A magnificent enterprise

Stabroek News
June 10, 2001

A speech by David de Caires, editor-in-chief of the Stabroek News, at the dedication of the Marian Academy on the 27th May, 2001)

In these harsh if not desperate times one seeks solid signs of hope for the future. The opening of this school and the re-entry of the Ursuline Nuns into our educational system is such a sign. It signifies that the Catholic church has accepted a responsibility, despite what happened before, to commit time, funds, energy and skills in this vital area. It is a splendid commitment and I was also happy to hear that there are two Jesuits and a Mercy Sister among the teachers. Many of us and our children have in the past benefited from the ministrations of all of these good persons.

I have had the pleasure of visiting the school and was impressed by how much has already been achieved, given that the new building was only occupied this year, and is still a work in progress. There are periods for physical education and there is an exercise room. The boys have access to cricket and the students have participated in national school sports. I hope there will be a continuing emphasis on sports and games which have been sadly neglected in schools in recent times. They are a vital part of a rounded education. An exposure to athletics, cricket, football and tennis is not only good for health and the physique but teaches important lessons of how to compete, to win and to lose.

There is a laboratory and two more are planned. It is no secret that the nation is desperately in need of scientists of all kinds. The bulk of students at the University are still in the social sciences, many of whom find it difficult to get a job after they graduate. I am convinced that this is at least partly due to a lack of opportunity for learning the sciences at the schools and inadequate career guidance. Sister Marie has assured me that career guidance is on the agenda and I believe the Marian Academy can in due course make a substantial contribution to producing the physicists, chemists, biologists and technologists of all kinds that are so badly needed.

Music is already being taught on a recorder and there are plans for development. Perhaps by 2006 we can look forward to a school band or orchestra.

There is a computer room and students are involved in computer studies. This is an area, of course, in which the possibilities are open ended. In our neck of the woods Barbados is perhaps the leader, Prime Minister Owen Arthur having opted for Edutech 20 as a developmental priority. Funds and training will be the bottlenecks.

Much has been done already and the challenges ahead are enormous and exciting. As former Prime Minister Lee Kwan yew of Singapore had famously realised good schools and a good educational system are an absolutely vital part of genuine national development. There are already a few other private schools doing a good job. The challenge to the government is to strengthen the dominant state system. Minister Henry Jeffrey has indicated that he will be setting up a national education advisory council. They will no doubt point to the shortage of qualified and experienced teachers and the poor salaries and working conditions. Hopefully, too, they will urge him to revisit current plans for the imposition of absolute uniformity.

At the end of the day, education is of course much more than the sum of its parts. I asked Sisters Jacqueline and Marie about moral education and they gave me a book called `Examining religion - contemporary moral issues' published by Heinemann Educational Publishers. I read it with great interest. It is nothing less in parts than a tract for the times, a liberal/radical exegesis of what Bernard Shaw might have called, everything an intelligent young man or young lady ought to know about the modern world. There are three basic divisions of the types of issues covered, Personal Issues (does God exist, human suffering, Christian ethics, ideals, the family, single parent families, love, sex, pornography, AIDS, contraception, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, drugs, suicide), Social Issues (social ethics, racism, the Holocaust, euthanasia, abortion, sexism, crime and punishment, homelessness, work) and Global Issues (nationalism, human rights, animal rights, war and peace, Chernobyl, world poverty, the arms trade, world hunger, world population, refugees, liberation technology, the planet in crisis, indigenous peoples, world religions). This gives some idea of the scope, all presented in a challenging down to earth style, which is sure to provoke a great deal of interest and debate.

Students will have an opportunity of engaging a whole panoply of topical issues in the classroom. What a wonderful subject to teach, and to be taught. Endless topics here for school debates, and why not bring in outsiders from time to time.

In his book `Education and the good life' first published in 1926 Bertrand Russell used the phrase `a free citizen of the universe'. The concept may on its face seem too radical and freethinking for a Catholic school (perhaps not, in view of the book I just mentioned) though I believe the best Catholic education has always been distinguished by the fact that it takes ideas seriously. Indeed both James Joyce and Fidel Castro were products of a Jesuit education. Though not noted in later life for their devotion to the church, the idea of a good education surely is to open the mind, not to steer it in a particular direction. Education, Russell suggested, should give the child a sense of setting out upon a voyage of discovery.

One of my great regrets in life was that I only woke up to the world of the mind relatively late. I almost completely wasted my formal education, getting through by doing as little as I could with no real interest or excitement. I remember how it started. I read a book called `Contem-porary Capitalism' by the English Marxist John Strachey. Somehow it caught my imagination. I read another book by him `The end of empire', then something by GDH Cole and then on and on. I did not become a socialist but that book is what created the spark. The search for knowledge is the only thing in life that never palls. Once you catch the virus, your appetite is insatiable. You want to read everything in every field.

My son was more fortunate. He was infected with the love of literature and the thirst for knowledge when he was at school. When he was 16 he had an English teacher who inspired him with a boundless enthusiasm for good books. He has since that day been a voracious reader.

An essential part of a good education is to acquire a thirst for knowledge and ideas and a love of literature. But it is more than that. A healthy society wants children who are not bigoted, who are not fearful, who have opinions which they are willing to express, who have some respect and sympathy for others who are different or less fortunate. Parents have much to do with this. It is hard for healthy children to emerge from unhappy or narrow-minded homes. But teachers also have a major role to play, starting from the nursery schools. A lot depends on how children are dealt with in school and the attitudes that are inculcated. Ideally, the imparting of knowledge must be combined with affection.

The Ursuline Nuns have undertaken a magnificent enterprise at this time. We must all be grateful that they have seen fit to do so. I have no doubt that they are capable of staying with the project and seeing it through to a success we can only now dream of and wish for. May the Lord be with them.