyone who is familiar with her Tru Tru Bahamian series will easily understand the point; after all, there was nothing remotely modest about her presentation at the Harry C. Moore Library and Information Centre.
Rather, it was bold, self-assured and unabashed. It was complex and comprehensive, exhaustive even. It was contentious and provoking. And it surely singed the hairs on everyones skin.
I am certain the many members of the establishment who were in attendance felt the head. The political establishment noticeably kept away, leaving Lady Marguerite Pindling to suffer the burden of a front row seat by herself: Chairman of the COB Council, Alfred Sears’s attendance notwithstanding.
Not only was the presentation timely and instructive, it was exactly the kind of statement that could do justice to the legacy of a distinguished educator and scholar like Dr Bethel, who was also known for the kind of divergent thinking that makes people uncomfortable. In 1993, Dr Bethel’s blueprint for the advancement of education in the Bahamas contained ideas that even today would be considered revolutionary.
Dr Bethel believed school programmes should be adaptable to the needs of the community; she believed the curriculum should have flexibility. Why not have the formal summer break during crawfish season in fishing communities like Abaco, so students could learn the fishing trade without having to miss school?
There is no rule which says that long vacation has to come in August, said Dr Bethel, speaking at a Kiwanis Club meeting in the mid-1990s. Why not teach French at schools in San Salvador, considering Club Med, which was the largest employer at the time, primarily catered to French speaking Europeans? Dr Bethel provoked such questions.
She firmly believed in the philosophy of giving the schools back to the community. If fishing, farming or boating skills were needed in the community then local schools should be the institutions to uncover those talents and hone those skills in the people.
Dr Bethel’s work on the national education taskforce, much of which is articulated in her paper on Educational Reform in the Bahamas, and Mrs Glinton-Meicholas’ immodest proposal are both landmark statements on the state of education in the Bahamas; they present discomforting and yet inspiring visions for our future. Needless to say, they both should be read and internalized by all Bahamians in formal and informal settings.
Mrs Glinton-Meicholas rose to the occasion of the inaugural lecture and did justice to the event carrying Dr Bethel’s name. Here is why I say so.
Every summer when exam results are released for the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education, the Bahamas slumps into a national state of depression over its mediocre national grade average: D. Those in education who know better, know that the calculation of the national average is a misleading and unhelpful statistic, as it serves to fuel a sort of misguided hysteria that never leads to sensible solutions to our education problems.
Tangela Albury, who brought introductory remarks on behalf of event sponsor Fidelity Bank, spoke to the way in which our mythical understanding of education gives rise to irrational decision making. Double the investment in education, the government says; that is the answer: Really, more money?
From her own experience, Ms Albury demonstrated that not all things that glitter are gold; some of the most precious metals are not wrapped in bling, but the caring character of a teacher or the empowering values held by a parent. But coming from someone who works at a financial institution, Ms Albury might, paradoxically, lack credibility.
Mrs Glinton-Meicholas, however, further championed the moot. Her perspective was centrally focused on the concept of freedom and independence; the way in which a truer emancipation and truer independence is the foundation upon which we should contemplate the very notion of education.
Quoting an American monk, she explained that freedom is an interior condition, whereas liberty is an external situation. One who is free is able to act by norms personally decided on and internalized, she said.
The subtle concept is very powerful, but could easily go over the head of someone with a shallow understanding of life. Think, for example, of our prison system. Do those who manage it and advocate for policies concerning it – capital punishment rabble rousers – understand that a prisoner, while he may lose his liberty, has a fundamental human right to freedom, and it is only the pursuit of freedom that will restore a sense of purpose and community belonging, which is a necessary condition for the effective reintegration into society? How many more examples do we need than to look at the life stories of Nelson Mandela and Malcom X, or St Paul and St Thomas?
As a society we derive zealous pleasure from our cosmetic celebration of independence, having little regard for the hollowness of our commemoration.
And this is largely because we have failed to create a society that truly values, celebrates and pursues emancipation and independence, on the individual and collective level, both of which are lifelong journeys and not certificates to be hung on the wall and idolized.
Do our teachers, those guardians and coaches of our sacred knowledge traditions, understand that many people who are independent are not free and many who are dependent are free, as the American monk said. When they preach national pride at independence time, do they tell our children that we are not fully emancipated and not truly independent, so that they understand their ongoing responsibly to pursue freedom?
