When my mother was in high school over 25 years ago, to graduate from upper sixth form was a special feat. Sixth form graduates were the ones getting jobs in places banks and the public sector. Only the very white, the very bright or the very rich attended university. By the time I started school, to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree was the gold standard. Now, the four year degree is seeing its time.

In her 2016 Jamaica Gleaner article, “Are Degrees Failing Jamaica?” Sashakay Fairclough wrote: 

The world is changing. A university education is no longer the way to escape poverty. In fact, it appears to bring persons closer to it. It is simply not the great equaliser anymore.

Choose a career that is marketable, bankable, future-proof and lucrative, they said, pursue a degree in the STEM field, they said, it’s the future.

I agree that getting a liberal arts degree makes life tougher for graduates because the courses are not immediately linked to  a career path but to choose a job based on the trajectory of the economy is only half of the story.

For STEM: Slow Start

In high school my first Math teacher was the lower school Art teacher and in second form our Integrated Science teacher was one of the Physical Education teachers. In third form qualified teachers taught each course but my introduction to specific STEM  subjects, especially Math, which in integral to all science subjects, was very poor. I have never liked Math since first form for this reason.

Better teachers at earlier levels of schooling improve student performance in the long run. I liked Literature in school for a while because I had a fantastic teacher in first form and the relationship I formed with the subject stuck. Nowadays teachers receive STEM scholarships so hopefully future generations will receive what we did not.

The Irony

I know a lot of people who studied a science degree in university and graduated to find that their field is underdeveloped in Jamaica and that more advanced degrees are needed to enter these careers abroad. Most return to the classrooms, becoming teachers, some pursue further studies or they become low-mid level assistants or they have to go back to school for completely different degrees. STEM degrees require modern machines and technology to flourish else advancement in the areas of research and exploration is limited. Jamaica lacks technological developments thus these degrees can sometimes feel useless.

In Defense of The Liberal Arts Degree

Due to the above mentioned reasons a lot of university students pursue liberal arts degrees but if you have parents like mine this is the road of most resistance. Not many parents want to sponsor a degree that does not have courses linked to a direct career and it is for that reason that you find a lot of students who would love to go into the Arts choose degrees that they do not what to do.

Franklin Johnson stated in his Jamaica Observer article for January 2014:

Most students prefer what is easy, popular with peers, or on TV — not the best way to choose your degree… A post-slave society needs educated youth who love learning, explore, but have a competence and innovate. A degree is now a bauble, a trophy, and few care what they read.

A degree is just expensive paper that we buy, literally. The misconception is that the liberal arts graduate needs to land a ready made job after school but the liberal arts degree offers more versatility than anything else right now. We are in the age of personality where everyone has access to the same information at the same time, thus room has been created for influencers to work on behalf of companies and collectives in all areas of art. Getting a liberal arts Bachelor’s degree now more than ever is not an indication of artistic ability or creativity (because school can’t teach that– it more ruins it) it just says, “I can handle work and I can manage my time.” 

All-in-all, either type of degree one chooses to do does not better or dampen the chances at success especially now when the Bachelor’s degree is becoming more and more obsolete (getting a Master’s isn’t the answer either).

The next generation needs to be those who will advance in STEM but we need better teachers at the earliest levels of schooling to make that happen, the equipment available to take advantage of the skills learnt in the classroom needs to be up to par in the real world as well and people should stop bashing the liberal arts degrees and offer more funding because while STEM shows a practical approach to problem solving, liberal arts degrees rely on emotional reasoning and creativity/ entertainment to encourage peace of mind and to bring about enlightenment. Both areas of education are equally important, both areas are being short changed and that is sad because both areas still have a long way to go. — Bless.

Footnotes: Do you realize that there are so many depressed college dropouts or a lot of depressed college graduates out here ’cause we doing degrees for our parents? It’s an epidemic. Some of us graduate with degrees we hate or can’t fully use in this economy so we settle for jobs we are overqualified for or hate. We soon become zombies: we live for the weekend because the nine-to-five is just something to get through. The stress of the early morning wake up at 4am or 5am and the traffic to get the the 8am and the traffic to get home is exhausting. The inadequate pay/ the high cost of living cause the stress. The stress overtime  becomes frustration resulting in the notoriously poor attitude that Jamaicans are known for. In a year or less we are grabbing at the work visa and the green card, soon we are working just to runaway. Look round you, there are a lot of unhappy Jamaicans going to work just to survive. And let us not forget that all this is made 10x worse if you have student debt

[cover art: Margaret Bowland, Power (2014)]


School Does Not Prepare You for the World of Work

I have attended two high schools in my lifetime. One for lower school and the other for the completion of upper school. The two schools were very different in their representation of the quintessential successful student and now as a university student–employee (*beats chest proudly*) I see that only one of those perspectives makes for the ideal worker.

