N Touch
Tuesday 14 August 2018
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Commentary

The idea of a university

Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday.

The current projected downsizing of UTT leads us to ponder on the idea of a university. Former prime minister Patrick Manning, who also initiated GATE, set up UTT in line with Vision 2020. This harks back to Eric Williams’ vision of free education for all from which many of my generation benefitted.

Of course, one of the problems with this vision was an idea instilled in the developing nation that education meant academic excellence and knowledge. Passing exams became the rationale of our educational system and also led to the creation of a new elite.

That idea of education has been the scaffold on which our society was shaped. It may be argued that it has led to the ostracisation and marginalisation of many, including the socially disadvantaged and the disabled.

Schools, in particular those which saw themselves as among the best in the nation, fostered this idea of education. Those who had visual intelligence, whose hands were their intelligence, whose skills and creativity did not fit into a received model of excellence, often fell by the wayside.

As the years progressed the attitude changed somewhat, but the idea of skills-based and creative excellence in the broadest sense has not really become part of our collective thinking.

I hasten to add, however, that the architects of our nation and of our current education system did what they did from pure and justifiable motives. They knew that as a nation of primarily black, non-white, mixed people, the only way we could compete was by demonstrating that we were and are equally intelligent as those who had created hierarchies of exclusion dominated by white people. Education was the key to success. But this led to an emphasis on knowledge, without attaching value to the idea of education itself.

UTT in its own way sought to redress the imbalance created by these ideals of education fostered at the time of independence. It seemed from its inception to have a vision that there are other types of intelligence, all equally valid and necessary for nation building. Its initial focus was industry — with clear privileging of engineering and technology.

UTT still seems well placed to act as a transformative institution. The fact that it trains teachers appears to give it an edge in fostering new ideas. It is free, moreover, to get rid of the traditional constraints under which many universities, including UWI, still exist. By this I mean the compartmentalisation of disciplines and the territorial attitude that persists within disciplines that actually short circuit change and innovation.

However, what UTT should not have done was to seek to compete with UWI in the traditional knowledge industry. It should rather have furthered that project of giving new meaning to education as in their practice-based teaching in the creative industries — in fashion and film-making and drama — and build on them.

It should have fostered those programmes that are so necessary in our society, such as the special needs qualification in its education programme, and worked with national planners to give jobs to those who were trained.

I know that many teachers graduated with special education qualifications with great hope, but could not find jobs because there are so few positions for special ed teachers in mainstream schools. By building on such initiatives UTT could still generate new models of social behaviour.

This brings us again to the idea of a university. Universities are now increasingly places where one gets a qualification that becomes merely a piece of paper that leads to a job. But if there are no jobs, then what is the point? Do we go back to the idea of an elite class who will lead because they have specialist knowledge, for example as computer specialists and engineers and scientists?

Or do we reconsider what a university means in the light of global events. As the world is increasingly threatened by technological changes and environmental negligence, there is also a growing awareness of the rights of others. This issue of rights has taken on a new meaning in the face of threats to our continuing existence and even relevance. The problem of the future lies in fact in ensuring our humanity.

As I am writing this article a message from an old friend comes up on my Facebook page. It is shared from the World Economic Forum and states that only by changing how we teach can our children compete with machines.

We need to teach children the things that machines cannot be taught to do. We need to teach values, caring for others, painting, music, and the arts in general, because we need to start thinking how to be different from a machine. We need to become creative, caring and critical thinkers.

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