Thursday, February 17, 2011

Education is taking on the function of Kentucky Fried chicken in the Caribbean

Education: Equal opportunity provider or Kentucky Fried oriented?
By Oliver Mills

In our Caribbean society, commentaries and reports on educational issues seem to constantly appear in our various daily papers, sometimes competing with politics. Recently in one country, there was a commentary on the way a particular ministry of education was treating high school principals. In another, there was the issue of the importance of technical and vocational education being offered more broadly in high schools. Yet in another, there was a discussion about the inadequate performance of students in the grade achievement test leading to entry in various high schools.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaAll of these episodes point more starkly to the real role education should play in equipping individuals with knowledge and competencies to enable them to play a positive role in the development of their societies. But in undertaking this role, the important question can be posed. Is education an equal opportunity provider, or is it Kentucky Fried oriented? The latter description will be explained later.

In connection with the question of the role of education, a recent article published in the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory, the writer states that education is charged with the task of equalising and expanding the opportunities of individuals in terms of the jobs they might have access to, and the material resources they can hope to enjoy, and their role as citizens. Does education really perform this function?

At one level it could be said that education does perform the above mentioned function. In the majority of instances, in the Caribbean, education fosters social mobility, in terms of widening the middle class because of the skills and competencies it equips those benefitting from it with.

It further opens opportunities and equalises the social structure since through it the educated person gains access to the higher echelons of society, where critical decisions are made. Education also enables many to enter the professions, politics, and to do serious research, which results in an enhancement of the lives of Caribbean people.

The educated person therefore gains access to greater material and financial resources, which he or she would be denied otherwise. Furthermore, education results in committed citizens with positive values who contribute to the welfare of their societies, and promote moral and ethical values that create trustworthiness among members of the society at large.

But is it as straightforward as it is presented here? There are some of us who seriously question whether education performs the tasks it is alleged it does. Many others think that some educated persons neither think nor act as if they have been exposed to education. And even if this is not the case, their dispositions and performance appraisal do not reflect the capabilities education should have provided.

Why is it, for example in the Caribbean, that many of our countries still experience unsatisfactory economic growth and development, even though we have various types and levels of educational institutions, which almost make education an industry, and an appreciable number of graduates from these institutions. Why can’t they get our institutions and industries to perform more efficiently? Is not this what education is all about? Why is it that skills and knowledge do not seem to match productivity in the Caribbean?

It is precisely because of these factors that some Caribbean observers are saying that although education is an opportunity provider in some sense, the opportunities do not reflect the necessary results expected both for the individual and for society. They also say in a most frightening way, that what we really have in the Caribbean is education taking on the function of Kentucky Fried chicken. More clearly, that it is Kentucky Fried oriented. This means that those exposed to education swallow it, barely digest it, and then through the exits it goes. It does not ever become an integral part of the individual and his being so that his or her behaviour could be transformed for the better.

In a wider sense, education, seen as being Kentucky Fried oriented, means that the ingredients of education, prepared by the lecturer, which include knowledge and skills, are fed to students in the classroom. The students ingest it, without giving the time and concentration to really savour it. They therefore swallow it, without understanding what they have been exposed to, and without giving the necessary attention to chewing it, so that it is experienced in a deep way. They then barely digest it, so that it does not become a part of their understanding. It is then expunged, without having any significant impact on the individual or the environment.

This is why many persons in their critique of education feel that some educated persons do not act as if they have been exposed to knowledge at a high level, which should make a difference for them, and to them. They do not see the education received by some individuals as related or connected to new behaviours, or contributing to national development. It is therefore of the Kentucky Fried variety, where it is swallowed, barely digested, and then goes the way of the exit.

Many students often complain also, that whenever they attend lectures, they are not given the opportunity to question, or come up with a different perspective or interpretation of what the lecturer gives. They fear that if they do, they would be penalised by being given an unsatisfactory grade. They therefore reproduce in their essays and exams what the lecturer gave them in class. Students therefore, in order to get a grade that will enable them to get a good degree, or which would put them on the path to apply for higher studies, go along with what is given to them. The more you can accurately give the lecturer’s viewpoint, the higher the grade you get. There is no alternative view, no questioning, no quoting of additional sources, because what the lecturer says is almost sacred, hence the Kentucky Fried orientation of education.

This strategy is also responsible for the fact that when students graduate and are on the job, they find it difficult to think innovatively. Even here, they fear that their manager at the workplace would penalise them, if they seem too bright, and they may even be accused of not fitting in with the team. This is because the manager has himself, or herself received the same kind of Kentucky Fried education as the employee. The vicious circle therefore continues.

This Kentucky Fried way of doing things also applies to politics. The political party has a certain line, given by either its leader, or an executive group. If there is any questioning of the ideology, a member could either be disciplined or expelled, for not being part of the dominant value system, which follows the Kentucky Fried method of doing things.

Since the Kentucky Fried strategy discourages independent thinking, it is prone to mistakes in judgment and in the implementation of policies, because other voices are censored, and only the voice of the dominant ideology is allowed.

This means that even in a general sense, if Caribbean countries undertake basically the same education project aimed at transforming their systems, it would not achieve its objectives, since it would be riddled with defects that could have been exposed had there been a fair dialogue concerning consequences and other possible paradigms for consideration. The Kentucky Fried phenomenon in education therefore hinders critical thinking, discourages alternatives, and freezes the education process. Mistakes and bad strategies therefore persist.

Education also, as an opportunity provider, if in fact this is really the case, can be seen as a contradiction. The question is opportunity provider for whom? What sector of society? Is it the sector that has always dominated decision making and co-opted others, in order to maintain its power and influence? Is education then the equal opportunity provider for the selected few, and not for the many? Despite the expansion of educational opportunities in the Caribbean, is it not the case that the top positions are held by the ‘old boys network’? And that in terms of gender equality, are not male managers more prevalent and dominant than female managers? This is despite the fact that females may be greater in numbers, but the male manager or leader possesses the resources and social capital which enable them to maintain their professional grip on the system. Where then is the equal opportunity?

From the arguments above, it could therefore be said that education, in the strict theoretical sense, is an equal opportunity provider, but not in its practical, everyday operation. Here, complexities and contradictions abound. What is most clear, however, is that the Kentucky Fried model dominates, controls, and shapes the educational process. This is because, despite the fact that education is meant to liberate and encourage critical thinking, there is a dominant philosophy which inhibits this.

This philosophy also promotes a situation throughout the Caribbean, where the Kentucky Fried paradigm operates by preparing knowledge with certain ingredients, feeding it to its clients, who then swallow it, barely digest it, and it then percolates through a predetermined exit, which neither benefits the individual nor society in any way that is significant, or positive.

February 17, 2011