Leadership Challenges In Belize Higher Education - Part 2

From an address to Nova University 2010 by Alvaro Rosado Ph.D.

Our educational system has certainly not demonstrated its goodness for Belize as we continue to see an exodus of our educated youths and in many cases our educated elders as they migrate to the more developed countries. It is almost as if a Belizean education confers the first visa for those wishing to migrate. To illustrate this point I recall attending a meeting of University presidents in New Mexico, USA, in the mid nineties. I took the opportunity to visit the Space Museum in White Sands. Upon entering the building I took a short flight of stairs up to the first level of the exhibition and read the first plaque at the top of the flight of stairs. The plaque started off as follows : " This section of the museum is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Maxime A. Faget who led the team that produced the final design of the space shuttle that lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in April 1981. Max was born at Stand Creek, British Honduras on August 26, 1921." WOW!!! More recently we have been hearing about Dr. Arlie Petters who is on the faculty of a highly respected University in the USA. Dr. Petters is on the international cutting edge of the expansion of our mathematical horizons. Like Dr. Maxime Faget Dr. Arlie Petters was born and raised in Stann Creek. Maybe there is something to that Gumagaroo water after all. These gentlemen are but two of the many Belizeans who migrated and made went on to achieve great things in their chosen fields. We can readily recall Frankie Reneau and Pen Cayetano and others in the performing Arts arena. It is impossible to quantify the cost of this brain loss to Belize. Imagine the possibilities if our education system had been able to persuade these great minds to harness their energies to promote the development of Belize.

Belize High School GraduatesI continue to be amazed that Belizean educators are surprised that our imported educational system results in the mass exportation of the educated product. The entire system is designed to educate our young people for export. A typical exportation route today sees the child in Jalacte Toledo educated out of that village and into high school and then Junior College in Punta Gorda Town. If the train doesn't stop there the student is exported to UB in Belmopan or Belize City and if the system is really successful the "educated" Belizean is exported abroad, usually to the United States of America. Whether the educated product gets off the education train after Punta Gorda high school or Junior College, or at UB in Belmopan or Belize City or in the USA it is very unlikely that the educated product will return to its place of origin (in this case the village of Jalacte). The education received is just not relevant: not to Jalacte, not to Belize City, in fact not to Belize. I hasten to note that many Belizeans who did not take the exportation route have been able to function successfully in Belize in spite of the irrelevant education, not necessarily because of it. They are the ones who have been able to transfer and adapt the foreign concepts and attitudes to the Belizean reality. The few who have "succeeded" in Belize cannot be used as justification for the many that the system has failed. Education is a tool for transforming culture and Belize is in dire need of cultural transformation at this time. I will propose that one of the main purposes of public education in Belize should be to produce effective citizens who will contribute to the development of our nation. To this end I suggest that our country's educational goals should reflect three important factors: the nature of organized knowledge, the nature of the Belizean learner and the nature of Belize and the Belizean society. I will concede that factors one and two have probably been given some consideration in our current system but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that even passing consideration is being given to the nature of Belize and the Belizean society.

What we need is a Belizean Educational System based on a Belizean philosophy derived from Belizean needs. We have the necessary expertise to develop such a system -what we lack is the vision in some, the commitment in others and the political will in all.

This lack of vision, commitment and will is regularly evidenced by the perceived need to bring in foreign consultants to shape our educational system for us. Belizean educational experts resident in Belize are frequently called upon as consultants to work on educational projects abroad yet these same experts are ignored when there is a need for their expertise in Belize. I must hasten to point out that this mentality is not limited to our educational system – our health system suffers from the same ailment and we are now hearing talk of its transmission to our police department.

