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Why progress is hard for us

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, July 15, 2014    

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According to Charles Hamilton Houston — the late dean of Howard University School of Law who crafted the strategy to overturn segregation in the United States — a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.

The law school, which began in 1869, four years after the end of the United States Civil War, remains to me an excellent model of social engineering. It began with the aim of training black lawyers to challenge segregation. It achieved that goal in 1954, 85 years later, when one of its students, Thurgood Marshall, who was not even born at the time of its founding, successfully challenged segregation in front of the United States Supreme court in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case.

I am paraphrasing Houston to say "the educated person is either a social engineer or a parasite on society" to explain why some of us are committed to challenging a status quo that has left us bowed in penury, bereft of the right to self-determination or the assurance that we are leaving a progressively sustainable society for our children and grandchildren.

A major frustration is the knowledge that many of our problems are soluble if more of us embrace the principle of collective responsibility. If our leaders, in both the public and private sectors, were even just halfway more competent and conscientious than they are, and if the broader society — particularly those with influence — were more willing to let go of their ego, their perpetual need for external validation, and their devotion to routine and tradition, even though all evidence point to the fact that they are of zero or even negative value, we could more successfully tackle our challenges.

I wonder, for example, why our service clubs continuously recycle the same old speakers from Government, Opposition, or private sector from one meeting to the next. The country, meanwhile, is starved of new ideas, for authentic leaders who have the collective interest at heart or the wisdom of people in the trenches, attempting and often making progress in difficult circumstances.

For example, who is the principal of Trench Town Comprehensive High School or Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive? What are his/her greatest needs and how can the broader society help to ensure the success of those students so that upon graduation, they are fully integrated into the society?

What about Trevor McCartney, the chief executive officer at the University Hospital of the West Indies who, by virtue of his position, should be adding value to the institution and the country? Is he leading a capital campaign to raise funds to bring the hospital up to 21st century standards — to provide access to high quality care so that the hospital potentially can become a centre of excellence in the Americas?

Medicine and medical research will remain high-demand careers because body parts will always malfunction and diseases will always be among us. Can our native medical school — to which the hospital is central — attract more students from the global community thereby generating more revenue? Medical training is expensive in the United States, for example. There are always students looking for less expensive alternatives, a need which we could meet and still make a profit.

What about Evrol Christian, the businessman from south Manchester who started Little Ochie, the restaurant in Alligator Pond and a haven for people who like simple, organic living and great seafood? What ideas might he have for more business opportunities that could generate employment for more people in his village?

What about educators, health care practitioners, farmers, conservationists, tech savvy young people, and people of all stripe who are full of native wisdom and great ideas that may just need fine-tuning or funding to turn them into money-making activities?

American writer Walt Whitman famously noted: "The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlours, not even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."

This is true of Jamaica too. We need to ferret out the genius from whence it lies and to be less fawning toward those of standing who persistently do nothing other than spew hot air.

I am reluctant to say that Dr Fritz Pinnock, chair of the sub-committee on education and training for the logistics hub task force and executive director of the Caribbean Maritime Institute, is one of these hot air spewers. I will say, though, that it is mighty easy to dismiss him because of his pronouncements. I note his fondness for buzzwords — "analyse till we paralyse", "get with the programme", or "holistic paradigm shift" — and where he should be proffering solutions, he points only to the problems.

Further, Pinnock's observation that the education system needs to be restructured to emphasise skills training lacks any acknowledgement that this is not an immediate process or even a single example of what those skills might be, and he says nothing about what his institution is doing to address the issue.

A simple tallying of the high school years plus college training and work experience tells me that if we begin to train some of the incoming high school students for careers in the hub, it would take 11 to 13 years for them to be ready for managerial positions. If we begin with the current crop of eleventh graders, it would take seven to nine years.

Minister Anthony Hylton's revelation that the hub is slow to get off the ground because of uncertainty over workforce preparedness, and that one project actually had to be shelved because the country is not ready, also elicits one giant yawn and one question only: Is this new knowledge?

Our macroeconomic challenges are real indeed, but they are compounded severely by our devotion to sameness and nonsense, our lack of foresight and planning, and the absence of focus on processes and outcomes.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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