Archive for December, 2014

The Dumbing of America: Anti-Intellectualism and Common Core

December 16, 2014

Dr Dhanpaul NarineCD28_Narine_843

The Dumbing Down of America – by Dr Dhanpaul Narine

The Dumbing Down of America: Anti-Intellectualism and Common Core

By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

The revolution is in our living rooms and it is digitized! We are surfers and facebookers that sit for hours becoming dumb on smart gadgets. We live in a culture of low expectations. We laugh at ourselves when we fail to grasp the most basic of concepts and what is worse is that we shrug it off and simply refuse to revisit the problem and correct our mistakes.

Who is using education for a voyage of self- discovery or to seize the technological moment? When Congressman Darrell Issa mixed up Guinea with Guyana in referring to the Ebola outbreak many questioned his knowledge of geography. His Washington office was contacted and when told that Guyana is not Guinea they simply said that he meant Papua New Guinea and it was business as usual. The office could not say where Papua New Guinea is and it did not matter. As many of us know neither Guyana nor Papua New Guinea is connected to Ebola.

The dumbing down of America has its roots in years of neglect and misplaced priorities. Many of our young people have become addicts to social media and spend hours in front of a screen without direction. The money and intelligence that go with the technological explosion are not in our hands. We are slaves to the technology.

Richard Hofstadter, a History Professor at Columbia University, was among those that provided the theoretical basis for anti-intellectualism. He argued in 1963 that there was a cult of ignorance in America. According to Hofstadter, ‘ the strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.’ This was said before the invention of the internet! Isaac Asimov says that for the most part intellectuals have been relegated to a corner where they have become an object of derision.

Education has been sacrificed at the altar of job training and the result has not been promising. What has led to the state of dumbness in America? The former Senator from New York, Daniel Moynihan, explained that dumbness in America is not an overnight phenomenon. It was going on for years and the social media embraced it with the tentacles of a matrix. Moynihan argued that video knocking print off the shelves and formal learning replaced by web surfing became the recipe for a sub-standard education.

In 1982, to the dismay of many Americans, it was stated in official circles that learning in America had failed to meet international standards. What is striking is that the statistics became a wake-up call for the nation. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that in 1982 the number of adults that read books for pleasure was 82 per cent. But twenty years later this figure had dropped to 67 per cent and the proportion of 17 year olds that read nothing, unless required by school, doubled between 1984 and 2004.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students in 2009 and found that 77 per cent of them did not know that George Washington was the first President of the United States, nor could they name the author of the Declaration of Independence. When the citizenship test was administered to these students they did not fare any better as only 2.8 per cent was able to pass it.

There were other disturbing revelations in 2009. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 68 per cent of public school students in the US did not read with proficiency by the time they had reached the third grade. The US News and World Report states that less than 50 per cent of students mastered college level reading upon graduation from High school. Dumbness has also found itself in the echelons of government. A recent survey found that 74 per cent of Republicans in the US Senate and 53 per cent in the House of Representatives do not accept that climate change exists or that it has the capacity to affect the planet. These views have come at a time when the US National Academy of Sciences and other international agencies state that the opposite is the case.

In 1983, anti-intellectualism came to the fore in America when a publication sent shockwaves in the community. The document was called ‘ A Nation at Risk.’ It was published during the Reagan administration and it highlighted what some already knew to be the case in education. The document pointed out that in an age when science and technology were going to be in great demand the children in America were ill equipped to meet them.

According to the report, ‘ a total of 13 per cent of all 17 year-olds in the US were functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youths may run as high as 40 per cent.’ What was damning about these revelations is that many 17-year olds did not possess higher-order thinking skills and 40 per cent ‘could not draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay, and only one third could solve a mathematical problem requiring several steps.’

There is the widespread view that each generation of Americans would do better the previous one in education, literacy and economic attainment. However, would the present generation be able to achieve these levels or even surpass their parents? One analyst concludes that, ‘ for the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents.’

The anecdotes in the media are often amusing. When asked to name a country that begins with the letter ‘U’ some seventh graders replied ‘Europe, Utah, or Utopia.’ A group of eighth graders were next asked to name the currency used in England. Here the response was ‘pesos, the dollar, I don’t know, or Queen Elizabeth money!’ Another question was: What is the name of America’s neighbor, south of the border? The response to this was ‘Disney World, Texas, or Montana.’

As we have seen the national sense of frustration was summed up in the publication ‘A Nation at Risk.’ In order to explain this loss of vision there are at least three considerations that need to be visited. The first concerns our approach to the philosophy of education. American education for several years has been influenced by the ideas of John Dewey and his supporters. The idea here is that education is in the service of social reform and progress. The classroom becomes an agent of social change with teachers and principals as the lead players. Education should grow and develop through its own questions and research.