Isolating bits and pieces of the system and revising these will not bring about any meaningful change. I will take the liberty of relating another personal experience to illustrate the point. I have been dabbling in agriculture for some time now. One of my most recent projects was the establishment of a plantain walk. Two months ago I personally measured and supervised the placement of stakes to provide the guides for the planting of the plantain suckers in ordered lines. There were twenty stakes on the front line and twenty corresponding stakes on the rear line. I personally supervised the planting of the first three rows and left my colleagues to continue planting out the rest of the plot. After planting the fifth row they somehow aligned the sixth stake in the front line with the fifth stake in the rear line and continued planting in this pattern up to the twelfth row. I discovered this mistake when I resumed supervision and decided to adjust for the error on the thirteenth row. After wasting three days trying to make adjustments I realized that I was only wasting my time and finally decided that the only way to correct the error was to go back to the root cause and start over again from there. I uprooted and relocated the 240 suckers that had been wrongly placed because of this error. During the period wasted in trying to make adjustments to compensate for the original error it took me more than fifteen minutes to make the necessary adjustments and plant a new sucker – today after having corrected the original error it takes me two minutes to plant a sucker in its correct place.

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Sometimes, as hard as it is, we just have to bite the bullet, admit we were wrong and start over anew. We need to look at the evolution of our educational system in the aftermath of colonialism. We need specifically to ask if there has been any planned evolution of our educational system after colonialism. We need to look at the impact of the successive policy regimes and at the poor policy choices made by successive governments. The issue of curricula relevance must be high on the agenda. Curricula derived from an era in which change was slow, communication technologies were underdeveloped, and labour skills were developed in response to existing employment opportunities are not appropriate for the challenges facing Belize in the twenty-first century. There must be a new focus on relevant skills, values and ethics, teamwork, and the need to equip individuals with the capacity to generate their own income. The implications of the knowledge economy for learning and for individual functioning in a society in which knowledge is easily available must be considered when deciding on how curricula are taught. The particular skills which those curricula impart cannot be ignored. The availability of knowledge, and the speed at which it is now generated, has implications also at the level of the content which is taught. In addition, the instillation of values alongside traditional content knowledge must be seen as a high priority.

The reshaping of our educational system will not be an easy task- it will need courage and strength of conviction. As James Baldwin pointed out in his Talk To Teachers in 1963 and I quote: "The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and to try to change it and to fight it -at no matter what risk". End of quote. We will need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why are we educating our people? Is it our responsibility to prepare our people for transfer to institutions abroad so that they can continue their education or should our system be geared primarily to producing citizens who can best contribute to the development of our nation? These question – even these thoughts – will probably be considered politically incorrect but as Baldwin said if we consider ourselves responsible we need to examine society and to try to change it and to fight it even at the risk of being considered politically incorrect.

I have yet to find a developed country which does not have as one of its major goals the transformation of its educational system into one that will develop the high quality skills needed to sustain its position as a leading nation in an increasingly competitive global economy. Their main objective, and understandably so, is to stay ahead of the developing world i.e. to maintain the status quo. Belize is certainly not a leading nation in an increasingly competitive global economy so we cannot have the same goals as developed countries. I cannot believe that we would want to maintain the status quo when we are the ones being trampled upon. We need to recognize this fact and develop a Belizean philosophy of education based on Belizean realities – a philosophy which will have as its basic foundation the changing the status quo.

Bringing together the key Belizean policy makers and shakers is both inevitable and timely. The leadership of Belizean Higher Education must embrace global issues and an appreciation of what is happening beyond our own shores – not in an effort to emulate them or to support their aspirations but rather in an effort to define our role in the global arena based primarily on our strengths. Embedding global perspectives in our philosophy of higher education will mean radically rethinking our institutional and national approaches to education and delivering that change will require strong and visionary leadership.

In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois observed that and I quote "the training of men is a difficult and intricate task- it's technique is a matter for educational experts but it's object is for the vision of seers". End of quote. Belize needs an Education System which will mold men and women out of masons and waitresses instead of the present system which seems more intent on molding masons and waitresses out of our men and women. I must repeat this for emphasis because until we understand what we are doing we will not be able to see the error of our ways. Belize needs an Education System which will mold men and women out of masons and waitresses instead of the present system which seems more intent on molding masons and waitresses out of our men and women. Forget the turf wars, forget the politics – let us bring on the seers and visionaries so that they can get on with the job of developing a Belizean philosophy and designing a Belizean curriculum to which our educational experts can then apply their techniques.