Common Sense

Co-curricular activities aside, high school places too much emphasis on one thing. The 5 years spent preparing for CSEC for example, does not provide room for experimentation. The aim is to pass and that’s about it. Branching from the grail of curriculum offers little forgiveness and it’s for this reason that free thinking is limited. Except for Literature– 6th form Literatures in English that is, English B is already so dissected it’s basically a recital– which allows one to spring any interpretation as long it can be proven, few subjects showcase skills like self-control, resilience and self-motivation. These qualities are far better predictors of success in the work world than high grades.  

Nowadays we see that #CommonSenseIsNotSoCommon (this is suspiciously obvious in college) for this reason. Being overtly intellectual does not equate intelligence, I had to learn that the hard way.

Emotional Intelligence

At my second high school I realized that the requirements for the teacher’s pet (and generally everyone’s favourite) fell from the mild mannered, well behaved student who could beam with pride due to the the A’s that webbed student and teacher together in a quiet bubble to the outspoken, crass, fiery student who would put teacher on blast if he/she happened to pose a challenge to a freshly taught lesson that teacher could not answer. Teacher and student then became friends in a web held together by mutual and open respect. In my experience, the latter student is still a rare commodity.

I suppose this is why I forced myself into presentations early, they made me feel as if I was actively growing, even though I hated them. At my first school we had Dionne Jackson-Miller like discussions over a topic and we had debates that would feed into lunch time because they were so heated but these were limited to The Arts and they were never consistent, they were never ingrained in the curriculum. Subjects like Math never had presentations like these which I find to be problematic. That type of teamwork fosters new interest in boring subjects, it builds bonds that emphasize soft-skills. These are things noone tells you you need until you’re working (the building bonds part, not teamwork).

Right now my boss–coworker, coworker–coworker people skills are mad poor. There are people with kids, people much older than me, people who’ve worked before, people who are starting over who I work with… and I never knew I had so much hang ups on the requirements needed for me to connect.

My first high school taught me to see differences not similarities: the borders the separate professor from student, driver form passenger, I was inadvertently taught to know my place… if you’re not a Millennial, I’m sorry, what are we talking about again?

My second high school gave me more school trips, more guided volunteer work, a 50/50 approach to theory and practice in all subjects. I was introduced to things that helped to bridge the gap.

Maybe doing more of the latter could develop emotional intelligence. This is the part of us that develops solely as human first before anything else; something that the, “generation that wants to be emotionless so bad” in my humble experience, desperately needs to have.

The real world demands self management skills and relationship building abilities that have foundations in emotions like empathy. I shouldn’t have had to go to two separate (traditional) high schools to understand what one school should have prepared me for.

It’s 2017, let’s get realistic about ‘fixing up’ education in Jamaica now, man. #WheBookKnowledgeAloneAgo? — Blessings.

Footnotes: So, The University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) is in the news again for student–money issues (surprise, surprise). First there was news that the university was going to demolish 1 hall of residence, Irvine Hall (apparently the first of many) to build new towers for cash-grabs then the news was that this part-demolition of Irvine Hall will be a single incident for the purpose of remodeling. There was a frenzy where students had to (and still have to) find housing at the only available and the most expensive, 138 Student Living at a cost more than double their annual residence fees. Pure wickedness. UWI for some holds that single key to equality in Jamaica. (UTech has dug itself into a hole with debt and poor accreditation standards and NCU, I wouldn’t go there unless I had to.) A tertiary education provides a viable bridge between Jamaica’s wealth gap, UWI knows this but I naively thought that they understood that responsibility, I thought that UWI was more than just a school. Guess not. So now imma start preparing to be one those South Africans who are crying over their skyrocketing university fees. It’s nice when true colours are finally shown, thanks UWI. I know what your real values are now.

[cover art by: Leon Zernitsky]


Attack Schools from the Roots

This is my final article for the month of August, thank you for reading and I will see you in October!

It is interesting to me that no matter how many policies and upgrades are put into the Jamaican education system, the more things change, the more they remain the same. I will go out on a limb and say that the system is flawed beyond the reaches of The Ministry. The main culprits are the cycle of bias and the emphasis on book knowledge that is in most high schools; these things have been normalised and are deeply ingrained in our society. Policies and upgrades will do little to change the culture.

