Howard University has announced it will be shutting down its classics department as part of its educational “prioritisation” initiative to cut costs in the wake of the novel coronavirus health pandemic. This move by the leading historically black university in the United States has been roundly criticised, especially by intellectuals who feel studying the classics — works by the great thinkers of antiquity such as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Cato, Cicero, and others of that ilk — is a prerequisite to being a well-rounded educated person.
Chief among the critics is Cornel West, a noted black intellectual and professor at Harvard University. In an editorial with Jeremy West, chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test, he poured scorn on Howard's administrators for the decision. This is, in part, what he said in the stinging editorial:
“Academia's continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline, and a deep intellectual narrowness. Schooling is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to all that they can be in light of their irreducible singularity.”
To help make his case, West pointed to the example of two prominent black men at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery and later racial justice in America:
* Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) taught himself to read in secret. Douglass, it is said, immersed himself in reading the classics.
* Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968), known not only for his relentless press for racial equality but for his rhetorical brilliance, also delved into the writings of the great philosophers who lived long before his time without regard for the colour of their skin or their sometimes racially prejudiced views. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King Jr mentioned Socrates no less than three times. We know this, too, to be true of our own Marcus Garvey, a voracious reader including the classics.
Each succeeding generation, it seems, loses something in the development of the mental faculty. A wise man sought to explain it this way. With each discovery of a new method or contraption, he said, man has a vital part of him amputated; his mind.
Living here in little Jamaica one gets the impression that we have exited an age of enlightenment when to reason was a virtue and re-entered the dark ages when people argue more than they reason. One of my favourite quotes, I forget who said it, is: “Where there is much arguing there is of necessity the need for learning.” God knows Jamaicans argue a lot. We argue about everything; so much so that the word “argue” is used as a synonym for conversation. “A argue we a argue.”
Nowhere is this diminishing ability to think more evident than in our politics and, by extension, the Government. Jamaica is faced with the monumental problem of the political garrison, the crime and violence it spawns, and the crippling effect these have on the economy. Because of faulty thinking the solution continues to elude those whose primary responsibility it is to create a harmonious, safe, prosperous, and inclusive society. Einstein eloquently expressed the dilemma we face when he said, “The important problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
In a February 11, 2009 editorial the Jamaica Observer expressed the need for the Government of Jamaica to think bigger than the problems that keep the country mired in problems of our own making. This in part is what the editorial published over 12 years ago had to say. “If the Government wants to be taken seriously, it must deliver on its words and promises. We urge the Government to shake itself out of its slumber. The times are demanding big-picture thinking.”
The Observer returned to the theme of thinking big in an October 31, 2019 editorial. Writing under the headline, 'Bernard Lodge: What's with this palpable fear of big ideas?', the newspaper lambasted those it deems to be standing in the way of the kind of big thinking that could save the nation from its social and economic woes. Politics as practised in Jamaica, and talk as carried on in the street, work against the independent or critical thinker. As a nation, and as individuals too, we are prisoners of a deficit of ideas.
To what does one attribute the inability of Government, and all of us, to come up with big ideas to solve the big problems confronting the nation? The answer to that question is complex. It is more than reading Shakespeare and Chaucer. At the same time, one should be deeply worried about what passes these days for education and educated people.
Schooling has been reduced to what it takes to make a living. The focus is not on what it takes to make a life, what says a nation. Rote learning, regurgitating material, and passing exams with little comprehension or mental processing is the order of the day. This generation of Jamaicans are not being taught how to think. The problem of acting first and thinking after is widespread in the society.
In his book titled Free or Unfree? author Edward de Bono extends the concept and practice of enslavement beyond physical bondage to the lack of knowledge, which keeps people bound in ignorance and robs them of the ability to exploit available options to grow and to succeed. The Bible, too, Hosea 4:6, proclaims: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
If Jamaica is to achieve the immense potential enshrined in our national pledge — “So that Jamaica may, under God, increase in beauty, fellowship, and prosperity, and play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race” — we must hearken the wise words spoken by Marcus Garvey in 1927 and popularised in song by Robert Nesta Marley: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but yourself can free your mind.”
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