Many Bahamians came to believe with dangerous zealotry that we have a specialness which can protect us from all the contretemps of life; that our constitution, or certificate of entitlement, was good for interest free credit and endless drawdowns of privilege with no payback required, said Mrs Glinton-Meicholas.
She was so right when she said the crisis of our times calls for systemic self-examination of how we see ourselves and our purpose and how we view others; for restoring the fundamentals of productive citizenship and moving towards a truer independence. No matter the money we throw at the education system, unless we do serious self-examination it will be for naught; we cannot afford to do a surface examination and slap on some new paint.
It was not more than five minutes into her presentation and Mrs Glinton-Meicholas had already side-swiped several sacred cows: independence, the constitution, Majority Rule, democracy, the clergy.
Yes we beat the drums of democracy and parity as the western world dictates, but powerful is the Bahamian desire to create aristocracy, separation of classes, dynastic power and separatist wealth in the colonial mold. Majority Rule has not promoted more freedom but has underwritten new plantations. We have simply recast the tragedy of oppression, new players same script, declared Mrs Glinton-Meicholas.
She was not being carelessly dismissive; she was provoking some very important questions. Do we collectively understand independence and all of the sacred events of history to be points on a journey, not bookends? Do we collectively understand that our responsibility to pursue freedom persists? That our journey to decolonization, breaking the psychic chains, is far from complete? Have we become arrogantly blinded by the piece of paper that asserts our autonomy and self-direction?
Independence and the independence constitution were twin infants; babes to be loved, nourished, to have their nappies changed when soiled, anomic beings to be raised and guided to an ethical and admirable and sustainable majority, said Mrs Glinton-Meicholas.
There is an unspoken subtext of who we are as Bahamians that Mrs Glinton-Meicholas challenged us to sit with. She described it as a disorder that constitutes neither freedom nor independence, and before diving into the substantive elements of her modest proposal she deconstructed this disorder in great detail.
With brutal honesty, she spoke about pastors playing politician Ayatollah style, trying hard with might and main to establish hegemony over our consciousness and idle moguls playing ping-pong with our country’s dignity; she spoke about class and ethnic disparities, our overwhelmed health system; the bloated and gravely inefficient public bureaucracy that is too tired, politicized or jaded to do the people’s business and the endless political appointments that add to the public payroll but deplete our fund of skilled leadership.
Her societal x-ray also called out the massive over staffing of the public service for constituency patronage, militant and greedy unionism, incompetence masquerading as leadership, lack of transparency in government and freedom of information, and the unequal access to opportunity for all Bahamians.
In fact, Mrs Glinton-Meicholas outright declared: “If I were to write a screen play on Bahamian life today, I would title it: ‘On Life Support’. I’d feature the issues, disconnects and pathologies assailing our freedoms: Youth disaffection, senseless murder, joblessness, endemic insouciance regarding human rights and the environment, landlessness, land grabs, parliamentary exchanges that have more to do with school yard brawling than intelligent governance, sour grapes politics, deficit spending on the national and individual level…an education system worthy of the title only as it relates to systemic failure.”
In her proposal for moving forward, upward and onward together, Mrs Glinton-Meicholas spoke to our purpose as striving for the creation of a “productive, equitable and free society”, with Bahamians thriving in peace and joy. She challenged the collective community to “recommence the journey to freedom and independence”. I was truly inspired by this sentiment and certainly believe it should undergird our education system.
Her calls to action were masterfully articulated, covering a range of areas from environmental stewardship to the creative economy to the status of teachers. Very instructive were the notions articulated about sustainable development, democracy and social capital.
“Sustainable development is not achieved by building up economic/physical capital alone. While these elements are essential, they cannot long survive without complementary levels of human and natural capital, all closely articulated and mutually nourishing,” she said. We are still challenged as a nation to make those words real, not simply at the rhetorical level.
“In building social capital, we must give urgent priority to telling a truer story of ourselves. Comic books provide enough fictional heroes. We must do a better job at identifying and celebrating people who present models worthy of praise and emulation. Our selection process must be unhindered by partisanship, racism and family and group attempts at self-aggrandizement. We must tell the story of the Bahamian people which privileges their honest and sacrificial struggles to free themselves,” she said.
