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Tuesday 10 December 2019
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Commentary

Reimagining literacy

DARA HEALY

“For there is simply no room

In this whole wide world

For an uneducated little boy or girl

Doh allow idle companions

To lead you astray

To own tomorrow

You got to learn today!”

Mighty Sparrow, Education

AS THOUSANDS of children feverishly prepare to take an exam that will impact the rest of their lives, once again our thoughts turn to the value of the education that they are receiving.

We ponder, as well, the “lessons” tradition that has grown into an industry, and alongside it the bizarre phenomenon of teachers who only seem to complete the curriculum outside of established school hours, and for a fee.

As we consider these abnormalities in our education system, it is instructive to think back to the generation that believed that learning was the means to a better life, to “owning” tomorrow, as the Mighty Sparrow assured us.

However, as Sparrow’s other calypso, Dan is the Man, reminded, the purpose of education is not to separate a people from themselves. Rather, education should function as an empowering force for the people it serves.

Oxford online dictionary defines education in a number of ways — “the theory and practice of teaching; a body of knowledge acquired; information about or training in a particular subject; an enlightening experience.”

Sadly, our formal education system consistently fails to deliver on that enlightening experience. Just this week, a young man studying literature, history and the arts complained to me that he could not stand the way he was being taught these subjects. He admitted that he was dreading going back to school.

I was mortified, because what could be more exciting than this combination? When I asked him what was the problem, he said with disgust and frustration “the teacher.” I offered to coach him, but by his body language I knew we had lost another child to our irrelevant system.

His enthusiasm had already been dulled by the way we approach education, in particular those subjects that demand creativity, innovation and a broader way of looking at the world.

How do we break the colonial moulds that so restrict us? Global conversations about creativity, intelligence and indigenous art forms continue to build alternative narratives about the purpose of education.

One thought-leader, in recognising the challenges, makes the point that “creativity scares us. There is so much uncertainty about it that we often reject it in favour of predictability and conventionality.”

Still, at some levels, the notion of how one defines education, intelligence and the needs of society is being turned inside out. For instance, this year rapper Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the music category for his album Damn.

The Pulitzer, named for its founder Joseph Pulitzer, was established in 1917 for outstanding literary or journalistic achievements.

“It was not only the first time a music Pulitzer was given to a hip-hop album, but also to any work outside the more rarefied precincts of classical and, occasionally, jazz composition — indeed, to an album that reached No 1 on the pop chart.”

In 2016, Bob Dylan, influential singer and song-writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, another indication of the change in how we define traditional areas of learning. In a society like ours, brimming with creativity as a result of the coming together of many cultures, we still do not understand the importance of infusing our education with meaning that comes from us. Further, we complain about poor levels of literacy, but consistently resist solutions grounded in our experience.

Why haven’t we explored using tassa and African drum rhythms to teach mathematics? Or used the stories from any heritage (we can choose) to deliver life lessons, encourage a love for reading and improve literacy?

Worse, too many teachers are not knowledgeable about our history or culture. We have visual and performing arts in schools, but the dance, drama and arts are not given enough historical context or an ideological grounding. In other words, we dance, act and draw without fully understanding how we have reached to this point in our evolution as a nation.

So, the people who make decisions about education continue to miss opportunities to develop an innovative and energised environment of learning. It is disputed who said this, but it describes perfectly why we continue to earn a failing grade for education: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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