Unlike most developed countries we have a population consisting of mostly young people. We need to prepare this young generation with the skills and attitudes that they will need to recognize Belize's strengths and weaknesses and to utilize our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses. Our leaders in higher education have a key role to play in helping this young generation to understand and to play an active and positive role in identifying and securing Belize's role in the global economy. As leaders we must exert our influence on the future generation even if only for selfish reasons. I recall a conversation with a noted Belizean educator, Sister Caritas Lawrence, in which she confided in me that she was involved in many programs for at risk youths not so much because she wanted to save them but more so that she wanted to save herself from the indignities that could be visited upon her if these youths were not reformed. I must confess that at my age self preservation is not such a base motivation or such a bad idea after all.

Earlier in this presentation I borrowed a quote from a speech delivered by Booker T. Washington over a century ago. He related an incident in which a ship had been stranded off the coast of South America and had run out of drinking water. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel hung a signal stating its need for water and begging for assistance. A passing ship signalled back "Cast down your bucket where you are". The ship in distress sent its signal twice more and twice more the response was the same. The Captain of the ship in distress at last heeded the injunction, cast down his bucket and it came up full of fresh sparkling water flowing into the ocean from the bar of the Amazon Delta system.

As the current leaders in Belizean Higher Education we need to cast down our bucket where we are! The solutions to our problems are here -not there! As I speak more than a thousand Belizean high school and college graduates are searching for jobs but the prospects for most of them are slim to none. Most of them are armed with an education that has little relevance to the realities of Belize. An education that will probably be more of a liability than an asset in today's Belize. Most of the slots for persons with bachelors degrees in business education are already occupied and not very many new businesses are opening up. What we need now are people who have been equipped with the skills necessary to envision the future and identify business opportunities. The majority of our modern day Belizean entrepreneurs are not burdened with irrelevant educational baggage – rather their's is the kind of expertise that we need to retool the system, not the kind of education that will prepare us to continue to be dependent on others for a job. Opportunities abound in Belize but our educational system is not designed to open our eyes to these opportunities. How can our nation justify being a net importer when we have the potential to be the bread basket of the entire region and to become a net exporter in the process? Historically our people have been taught that agriculture is demeaning – the strong slaves were employed as woodcutters with the freedom to roam the forests while the weak ones were assigned and confined to the gardens. We were educated to believe that the noblest aspiration was to work in an office and wear a necktie.

The above observations are but a few of the challenges that I think face the leadership in Higher Education in Belize. These observations should provide enough fodder for lengthy discussions and hopefully the emergence of some vision, commitment and political will. I would have preferred to hope that there is a possibility for some action since I am not much of a proponent for prolonged discussions or committee meetings.

As I recall it was less than 25 years ago in 1986 when the University College of Belize opened its doors and for the first time Belizeans were able to pursue their studies for a bachelors degree without having to travel abroad to pursue such studies. Less than 15 years ago I had the privilege of delivering several courses to more than 60 Belizeans engaged in studies leading up to the first Masters degree program ever offered in Belize. It was awesome to listen to this concentrated mass of Belizean brain power discuss, question and dissect pertinent educational issues. Never before, to the best of my knowledge, was the Belizean educational system subjected to such intense analysis. Today I have the distinct privilege of addressing a group of twenty six Belizean professionals who are in leadership positions in their respective organizations and are engaged in studies leading up to the first Doctoral degree to be offered in Belize. You have had the opportunity to engage in research based on issues pertinent to the Belizean people and the Belizean society. I can think of no other group better equipped to influence the direction that the Belize education system will take. During the course your studies you have acquired the where with all to provide the new leadership needed to make the changes discussed in this presentation if you so see fit.

Hopefully I have planted some seeds and introduced some controversy in your so far blissful journey in your quest for your doctoral degree. I take this opportunity to congratulate each and every one of you for staying the course so far and to wish you success in all your future endeavours. I leave you with one final challenge which I hope you will see as an opportunity. Belize is in serious trouble and our youth cry out for help. If we do not lift them up they will pull us down!

Part 1 of this article in Belize Higher Education