UWI economics from the 1970s (Part 1)

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UWI economics from the 1970s (Part 1)

STEPHEN
VASCIANNIE

Sunday, August 09, 2020

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“BSc (Econ) UWI”: the sixth former in Kingston had scribbled this on the inside cover of his economics textbook, Intermediate Economics by J Harvey, in about 1977. This was an aspirational note. In the UWI system, after three years of post-sixth form studies, the degree could be his.

Naipaul's Primer

The aspiration was perhaps more practical and reachable than that scribbled by VS Naipaul at Queen's Royal College on his fourth form Latin primer – to leave Trinidad in five years. Naipaul fell short by a year on his ambition, but he eventually assumed his cosmopolitan mantle. From under this mantle he elaborated on his schizophrenic relationship with his “homelands”, starting with the comic atmosphere of Miguel Street and The Mystic Masseur, but graduating to bitter ridicule and scorn in later years.

“BSc (Econ) UWI” – circa 1978 – was to be a passport not to lucre, but to learning, knowledge and, with good luck, probably to wisdom. And so, those embarking on the Mona experience did so armed with the view that studies in economics would be an avenue for both personal and professional advancement.

First year (1978)

In the first year of “BSc (Econ) UWI”, with classes frequently held in N1 of the Arts block (now the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre), the economics neophytes shared ideas with management students (in superior numbers), future sociologists, and budding political scientists.

The lecturers included the highly rated “Ramjeesingh”, in economics and in statistics, Dr Roach in mathematics, the thoughtful Rupert Lewis for politics, the perceptive Bernard Marshall for history on Mondays and Fridays at 5:00 pm, and two leading sociologists, Barry Chevannes and Don Robotham.

The first-year lecturers exposed students to dialectical materialism, The Labour Theory of Value, The State in theory and practice, Durkheim , The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Schumpeter and other ways of seeing. These other ways of seeing were, almost literally, new methods of understanding social and economic phenomena; for, at the high school level, neoclassical demand and supply curves, Keynesian macroeconomic principles and production possibility frontiers had been predominant on the Cambridge A' Level syllabus. Now, the student was challenged to put other instruments in the toolbox of socio-economic analysis.

Eurocentric?

Was the new toolbox too Eurocentric? In the first year there was steady exposure to Marx and other (mainly) 19th century writers in economics, politics and sociology; but there was also significant exposure to Caribbean scholarship of quality. Question 1 on the tutorial sheet for Introduction to Politics in 1978 was about Marcus Garvey: “Garvey preached racial pride but the main point of his work was anti-imperialism. Discuss.”

This was promptly followed by a question which required students to consider the role of the media in the Commonwealth Caribbean, with readings from Caribbean Quarterly and other regional sources. In addition to Caribbean Quarterly, the book Essays on Power and Change in Jamaica (edited by the illustrious pair of Carl Stone and Aggrey Brown) proved to be particularly stimulating. Especially stimulating too were politics tutorials under the experienced hand of Ann Spackman, who challenged all shortcuts – European or otherwise – and was said to be doctrinally opposed to giving 'A' grades, a characteristic rumoured to be shared with some senior denizens of the UWI History Department of the time.

It may have been in the Introduction to Politics final examination for 1978-79 that students were called upon to assess how, and to what extent, poor countries owe their underdevelopment to developed countries. This question, of course, was built on a premise constructed in part by Walter Rodney, the highly rated Mona historian who had been declared persona non grata by the Hugh Shearer Administration a decade earlier. The question, too, could have been connected to Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere who, on a celebrated, rain-bearing, visit to Jamaica in 1974 eloquently maintained that in international relations “the poor remain poor because they are poor”.

IMF bank?

For the following year, Question 1 on the Introduction to Politics final examination was, I think: “Is the IMF a bank?” The background to this question may have been a statement by Andrew Young, then the US ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Young, on a visit to Jamaica in 1977, argued that the International Monetary Fund, as a bank, had the right to impose conditionalities on Jamaica in return for their loans to the country – in the same way that a bank would do to its debtors. Against a background in which BSc (Econ) students were reading Cheryl Payer's The Debt Trap: The IMF and the Third World, Young's analysis was the subject of much contention on the campus – and presumably on the examination paper.

Eric Williams

Our history exposure in the first year was fundamentally and unapologetically Caribbean. Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro and Capitalism and Slavery were on the top bookshelf. The former was rated for its broad view of developments in Caribbean history, readable style and its unexpected witticisms (“Columbus fell on his knees and then on the Aborigines”). And the latter, based in large part on Williams' doctoral thesis at Oxford, brought home to the sceptical, postcolonial reader the fact that humanitarianism and the work of the “Saints” were not the only factors in the abolition of the British Caribbean slave system.

