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Crawling out from under the cultural trash

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, April 22, 2014    

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Fresh off the Easter Holidays and the power of the resurrection messages, I hope everyone is ready for "newness of life".

There as some things that I would like to see go away. I am saddened, for example, when older Jamaicans tell me about how afraid they are as social conditions deteriorate and they feel less able to cope. One would think that, in a context where funds for capital development are scarce, responsible ministries/agencies would work harder to address situations that are perfectly manageable and would make life more bearable for many people — like night noise and killer dogs. Why, in 2014, are people losing sleep because others play their music too loudly? Why are people being maimed by dogs that are illegal in the country? Does this seem like a serious country on a path to an attainable Vision 2030?

The lack of water in the Corporate Area is scandalous too. It is one more example of how those who are supposed to be responsible faithfully carry home a pay cheque every month but do little to earn it. It did not make sense, years ago, that on so many days in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, the choice was often no water, dirty water, or a little dirty water. Worse, the National Water Commission (NWC) did not seem to have a plan for remedial action.

Here we are now, with a worsening problem, and from his pedestal high in the sky, NWC Chairman Prakash Vaswani, who also held the position in the 1990s, tells the public that the situation is "very severe" — as if the women walking the streets of the city with buckets, looking for water to bathe, don't know that. What I still did not hear is how the commission plans to solve the long-term problem of an unreliable water supply in the capital and the country as a whole.

Another cause for concern is the views of Dr Franklin Johnston at the Ministry of Education, who seems to have an inverse idea about how children learn. As a trained teacher, I learned, and the literature consistently supports the view, that children learn by first identifying and connecting with the material. This is why so many little girls, especially, adore and do their best to imitate Louise Bennett, who made it her life's work to elevate and validate their native tongue. Yes, she also spoke superior English, but the point of her work was that Jamaican Patois is our mother tongue and there is nothing wrong with it, and the body of work she has left behind validates the joy and versatility of the language.

Miss Lou's contribution to national development should not be diminished, nor should the language of the majority or the views of countless experts in education, psychology and linguistics who understand the importance of the mother tongue in the development of identity and the confidence that it provides to facilitate learning a second language. My love of literature was positively impacted by Miss Lou's work and others who worked with native tongue; it made sense when I saw myself in it. Lance Neita makes a similar point in his April 20 column in this paper, 'The Easter tradition and Miss Mary dry-foot bwoy'.

Let me point out too that I was literate long before I developed any kind of mastery of English language, and furthermore literacy and the ability to speak English are absolutely not the same thing.

Government action is required. No individual or small group of individuals, with a misplaced determination to homogenise us, should be allowed to influence policy. Moreover, there is "no correlation between a single language such as English and positive ascriptions such as progress, peace, international understanding, or the enjoyment of human rights" (Phillips, 1999).

Johnston aside, the education minister's appeal to schools to keep graduation ceremonies modest is well-placed. Graduations have become a tragic reflection of how, culturally, we have adopted practices that are out of touch with reality. What should be a simple, dignified rite of passage ceremony is seemingly equated with an opportunity to walk the "red carpet" — in our case an unfiltered space at the intersection of dancehall and Hollywood. Even parents who do not support the extravagance, or can ill afford it, ultimately bow to the pressure because they do not want their children to feel left out. As symbolic gateways in education, graduations should be reflections of progress in social, academic and spiritual development rather than displays of frivolity and vulgarity.

This is why I was not in the least bit chastened last week by a reader who took exception to my treatment of Hollywood as entertainment. "Hollywood is much much more than entertainment," he said. "In the main, it has been a tool for the promotion of Americanism and a vehicle for the open denigration...of other world societies, as well as to promote a level of violence in, and fear for others in local situations." In principle, we are on the same page.

Years ago, proponents of cultural imperialism warned about the negative impact of foreign entertainment products on indigenous cultures and the need to protect our value systems. Opponents said there was no such thing — that we are not forced to consume these products, we choose them. With the Cold War behind us and globalisation as the new normal, this view seems more credible.

However, we would do well to remember director of the United States Information Service, Edward R Morrow, in 1965, who noted that: "Appetites for TV is voracious. Television reaches a person in the intimacy of their home, in the height of his leisure, when he is most receptive to persuasion and new ideas. We must use this tool lest our competition use it in our absence and to our loss." And, now, there is the Internet, which we take to bed with us.

Our lack of media literacy and affinity to unrestrained consumerism is directly related to our crippling debt and a budget that even those who prepare it are unable to stomach, even if they are concealing their revulsion. Our Holy Grail, if there is one, is not our ability to speak English, it is right-sizing our values and getting out from under the cultural trash.

Washington, DC-based scholar Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, social policy analyst and social justice advocate. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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