The second consideration is policy. The classroom as a regimented arena has infiltrated and shaped policy, notably the Common Core Curriculum. This curriculum was seen as the panacea that would fight anti-intellectualism and get students back on track. Progressivism would lead the schools to be centers of leadership and obedience with students being given the tools for the workforce.

But Common Core has been criticized as being too regimented, as teaching for assessments and for failing to produce well-rounded students. Diane Ravitch, a historian on education says that at first she was neutral on Common Core. But this changed when she saw that Common Core did not fundamentally improve scores. Ravitch concludes, ‘ I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.’

The third consideration is policy approaches to tertiary education. The mountain of student debts is estimated at $1trillion. This sum exceeds the GDP of several countries. The spiraling costs to pay for elite colleges has led many to question whether higher education is worth the effort. This is a discussion that will go on but before one thinks of college the basics must be mastered in schools. There is good reason to put good schools with quality programs in run-down neighborhoods in America. It is here that the transformation will begin and where students will master academic instruction and learn to be a total person. We can start by minimizing distractions, stamping out school violence and placing education at the top of the agenda.

The task is for parents, teachers and the school administration to work together to reinforce discipline, effective supervision and instruction and to produce the next generation of literate students


Season’s Greetings

December 16, 2014

Season’s Greetings – By Leonard Dabydeen

Season’s Greetings

(for all contributors and readers of Guyanese Online)

By Leonard Dabydeen

It’s that time of year

Season’s Greetings we share,

full of fun and frolic

holiday gifts to pick;

remembering family and friends

knowing tomorrow never ends;

never forgetting the poor,

not knowing for sure

what life may eventually bring

if wind blows away everything;

so cheer up and be jolly,

Life is full of fun and folly;

clap your hands and smile,

thank God you are here for a while.

Remembering Martin Carter (1927-1997)

December 12, 2014

Celebrating Martin Carter, indubitably Guyana’s greatest poet of the 20th century (7 June 1927-13 December 1997)

Remembering Martin Carter (1927-1997)

I mind as if yesterday
has become today
in the leaps and bounds
of tomorrow’s trials and tribulations
holding a flagrant torch with hands up high
remembering Martin Carter
in the hoist of a dream
crackling true turbulent colonial waves
head above rising tide
leaving blood and sweat and tears
in the tabloid of our hearts.

Leonard Dabydeen

Special poem (Like) by Martin Carter

I Come from the Nigger Yard of Yesterday

I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
leaping from the oppressors’ hate
and the scorn of myself;
from the agony of the dark hut in the shadow
and the hurt of things;
from the long days of cruelty and the long nights of pain
down to the wide streets of to-morrow, of the next day
leaping I come, who cannot see will hear.

In the nigger yard I was naked like the new born
naked like a stone or a star.
It was a cradle of blind days rocking in time
torn like the skin from the back of a slave.
It was an aching floor on which I crept
on my hands and my knees
searching the dust for the trace of a root
or the mark of a leaf or the shape of a flower.

It was me always walking with bare feet
meeting strange faces like those in dreams or fever
when the whole world turns upside down
and no one knows which is the sky or the land
which heart is among the torn or the wounded
which face is his among the strange and the terrible
walking about, groaning between the wind.

And there was always sad music somewhere in the land
like a bugle and a drum between the houses
voices of women singing far away
pauses of silence, then a flood fo sound.
But these were things like ghosts or spirits of wind.
It was only a big world spinning outside
and men, born in agony, torn in torture, twisted and broken like a leaf,
and the uncomfortable morning, the beds of hunger stained and sordid
like the world, big and cruel, spinning outside.

Sitting sometimes in the twillight near the forest
where all the light is gone and every bird
I notice a tiny star neighbouring a leaf
a little dropp of light a piece of glass
straining over heaven tiny bright
like a spark seed in the destiny of gloom.
O it was the heart like this tiny star near to the sorrows
straining against the whole world and the long twilight
spark of man’s dream conquering the night
moving in darkness and fierce
till leaves of sunset change from green to blue
and shadows grow like giants everywhere.

So I was born again stubborn and fierce
screaming in a slum.
It was a city and a coffin space for home
a river running, prisons and hospitals
men drunk and dying, judges full of scorn
priets and parsons fooling gods with words
and me, like dog tangled in rags
spotted with sores powdered with dust
screaming with hunger, angry with life and men.

It was a child born from a mother full of her blood
weaving her features bleeding her life in clots.
It was pain lasting from hours to months and to years
weaving a pattern telling a tale leaving a mark
on the face and the brow
Until there came the iron days cast in a foundry
Where men make hammers things that cannot break
and anvils heavy hard and cold like ice.

And so again I become one of the ten thousands
one of the uncountable miseries owning the land.
When the moon rose up only the whores could dance
the brazen jazz of music throbbed and groaned
filling the night air full of rhythmic questions.
It was the husk and the seed challenging fire
birth and the grave challenging life.

