“Head-Decay-Shun”: Literacy, tool of the dependent and displaced?

Given the particularities of the way Jamaican creole English is pronounced, the word education often sounds like head-decay-shun. I once heard a Guyanese professor claim that this pronunciation, in this case, was more than just coincidental: it was a critical rejection of the formal school system by some Rastafarians in Jamaica, given what they saw as the continuing mental colonization being perpetrated and perpetuated in those schools. Volumes, novels, and decades of discussions and debates have been devoted to the subject of Caribbean education, and this is not the place, nor am I the one to do the reprise of all the material, much of it critical with famous examples including learning the history of Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Raleigh rather than Sam Sharpe or Paul Bogle, or reading about farms in temperate climates, or poems about nightingales, and so forth. Yet, and yet, there has been widespread recognition in the Anglophone Caribbean that education is the path to “success,” especially among working class urban African descendants, with notable success stories of achievement through education being figures such as Eric Williams. Indeed, it seems that the Anglophone Caribbean has more Nobel laureates per capita than anywhere else in the world.

But, I am not convinced, not entirely anyway.

I recently viewed some documentaries about Canadians overseas teaching poor children and orphans in India how to read, and these teachers were really devoting themselves, body and soul, spending their life savings, changing their lifestyle, and so forth. Seeing the little children reading big pink and blue letters accompanying pictures in their books, their little fingers dragged across each letter as they read each word … prompted me to think some gloomy thoughts.

I thought of people I have known, living in rural areas, whether in Canada, Trinidad, or Central America, who almost seemed to boast that they had no education at all, and lived full and happy lives and had everything they needed and wanted. I then think of these urban children in India, with nothing, no land, no food that they grow for themselves, the exact opposite of self-sufficiency, and the perfect picture of dependency.

Education, centred in cities, in urban civilizations, post-hunting and gathering, post-nomadic, accompanying the rise of inequality and tyranny. If we want to talk about the social context of education, we have to keep in mind the conditions under which education became education, and when it became mandatory. Those children in India need literacy if they are to have any chance of succeeding, of surviving, in modern India — and while that is almost certainly true, is it an endorsement of literacy as good in itself?

Few would question the value of literacy, not even the Taliban (who rejected literacy for females only), people of the book. Literacy is a tool of the dispossessed and displaced, those urban refugees who are born as “citizens” without any stake, without any basis in their nation, divorced and cut off from any independent access to resources of their own. Citizenship comes without land, and with lots of dependency on institutional structures, on wages, on rented apartments, and so forth.

What strikes me as being endlessly ironic is that “development workers” will then take the tools of the refugees, the dispossessed, the urban landless, into rural areas, to peasants and claim that literacy is for their good. To me this is the equivalent of someone who lives in a tent in a refugee camp telling someone with a mansion that if they want to improve their lives they ought to try on a tent for size. It’s always amazing how “we” can make the “fruits” of dispossession and displacement look like “progress.”

5 thoughts on ““Head-Decay-Shun”: Literacy, tool of the dependent and displaced?

  1. Jacob

    I’ve had related qualms about the going-to-English-in-the-third-world for as long as people I’ve known have been doing it, that I’ve never really managed to articulate precisely, and so reading this take on the issue of literacy is helpful. The issue with teaching english is very similar in so far as it, if well done, provides a skill that helps if people “are to have any chance of succeeding, of surviving, in modern” most places.

    Having said that, part of understanding how education became education entails the history of literacy as a form of exclusion and power, the counterpart to the “a tool of the dispossessed and displaced”. As such, its dissemination of literacy serves ideally to reduce that particular exclusion, although without doing much about its roots.

    I’m reminded of a passage from Adorno’s Minima Moralia: “in the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so”

  2. Guanaguanare

    Amen and Amen and Amen!

    “We don’t need no education.
    We don’t need no thought control.
    No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
    Teacher, leave those kids alone.
    Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!
    All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
    All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”

    –Another Brick In The Wall By Pink Floyd

  3. Alanna Shaikh

    I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of the day, at least. It’s the kind of observation that makes you stop and recalibrate your whole world view.

    Thank you.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Thank you Alanna. I also had the chance to visit your blog and find it very interesting — you have some amazing experience behind you, and ahead of you too I imagine.

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