By Themba Mkhize
Health and education are the heart and lungs of a productive life. When the jewel that is a healthy, well-educated human occurs, we are witnessing the highest potential for life satisfaction. For such a person, a mixture of opportunity and self-application quickly transforms major achievements into achievable targets. Unfortunately, many students never quite find this rhythm. Many such students are marginalized and go on to become criminals. Starting with a more robust, inclusive education system, we can start the process of renewal of the Jamaican identity.
I would argue that education, for Jamaica’s sake, needs to be defined as the continuous, contextually informed process of acquisition, synthesis and application of knowledge and techniques which promote value creation in our communities, nation and region. Critical elements to understand in this definition are that it must be a lifelong process; it must create pathways for collaboration of students with diverse communities, and it must equip them with necessary skills to navigate the realities of life after school.
Jamaica’s formal education system often feels overly constrained to classrooms or exam halls. Students oftentimes struggle to bridge what they learn on a given day with their day to day lived experiences. We educate ourselves so that we can enhance the quality of our lives, which means we shortchange ourselves and our society when the community is not integrated into the process of learning and reinforcement of what is learnt. This, in turn, overvalues certification by undervaluing the relational element of learning. Learning must become such a wholesome activity that students should never feel as though it is only about “getting the paper”.
The future of education must give students a distinct role in the community, where what they learn in a classroom can be applied to improving the lives of those around them. This is important if we want to build any sort of constructive community identity and social solidarity – which is important for combating destructive elements threatening the foundation of our nation. For example, COVID-19 has shown us that many Jamaicans are passive thinkers, resting their realities totally on the strictness of enforcement instead of on their personal health and the health of the wider community. This explains the lack of motivation many display to obeying quarantine orders, wearing masks in public or practising social distancing. Our community level social bonds need reinforcing.
Education as we know it may soon evaporate. Learning will be perpetual and has to create sustainable value for students, who must in turn be taught to create sustainable value in the communities, country and region. Also, affixed to education must be a level of responsibility to deliver this value, by, at minimum, contributing in such a way that sweeps the era of low value, low impact work away, replacing it with a new paradigm of satisfying, high impact work. Our population will remain at the lower end of the skill pool if we find comfort in the shadow of other countries, and allow opportunities in the green, blue and orange economies to pass us by. In other words, we must be encouraged to produce our way to the Jamaica we want to see.
There are also many aspects of life which, at the end of their schooling, Jamaican children have little structured exposure to. Education must expand to teach at least basic life skills for personal development – including basic economics and financial literacy. Students will graduate into a world of work and earning where their relative ignorance leaves them vulnerable to shocks which obstruct their ability to maximize the potential of their earnings and to secure their position in the labour market. Most students will leave school with technical competences and barely any structured understanding of how the world beyond that works.
The success stories of Jamaican education have represented us well on the world stage, but today I am motivated by the faceless many that have been underserved by Jamaica’s education system, and never recovered. I assume most eventually make peace with an underwhelming fate, but only after a flash of years where the peak for their generation passes by as a funeral procession of unrealized potential. We look on hopefully, awaiting bold recommendations from the Education Transformation Commission 2020. There are a number of foundational changes which can be made to how education is administered in Jamaica which would make education more inclusive, better integrated into community life and deliver greater life satisfaction for our children – and their children after that.
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