Until to-day in the middle of the tumult
when the land changes and the world’s all convulsed
when different voices join to say the same
and different hearts beat out in unison
where the aching floor of where I live
the shifting earth is twisting into shape
I take again my nigger life, my scorn
and fling it in the face of those who hate me.
It is me the nigger boy turning to manhood
linking my fingers, welding my flesh to freedom.

I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
leaping from the oppessors’ hate
and the scorn of myself
I come to the world with scars upon my soul
wounds on my body, fury in my hands
I turn to the histories of men and the lives of peoples.
I examine the shower of sparks the wealth of the dreams.
I am pleased with the glories and sad with the sorrows
rich with the riches, poor with the loss.
From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden.
To the world of to-morrow I turn with my strength.
Martin Carter

December 3, 2014

Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: Odyssey of Indenture (USA: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 274.

Reprint from South Asia Mail, An Independent Internet Weekly

Review by Cyril Dabydeen/UOttawa

In a riposte to an academic’s critique on the quality of scholarship in her book Coolie Woman, author Gaiutra Bahadur–a Guyanese-born US-based journalist-writer–stated that it is “very much a subaltern history, a history from below that strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history”; and, she emphasized: “I analyzed the reports on 77 indenture voyages from Calcutta to the Caribbean, mining them for the stories of the indentured but also grounding this qualitative data in quantitative analysis, generating statistics on the percentage of pregnant women, married couples and returnees aboard ship.” Let me say, immediately, that I admire Bahadur’s work; it is a book that reflects her prodigious research skills and energy to recreate and reconstruct the past, narratively, and indeed, with intellectual acumen. At best, Coolie Woman straddles memoir in the literary non-fiction genre exploring the origin and legacy of the life of her great grandmother, Sujaria, a “coolie” woman, who was brought to British Guiana around 1903 in almost mysterious circumstances to work in the sugar plantation; she was subsequently moved to the Rose Hall sugar plantation (Canje district) where I was born and lived up to my early manhood; and therein lies the immediacy for this reader because it’s also where I taught school for almost a decade, at Rose Hall–the behemoth sugar cane factory located obliquely across the school; I also interacted with sugar plantation workers on a daily basis; and, my own writing draws from this heritage. Ms Bahadur grew up in the Cumberland village, in Canje, but emigrated as a young girl with her family to New York. I’d met Ms Bahadur in Trinidad at the Bocas Literary Festival, where she introduced herself to me.

Her search for ancestral links drives much of what we read in this retrospective volume; and Coolie Woman has garnered much praise (it was short listed for key literary awards). But odyssey: going back into one’s beginnings, or provenance, is not entirely new. US-based Denise Grollmus’s personal journey of Jewish discovery in Poland where three million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and discovering that her grandmother–a Jew–a fact kept hidden for almost 70 years, also came to mind. But perhaps the coolie indentured system is more compelling, for one like myself, a capitalist-cum-colonial nexus, as it was, that brought to the Caribbean three million African slaves and one million Indians as indentured servants–most of the latter to Guyana and Trinidad. Over the years I have interacted with key scholars who have written insightfully on this subject: like Professors Brinsley Samaroo, Clem Seecharran, Frank Birbalsingh, and briefly, with the late UK scholar Hugh Tinker (in 1988 at a York University Conference on indentureship), who famously labelled the coolie indenture system as “another form of slavery.” My own imaginative work focusses on this nefarious system, as has David Dabydeen’s (poems, stories, and novels, essays): about the tribulation our forbears experienced after coming through the dreadful kala pani (“dark water”) of the Indian Ocean, and enduring sugar plantation travail.

Bahadur’s book takes a special place due to her subaltern woman’s point of view; as she relates: “I relied on official archives but also sought to fill in the many gaps and silences in the archives–they can lead us to the texture of indentured women’s lives, but not to the texture of their thoughts–with alternative and personal sources….rather than from the perspectives of British colonial officials” (Letter, Stabroek News). Indeed, she journeyed back to the Caribbean, India, the UK and elsewhere more than to vicariously relive her great grandmother’s journey, and through painstaking research and serious reflection resulted her achievement in Coolie Woman. Yet, I bore in mind Sigmund Freud’s caveat about the biographer’s art’s “false colouring”–and of an author perhaps reading too much into events, like the Ramayana (Ram and Sita) trope and allegory and seeing the British plantocracy as Ravan. But this is a minor carp–for beyond anything else this book is soul-searching: about a great grandmother’s ordeal (Sujaria was four months pregnant on the ship when she crossed the kala pani); a woman with “eyes like cat’s eyes…and skin white like white people,” perhaps pointing to her Brahminic caste, added to her coming from the Indian state of Bihar before reaching Calcutta to begin her horrific near four-month sea journey on The Clyde.

