Monday, February 11, 2008
"Toronto's Afrocentric School," Editorial, STABROEK NEWS February 7, 2008.
Last week the Toronto District School Board decided to approve a new school in which the "knowledge and experiences of peoples of African descent [will be] an integral feature of the teaching and learning environment." The school, which will be funded by taxpayers, has been proposed as one way of curbing the alarming drop out rates among the city's black students - one study suggests that as many as four out of every ten black students fail to graduate from high school. The decision has been met with a chorus of disapproval from radio talk show hosts and editorial writers across Canada. These have generally branded the idea of a separate school as a form of 'segregation' and argued that it directly contradicts modern Canada's steadfast refusal to yield to easy ethnic, cultural and religious divisions. Many critics are adamant that public money should not be used to undermine a wider sense of national identity, and they warn that the precedent could encourage further fractures within the country's large immigrant population - half of Toronto's 5.5 million residents are foreign born. Some have also questioned the idea that black students are being failed by the school system at all. A BBC report quotes a former university professor with experience of youth outreach and employment programmes saying that in one particularly problematic working-class neighbourhood, "Out of the 100 or so families I worked with â€¦ I would say 80% of the families were non-supportive of their children's education. When you'd go into a lot of the houses, there was a lot of yelling and arguing. There were lots of latchkey kids." If that pattern holds true for the wider Afro-Caribbean population, it is not easy to see what difference a new Afrocentric school would make. There are simpler objections too. Just a few decades ago, black Americans risked life and limb to integrate themselves into a hostile white education system. They did this, presciently, because they understood that a successful education in difficult circumstances is best measured by the progress one makes within the dominant culture. Communities that seek the comfort of an education among their own kind may spare themselves the stress of competition and cultural confrontation, but they also lose the knowledge that allows their rivals to keep outperforming them in the marketplace of ideas. Black America understood this in the segregation years. For all the deficiencies in their curricula, white schools still offered the best route to certification in the wider society. Multicultural societies are always vulnerable to racial insecurities. What is not clear is how well these insecurities are resolved by the supposedly changed contexts of racially-sensitive education. Take, for example, the undeniable neglect of the great Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. In most mainstream historiography, Toussaint and his comrades appear briefly as leaders of a 'slave rebellion' that distracts Napoleon for a while during the momentous period in which he agrees to the Louisiana purchase. C.L.R. James's wonderful account of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, and an increasing body of modern scholarship, have shown that the reality was certainly quite different. Without Toussaint's extraordinary political and military leadership, the French army - which the Americans feared was unstoppable - would have been free to give its full attention to the struggling new republic in the north. In other words, without the bewildering success of self-educated former slaves against a professional army that had overrun most of Europe, there may well have been no America. The whole episode deserves far more attention than it has yet received, as does the political skill of their leader, a man who wished to live independent of French control but was also a proud inheritor of the culture and values of the French Enlightenment. L'Ouverture wanted freedom as much as anyone else, but he never wished to discard the glories of France that his education had allowed him to share. In this sense he perfectly embodies the tensions of modern Caribbean identity, and the many hesitations we all have about the turbulent pasts that have formed us. Learning more about the Haitian revolution would no doubt be part of a school curriculum that focused on "the knowledge and experiences of peoples of African descent," but what use would such knowledge be if one remained ignorant of the French and American revolutions that made Toussaint's achievement so remarkable? We are all involved says the poet, none of us can retreat to our pasts any more. Our reality is too entangled with other peoples and other cultures for us to make sense of ourselves in isolation. However noble its intentions, an education based on cultural separation will always end up proving itself too self-limiting to be of lasting value. (Thanks to Mark McWatt; the editorial is here: http://www.stabroeknews.com/index.pl/article_editorial?id=56538593.)