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Anti-Social Studies

Denis Solomon • 1,034 words

"The clumsiness and unnecessary verbiage of this passage, however, is nothing compared to the errors of fact contained in the programme as a whole. It is obvious that the authors have little understanding of the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago or of parliamentary systems in general. They therefore have no chance of conveying any understanding of them to schoolchildren."

On previous occasions in this column I have criticised the Ministry of Education Schools Broadcasting Unit’s broadcasts to schools and its notes for teachers, as published in the newspapers. Their facts are sometimes inaccurate, their English clumsy and often ungrammatical, and the “poetry” they present offends against every norm of prosody or rhyme.

Now, the latest edition of the programme, published on September 23, convinces me that in the interest of the children of the nation the Schools Broadcasting Unit should be disbanded and its members sent to earn their living in the URP.

The programme is entitled “Our Government: from Colonialism to Republicanism”. It “seeks to awaken the interest of our students in the rich history of our country by bringing to their attention notable highlights of constitutional development from the period of our country’s independence in 1962 to the present time”.

Even the title is misleading. Colonialism and republicanism are words better applied to theories, not conditions. Why not “From Colony to Republic”? The introductory text is as woolly as it can get. Highlights are only highlights because they are “notable”. Whose students would the programme be aimed at but ours? By the “period” of our country’s independence the writer presumably means the moment or the date: in any case, why not just say “independence”?

The clumsiness and unnecessary verbiage of this passage, however, is nothing compared to the errors of fact contained in the programme as a whole. It is obvious that the authors have little understanding of the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago or of parliamentary systems in general. They therefore have no chance of conveying any understanding of them to schoolchildren.

Purporting to trace the constitutional development of the country from 1962 onwards, the broadcast informs listeners that in 1966 “the House of Representatives is increased from 32 to 36 elected members of government” (my italics). This is a complete misuse of terminology. Not all elected representatives are members of government. The idea that Parliament and government are one and the same thing is not only prevalent but partly underlies the authoritarianism that characterises our political behaviour. And if it were true, the phrase would be linguistically redundant anyway.

In 1976, says the programme, “the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago changes from an Independent Constitution to a Republican Constitution.” It can only be hoped that the listeners will be intelligent enough to ask themselves whether the 1962 and 1966 Constitutions were not already “independent”, and whether a “republican” constitution is not also an “independent” one. Unfortunately, and this is the main problem of sloppy teaching, it is precisely those who are intelligent enough to see the contradictions who will be turned off. The others will just see the lesson as a series of dates connected to a sequence of words and “learn” it by rote.

Even worse, the programme goes on to say that in 1976 “Trinidad and Tobago is now called a State and no longer a Crown Colony”! This reminds me of the New York taxi driver to whom I tried to explain the constitutional status of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. “It’s an independent state within the Commonwealth, with the Queen as Head of State” I told him “like Canada”. “Oh, I see” he said. “A Crown Colony”.

Further on, the broadcast emphasises its confusion of government with Parliament by inviting students to draw a map of Trinidad and Tobago “with constituencies and the names of elected representatives of government”. When, later, students are advised to make a chart showing the “structure of the government of Trinidad and Tobago” the error is perpetuated by the use of the word “the”. A chart may show the institutions of government in the general sense of the word, i.e. President, Parliament, Cabinet, civil service and local authorities. But “the” government can only mean the executive.

In a final abuse of terminology, the programme advises teachers to “create an opportunity for a state visit (my italics) to Parliament”!

That these faults are not simply the result of looseness of language but arise out of ignorance is demonstrated by the fact that at no point is it shown how the Constitution enables a government, i.e. an executive, to come into existence and to function. A suggested exercise is to “list government ministers and ministries, duties and responsibilities of government ministers and ministries”. But this is the first and only reference to the existence of ministers. Where they come from remains a mystery, and there is no reference to a Prime Minister at all.

The ignorance that gave rise to this aberration is unpardonable. But even if the facts were right and clearly presented, the key element in any educational experience would still be lacking – stimulation of the critical faculty. Nothing in the world should be presented to learners as if it were gospel (even, in fact particularly, the Gospels). This does not mean that we should try to create a generation of cynics and frondeurs. The aim should be to inculcate the capacity for intelligent analysis of means in relation to ends. In politics, since ends and means may be often one and the same, a prior definition of these two concepts is all-important. What is the purpose of government? How should a country be organised and a government chosen? How has the question been answered in our country? Could our system be improved, and how? These are not questions that must wait until the children’s minds are “formed”. On the contrary, they are essential to the formation of their minds. The only difference the age of the child will make is how the questions are put.

The absence of this critical component, the impression that all concepts are irremediably fixed in an unchanging world, creates precisely the kind of intellectual constipation that passes for political thought in this country. In this column, for example, I have repeatedly made the most radical proposals for constitutional reform. They produce no reaction from readers whatever. But a frivolous article about “obscene” language, or a criticism of religion, never fails to release a torrent of outrage. The educators need educating. But a community that tolerates such ignorance needs a sharp change in its values.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top