Women chosen for indenture might have derived from a “complex mix of victimization and Vaishnavite devotion” (31), Bahadur tells us, and that those like Sujaria were initially ostracized; the recruiters often went to holy sites and found such women, as “family members took widows to pilgrimage sites and abandoned them there. At other times, widows found their own way there, as they fled mistreatment and sexual advances in their in-laws’ homes,” writes Bahadur (31).

Sujaria’s sugar plantation experiences encapsulate the indentured people’s struggles (particularly women’s), as angst that the author internalizes, calling it her “transformative journey” and her “narrative history” characterizing the egregious labour experience when “one shilling was the value of a human life,” as well as the psychic and social trauma that ensued in the British Guiana sugar plantations where there were 64 women to 100 men (the figure varied over the indenture period). The gender imbalance was fraught with sexual exploitation and oppression which Bahadur describes in poignant detail. This is no Rushdiean “imaginary homeland” retelling as Bahadur interweaves Vedas mythology juxtaposed with stereotypes that underpin the relations between Guyanese of African and Indian backgrounds during a large part of the Gladstone-coolie indenture (lasting from 1838 to 1917); slaver Sir John Gladstone was the father of British prime minster Sir William Gladstone.

Compelling situations associated with time and place are unearthed and reflected throughout this book, including angularities tied to rivalries and jealousies between former African slaves and Indian coolies: the dynamics are often worked out in the prevailing gender relationships and the sexual shenanigans and animosities–Bahadur argues–which are tied to violence between men and women (seen, for instance, in the evocative chapter, “Beautiful Woman without a Nose”); and, not surprisingly, sexual goings-on and power relationships between coolie women and white planters and their overseers in the context of the European stereotype of Indians’ “possessiveness and promiscuity” juxtaposed with the notion of the “chastity of Indian women”–demonstrate that women were kept in more than a symbolic bondage. In this context Bahadur narratively triangulates Sujaria’s story of survival: testament to an extraordinary spirit and will to live, as well as the great- grandmother’s practical intelligence and faith (largely Hinduism). The author herself is a devotee of Saraswati (deity of “knowledge and purity”), seen in her feminist drive.

Overall, Bahadur writes insightfully about the legacy of violence and murders that occurred–still a haunting legacy–in her analysis of the indenture system; as she states: “More murders occurred in Guyana than elsewhere, but Trinidad’s statistics were only slightly less grim” (109); and “Indenture threw men into the arms of their gods. They were displaced, and Hinduism rooted them…Indenture drove some to religion and others to madness”(125).

Other chapters such as “Gone but not Forgotten,” “The Dream of Return,” and “Every Ancestor” make for compelling reading; and, for me, what especially resonates in the book are references to Inverness and the Scottish Highlands in the chapter “Surviving History,” which combines the anecdotal mixed with fact-based revelations about the linkage between Guyana’s Rose Hall sugar plantation and the Highlands’ Rose Hall (in a Scotland I myself once visited). Not surprisingly, in the end Bahadur went back to the district in Bihar to meet up with her forebears: relations of her indentured great grandmother, who is still remembered, which I find touching (I have read of other “return” narrations); I had also travelled to India, but not as a “returnee”. Importantly, Coolie Woman is very much about the colonized and colonizer and the “dark dramas” that ensued; it is not a polemical work, nor necessarily a shift from Eurocentric to Indo-centric scholarship, but is work “plumbing the depths of origins” (Wilson Harris). It also builds upon precursor texts such as Verene Shepherd’s Maharani’s Misery: Narratives of a Passage from India to the Caribbean, which Gaiutra Bahadur acknowledges. In context, I was intrigued by scholar Lisa Outar’s take: that “Coolie women weren’t exactly like Jane Austen heroines, practising love as a form of social mobility, but they seem to have used their scarcity to survive…in an exploitative environment” (Review, Stabroek News) in forming sexual and familial partnerships.

This book’s style eschews jargon and pretentiousness seen in much academic discourse, but has a natural rhythm in sentence structure and the cadence of colloquial speech mixed in with the formal and measured; it also has near exquisite descriptions of imagined experiences: all in view of the criss-crossing of genres, from literary non-fiction to scholarship. The black-and-white photographs are also evocative. Significantly, Coolie Woman strives to recover the voices of people who didn’t have the power to write themselves into history, as has been said; and, to invoke V.S. Naipaul: “as a people you have to know the past.” I believe this book should be read by all in the Caribbean–and elsewhere–and be a central text in post-colonial studies aimed at fostering awareness of Indian women’s historical struggles in Guyana, Trinidad, and the rest of the Caribbean, as well as in places like Fiji–where the invidious indentureship system still has echoic repercussions on people’s lives. END

Cyril Dabydeen (UOttawa) edited Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (TSAR, Toronto). God’s Spider/poetry (Peepal Tree Press, UK) is his newest book.