Jamaica is a country of exceptional polarity when it comes to wealth, but high schools ought to be the place where equal opportunities for advancement are presented on a platter. It is for this reason that there are traditional high schools or ‘name-brand schools,’ non-traditional high schools that constantly play catch up and vocational or technical schools. Each school type should to cater to the learning ability of their students.

Ignoring the Inequality

Technical schools know what they are, if students are not academically inclined, the school emphasizes dexterity, so students graduate with the knowledge that they should hunt for skill based employment. These jobs often times offer minimum wage but years of experience count as qualification to move up the food chain and even create one’s own business.

The more popular traditional and non-traditional high schools are the ones the private sector and the public look almost exclusively to for greatness. Much like professional athletes and rock stars who depend on medical ‘help’ to cope with the  pressures of expectation, a lot of traditional high schools cope with the expectation of churning out the brightest in our lifetime by: making it compulsory for students to do their subjects in grade 11, even when they passed them in grade 10 outside the school in a hopes of guaranteeing success in external exams; spoon feeding CXC CSEC answers through excessive past paper use and by promoting extra class that tend cut out the developmental time for students. Voilà, reputation and brand image are maintained.

Not having the resources to adequately compete with these tactics, non-traditional high schools climb up the performance ladder much slower and nowadays thanks to The Ministry’s (the National Education Inspectorate [NEI] branch) “failing school”/”Needs Immediate Support” tag, they do so more painfully. The tag is oftentimes a signal to the private sector, rich alumni of already rich schools and corporate Jamaica to maybe invest in these schools for profit (egs: tuckshops, canteens) but not so much in the students themselves because, I guess, there is a lesser guarantee that providing high speed internet, smart boards and other educational resources will create university graduates. Voilà, reputation and brand image are maintained.

Creating Automations not Individuals

This inequality badge is based on the the NEI’s five point scale rubric which rightly serves as the method by which parents choose primary level education for their children. At the secondary level however, choices are often not based on the rubric but on the national rankings from CXC CSEC results. Surely someone must have found the fault with CSEC by now. It is an regional assessment that operates by pulling information directly from the rental textbooks and recycling past paper question that most high schools provide. Cramming information like a machine guarantees a pass in most subjects, many in my generation are a living testament to this. Many parents ought to know these things and choose schools that are well rounded.

The problem is not so much the parents who want to send their children to high ranked schools– we need a filter, we need standards after all– the problem falls on the said schools, mostly they are non-traditional high schools, that fail to predict the backlash of an NEI tag and preempt it by doing better the next year. These high schools are in the middle of the trio, they are not particularly gifted in academia nor are they in skills based subjects, yet they try to hop between the two lanes which obviously has not been working for years. 

Non-traditional high schools need to find their own niche. The national rankings could give them the opportunity to work on the other areas where the focus is less on letter grades and more on the things that most high school stinge on like: presentation skills, leadership skills for teachers and students, a greater variety of sports options and a seriousness toward club activities.

The world promotes individuality but a lot of schools act as if extracurricular activities are an asset not a necessity. Well-rounded students are still a rare commodity across all school types. Maybe this approach could finally muster serious private interest in non-traditional high schools and also help generate a buzz around the idea of creating some high schools dedicated to arts, sports, agriculture and business like in first world countries. This idea could hold up well under the Minister of Education’s new 7 year school plan and also help to take pressure off students who may feel the need to attend  university for these careers.

The Ministry of Education’s focus is on churning out an efficient and capable workforce. A workforce that ambitious and knowledgeable will create a Jamaica that is great to live, work, raise families and do business in but the effort can backfire when most of society is poking holes in the roof that The Ministry is trying to fix. Many traditional high schools are not being completely honest, non-traditional high schools are not being proactive and parents and society only seem to want to reward one type of student so technical schools are generally looked down upon. Overall, we need to fix our mindset first before anything The Ministry is offering will work.

Footnotes: Consider: you are a student at the Penwood High School in St. Andrew. You hand in the practical component of your Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subject, the School-Based Assessment (SBA), on time, you do your written exam and you await the results. On August 16, 2016 you go online to find “UNGRADED” as your final score. You get to understand that the school’s examination coordinator failed to submit your SBA- she has received an eight months suspension- and you have to suspend your plans for matriculation (sixth form, university, the world of work) for one year.  Do you:

a) “Kill” the re-sit the school is paying for and spend the year planning for a better future

b) Sue the coordinator/principal for psychological damage

c) Take advantage of the opportunity to stay home and be pampered with pity

d) All of the above

I will say no more. Selah. (cover image by vkalart)