Other history items on the top shelf were photocopied essays that included Roy Augier's path-breaking Before and After 1865, Elsa Goveia's New Shibboleths for Old, and Douglas Hall's presentation on the apprenticeship system in Jamaica (with planters 'squeezing the last ounce of juice' from the enslaved).

From the first year it was clear that the Caribbean authorities would not always agree with each other: New Shibboleths, for example, was a surgical critique of some aspects of Williams' work that must, at very least, have put the original prince of Port of Spain on the back foot for a few weeks. These and other offerings were consumed with pleasure, with students engaging in long arguments about how history should inform praxis.

Mathematics

“BSc (Econ)” in the second year took on a specialist tone and mathematics sat upon its throne. The student grapevine spoke unequivocally: Basic Mathematics for Economists was a misnomer. To begin with, “basic maths” involved differentiation and integration in calculus at a considerably more complex level than was required for mathematics and statistics.

So, in much the same way that the Jamaican Supreme Court is not really supreme, basic maths was not really basic. When the lecturer, Dr Roach, informed the class that the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test would not be appearing on our final examination paper, there was a loud chorus of relief throughout the lecture room (SR 4, Social Sciences).

Dr Roach was a methodical and quiet mathematician who never seemed perturbed by challenging questions. He was based full-time at the then College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST) but offered his considerable skills to Mona students; in a small, developing society, sensible people are prepared to share knowledge and to acknowledge needs.

Statistical method

The realm of king mathematics also extended to Economic Statistics, Statistical Method, and Elementary Econometrics. Economic Statistics was taught by John Gafar from Guyana. Gafar lived for cricket, pointing out in his first class of the year that if Test cricket was being played at Sabina Park, students would not see him at Mona. This hypothesis was not tested. In the statistics courses, however, several economic hypotheses were subject to testing, at given degrees of freedom.

Students were also asked whether certain estimators were “sufficient”, “unbiased” or “consistent”; invited to reach precise, technical conclusions about “variance”, “normal distribution” and to evaluate probability using Chebychev's inequality, and other methods. A part question on the Statistical Method final examination for June 1981, in the pre-COVID-19 era, captures the flavour of the lecturers' expectations. Question 4 (a) read:

“The probability that a person who is exposed to a certain contagious disease will catch it is 0.20. Find the probability that the 20th person exposed to this disease is the fifth one to catch it.”

This was in all probability a question from the pen of the aforementioned Dr Roach.

In the book

For years before and after 1981, Professor Al Francis was responsible for guiding students through the pleasures and pains of Elementary Econometrics. As was the case with Basic Mathematics, there may have been a structural error in the naming of the course, for while econometrics was much in evidence, the adjective “elementary” was distinctly misleading. “Prof” was, however, a born teacher who gave us the intellectual tools to take on concepts – such as “ordinary least squares estimators”, “multicollinearity”, “dummy variables”, and the “Koyck transformation” – with confidence.

Prof Francis also gave students the will and the skill to guide themselves through difficult, technical material. If a student asked a question about an item not covered in lectures, Prof's first line of response – with a smile – was apt to be, “But it is in Johnston – read it and let me know how you get along”, with“Johnson” being Econometric Methods, the assigned textbook. Prof, who had taken his doctorate at MIT, ensured that his econometric students were prepared to match the best in the world.

Al Francis

On top of Prof's expertise and pedagogical skills were layers of determination and modesty. It is reported that the young Al Francis opened the batting for Kingston College in his time playing Sunlight Cup cricket. His opening partner was Easton “Bull” McMorris who went on to captain Jamaica and open for the West Indies (as highlighted in recent editions of the Sunday Observer). And at one down on the KC side was “Collie” Smith, the legendary West Indian star batsman who left us early.

At very least, then, Prof batted with the stars and could make his own claim to cricketing greatness. He also represented the school at football, and his academic achievements took him to some of the most renowned institutions in the world.

And yet, Prof studiously avoided autobiographical comment to those within his charge. He was more inclined to talk about a book he had just finished reading, to discuss the mathematical principles behind autocorrelation, or to reflect on the need for better basic schools in Jamaica, than to elaborate on his life achievements.

The early 1980s saw Prof Francis leave the Department of Economics to go, for a time, to a senior position at the International Bauxite Association. There, he noted, the view from his office in New Kingston – directed to the hills of St Andrew and further north – was more impressive than that from his ground floor office on the corridor at Mona. But his heart was at Mona, and so, he returned home.

Coming next: Other lecturers and the times.

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is Professor of International Law, UWI, Mona.


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