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Brainwashing With Taste

Denis Solomon • 1,124 words

"Conscience, including civic conscience, is a conditioned reaction. Instilling it must involve asking learners to take a lot on trust. But once it is instilled it can and should be examined intellectually, because the ultimate goal of education is not conditioning but liberation. Citizens must be allowed to choose, rather than simply accept, civically useful forms of conduct. If you want to produce Gandhis or Einsteins you have to accept the risk of producing Hitlers. The only other choice is increasing the congregation of Miracle Ministries."

I suppose that education, especially education in civics, must involve a certain amount of brainwashing. Children start life as savages. Conscience, including civic conscience, is a conditioned reaction. Instilling it must involve asking learners to take a lot on trust. But once it is instilled it can and should be examined intellectually, because the ultimate goal of education is not conditioning but liberation. Citizens must be allowed to choose, rather than simply accept, civically useful forms of conduct. If you want to produce Gandhis or Einsteins you have to accept the risk of producing Hitlers. The only other choice is increasing the congregation of Miracle Ministries.

But if you must brainwash children, at least brainwash them with taste. In the Schools Broadcasting Unit’s programmes, reproduced in the newspapers, taste, grammar, logic and even facts get short shrift.

Yesterday’s SBU Notes to Teachers programme on “Our National Emblems” starts by describing the Coat of Arms. It says “there is the shield which is a sign of protection”. The shield is not a sign of anything. It was a mediaeval knight’s ID card — in other words a background for the emblems, not an emblem in itself. Then the national birds are identified (with no mention that the Scarlet Ibis is endangered and the Cocrico is a pest) and we are informed that “the three ships represent Columbus’ fleet of the Santa Maria, Nina (sic) and Pinta when he discovered the island (which island?) in 1498”.

Columbus did arrive at Trinidad with three ships, a detachment from the fleet of six with which he began his third voyage. But they were not the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Those were the ones used on his first voyage six years earlier. In fact, the Santa Maria had been wrecked during the first expedition.

A minor point, unless you are foolish enough to think that facts are important. But telling children in 1998 that Columbus “discovered” Trinidad is a major one. The world at large has long rejected the idea of people discovering other people. So much so that in Latin America (which might be expected to have a certain regard for Columbus) 1992 was celebrated as the five hundredth anniversary not of the “Discovery of America” but of the “Meeting of Two Worlds”. At the time, I recall, there was some debate as to whether we should even keep the three ships on our coat of arms. Keep them, by all means; but let children know what the Enterprise of the Indies really represents: something to be transcended, not celebrated.

Then we are told that the humming-birds on the crest “have been included for sentimental reasons” and because “early inhabitants called here (sic) Iere or Caire which means the land of the Humming Bird”. Leaving aside the question of what the phrase “for sentimental reasons” might mean in this context, any speaker of English must be horrified by the use of “here”, an adverb, as the object of the verb “called”. This is not permissible in English.

But the facts are wrong too. The idea that “iere” means “land of the Humming Bird” is a poetic myth and should be treated as such. In Carib the word “iere” (in one mainland Carib dialect, “kairi”) simply means “island”. The idea that the Caribs, asked the name of their island, indulged in such poetic flights is in any case ridiculous. Children with sufficient linguistic intuition to suspect that no language can compress a concept such as “land of the Humming Bird” into a single word of three syllables will be puzzled to be told the opposite, and made hesitant to question suspicious claims in future.

The next paragraph speaks (clumsily) of the three peaks which gave Trinidad its name. The following paragraph reads: “The water surrounding the peaks represents the cradle of our heritage — the trough which forms the islands of Trinidad and Tobago”. I can’t even try to guess what this means.

As for grammar, we are twice confronted, in the paragraph headed “Aims and Objectives”, with the ineradicable Trinidadian use of “would” for “will”. We are told that “it is hoped pupils would understand the significance of every emblem on the National Coat of Arms” and “it is also hoped an attitude toward nation-building would be cultivated”.

So much for facts and grammar. But the worst offence the broadcast commits is its offence against taste. One of the greatest of our linguistic and cultural shortcomings is the lack of appreciation of literary, and particularly poetic, beauty. Works are judged purely on their content, usually their socio-political content, and never on their form. The total lack of appreciation of the elements of English prosody is seen in the abominable doggerel that appears in the guise of verse in the letters columns of the newspapers.

The “National Emblems” broadcast presents to its poor unsuspecting listeners a song and a poem, so called, by someone called Anita Hyacinth Simmons, now happily deceased. The song goes by the clumsy title of “You Independent Sons and Daughters”, and the poem is entitled “Our National Recipe”. The language of either would disgrace the patter of a Pierrot Grenade, or the spiel of a Midnight Robber. Their scansion is non-existent, the rhymes contrived and infantile, the images trite. Here are two excerpts:

There are many things that go
To make a nation great
Besides industry, pomp and state
Education, sanitation, toleration
Here in (sic) the secrets lie
And “Do as you would be done by”.
Take a bowl of love and lots of honesty
Add essence of respect, dignity and responsibility
Pour in discipline, tolerance and production
Sanitation, education, and a pinch of imagination.
Yeast of investment, thrift and community development
Loyalty, co-operation and achievement
Culture, courtesy and punctuality
Beat up with energy and local industry.

You couldn’t find a better compendium of the outrages that can be committed against poetics in general or English prosody in particular. Is there no one in the Ministry of Education who has enough familiarity with poetry and with English to understand how verse scans; that rhymes must be determined by sense and not just the need for a rhyme; that rhymes must involve a stressed syllable (“lie” doesn’t rhyme with “done by” or “industry” with “punctuality”); that polysyllabic rhymes are inherently ridiculous in English and are only used for deliberately ridiculous effect? And above all, that a poem must have some spice, something about it that lifts it above prose?

Opponents of Cutteridge and the Royal Readers fulminated, rightly, against the irrelevance to our society of poems about snowflakes, bluebells and ploughmen on their way home from work. But if this is all we have to replace them with, for God’s sake bring back Gray’s Elegy.

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