“We must write of a democracy that is still incomplete. While there are still minorities that struggle not just for equity, but for survival and dignity. How can our society find healing if we persist in erecting smoke screens to hide our societal disabilities. It serves us ill to write narratives of national unity and progress when women’s rights are still being crushed beneath an obdurate patriarchy that secretly wonders why all the fuss about domestic abuse and rape.
“We must lay bare discrimination against the disabled, Bahamians of Haitian descent and gays, who are still denied some of the most basic rights of belonging,” she said. This clarion call is one that should be spoken over and over again.
One of Mrs Glinton-Meicholas most critical examinations was on the very meaning of democracy. She highlighted the meaning of democracy as “the institutionalization of freedom”. I suppose this might be an expected college level topic of discussion, but imagine if we could develop a civic awareness of this idea on a widespread scale not just an intellectual awareness for an academic few.
Imagine if we collectively understood that majority rule in and of itself is not democratic; that democracy has to include” guarantees of individual human rights that serve to protect the rights of minorities and dissenters”.
“To begin the process of shoring up Bahamian democracy, we need to remind ourselves of what democracy should consist: sovereignty of the people; government based on the consent of the government; majority rule; minority rights; guarantee of basic human rights, including the rights of those put under arrest and held in police stations, even of those justly convicted and imprisoned; free and fair elections, equality before the law, due process of law and timeliness of process; constitutional limits on government; social, economic and political pluralism; values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation, compromise,” said Mrs Glinton-Meicholas.
The Bahamian people are chronically intoxicated by delusion of grandeur and our educational system has conspired to keep us sedated, which means there is no accountability in our manipulative and predatory two party political system and little pursuit of better. When Nicolette Bethel coined the phrase “dream better”, as a counter-story to that which we are always encouraged to do “dream big”, it was so enlightening. In both cases, to pursue better requires self-awareness, acceptance, self-worth and vision, and it works hand in hand with the pursuit of freedom.
This is why Mrs Glinton-Meicholas “modest proposal towards a truer emancipation and a truer independence” is so important.
“Democracy, freedom and independence are irrevocably bound up in the nature and quality of the education and information afforded a people. It is these factors that largely inform productive citizenship, a crucial precondition for sustainable socio-economic development and social cohesion. Critical to productive citizenship and knowledge and acceptance of self and one’s obligations to neighbour, community and nation, it requires good problem solving skills, ability to make sound decisions and produce not only goods, but value. Productive citizenship demands the ability to work in harmony with others. These are the prerequisites to popular freedom and the norms and the values that the educational system of a nation, craving a truer independence, has an obligation to foster,” said Mrs Glinton-Meicholas.
“It is apparent that Bahamian education is doing the reverse; the system has conspired in the creation of a people too extensively lacking in personal discipline, civic and economic intelligence and ability to function at the higher levels of cognition: application, analysis, evaluation, synthesis, creation. The unappetizing truth is that many teachers do not themselves possess these skills and too many others who possess a greater competence feel no vocation to impart it,” she said.
I have quoted Mrs Glinton-Meicholas extensively in this review, and yet I have only scratched the surface of her investigation. She speaks extensively on prescriptive solutions to the education system, making recommendations about the role of the private sector, standards for teachers, curriculum development and a range of other areas. One could even be overwhelmed by the scope of her examination.
There is no doubt in my mind that much thought was given by Mrs Glinton-Meicholas into the just way to use the platform of the Keva M. Bethel Distinguished Lecture to speak about education in the Bahamas and the development of the nation.
I have every expectation that her formidable paper will go the way of Dr Bethel’s “blueprint for the advancement of education in the Bahamas”. Let us just say, it is still sitting on a shelf. We are simply too enslaved as a society. However, with a little luck, it just might spark a revolution in the minds of a few, who will go forward to champion the cause of freedom and create meaningful change.
In the meantime, I hope at the very least, we find a way to institutionalize some of her teachings. Senior students in high school and certainly all COB students, through a foundational course of some sort, should research and study the work of minds like Mrs Glinton-Meicholas and other modern writers. Maybe then, we can move the collective consciousness.
• Noelle Khalila Nicolls is the Tribune’s Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter @noelle_elleon. For questions or comments, email email@example.com.
As published in The Tribune on August 26, 2013.