Equal opportunity for children to access “good education” has to be one of the primary obligations of any government. In a developing country like Jamaica, such opportunity is tantamount to ensuring the country’s viability if not its very survival. OUR STORY is a collection of first-person narratives by graduates of one of the most visionary and effective yet undocumented experiments in the history of secondary education in the English speaking Caribbean. The poetic prose of graduate Trevor Thomas highlights this shortcoming: “A brilliant meteor had streaked across the bleakness of Jamaica’s education landscape, briefly illuminating its dark canopy, but attracted scant attention, and the remains were unceremoniously buried without headstone or epitaph.”
The observation of Prof. Emeritus, the Hon. Errol Miller, OJ, CD, Ph.D., DLL (Honoris Causa), an internationally recognized scholar on the subject, further emphasizes the sentiment in his exceptional foreword: “Our Story recounts and reflects upon a unique chapter in the history of Jamaican secondary education told sixty-seven years after it began and sixty years after it ended by some students who assess its impact on their lives.”
Although OUR STORY focuses on the period 1954-1960, it directly references critical antecedents as well as pivotal outcomes from the period, especially in the area of Education Policy. The revolutionary role of the Hon. Edwin Leopold Allen, the then Minister of Education who envisioned and implemented the Experimental Secondary Classes, and the notable teachers that were the definitive agents of the success of the endeavor are recognized. The inextricable connection between the Classes and the broader history of Secondary Education in Jamaica is boldly clarified in the volume.
OUR STORY references Jamaica’s political, economic, and cultural history as these unfolded during the period immediately preceding and immediately following, national Independence in 1962. The absence of the story of the Classes from the larger narrative of secondary education in Jamaica substantiates a void in the history that should be addressed. This history and the related influence of the imposed, traditional, generally elitist, and highly discriminatory, imposed British system of education are well known and documented. This history is therefore not the main driver of this effort. Instead, the effort is driven by the realization that the Experimental Secondary Classes have not received the recognition and credit that they unquestionably deserve.
The historical linkages with our own stories demand that we acknowledge the nature, cause, consequences, and relevance of the international protests instigated by the worldwide recognition of systemic discrimination against people of color. It would be irresponsible not to do so. The common origins, direct relevance, and impact on how we may view our own heritage, and the future of the land of our birth are inescapable. Notably, the protests are in direct response to historical inequities in the opportunity to access crucial socio-cultural prerequisites such as education, justice, and the benefits that generally accrue from a clearly flawed, artfully marketed participatory economy that is extensively dependent on the education status of participants.
Hopefully, as the stories are told and read, the telling will not be in vain.
If this last year has taught me anything, it’s that our education systems (globally speaking) still leave a lot to be desired. One might say they “need some work.” When students’ education suffers, no matter what grade or level they are at, society suffers––both in the moment and for decades to come. I had the benefit of an unconventional childhood, with a mix of homeschooling with dedicated and deeply invested parents, and a middle and high school education overseas. I can’t speak for the intervening years since I finished high school, but at the time, that particular education system ranked fairly high on the various “best education systems” lists that are released every year. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was challenging in some really good ways that prepared me incredibly well for college.
I can’t say the same was true for my fellow students in college and graduate school––many of my friends struggled, especially in the first two semesters, with the workload and the different ways of thinking that university-level courses require of students. I remember feeling rather proud to have received a “better” education (although to an extent that word is subjective), and now I feel a bit ashamed of having lorded that over my friends. As many research reports have shown, blame for poor performance across American school districts and elsewhere shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of the students or teachers––the system itself is broken, and the fractures show at every level, from childhood through adulthood.
In Our Story: Jamaica’s Visionary Experimental Secondary Classes (1954-1960), editors Jonathan Goodrich and Owen Everard James have collected the background, methods, and results of a unique educational experiment carried out in Jamaica during a six-year periods ending in 1960. It is, I must say, an exhaustive document––fully book-length––about this educational programme, and yet it is also fascinating. I knew very little about the history of education in Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, merely that it had been altered irrevocably by the area’s colonization by various foreign actors, namely Spain and Britain, and the import of imperial cultures along with slave labor from Africa (and later, indentured Chinese and Indian peoples). The native Taino peoples had been devastated, so I only expected that the country’s education system would reflect norms established during the British occupation. This book deals with what was essentially an educational experiment carried out in the years immediately prior to Jamaica’s emancipation in 1962, making it an interesting historical document of a time of great change on the island––and the ways in which all of these changes impacted how education was done. And indeed, the first chapter alone documents far to many of these changes for me to summarize effectively here.
As is stated in the forward, “Our Story is about fruitful lives: some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold and some a hundred-fold, made possible by access to good quality education with international currency.” It is, by its mere existence, a document that refutes the argument that educational success ought to be approached in the same way as business success. The book draws on personal recollections collected well after the fact, and the editors acknowledge both the benefits (hindsight and lived experiences) and the drawbacks (erroneous and incomplete memories of events as they happened) of this approach. Its editors set the scene for the unfolding of this particular experiment by first describing the various (and often ad hoc) other competing systems in use during this period. But as Goodrich and James put it, the book exists not to focus on these things but rather the experiment itself––the ESCs (Experimental Secondary Class)––and to remedy the fact that these classes had never “received the recognition and credit that they unquestionably deserve.”
A quick note for those of you who like to know such things: There is a religious inflection to this book and the educational experiment it documents. This is something of an historical artifact of the period being discussed––and of the British heritage and influence that even now persists in an independent Jamaica.
Would the ESC system work today, in 2021, in my country? I have no idea. It would certainly require a complete restructuring of the system––a system admittedly that I’ve previously described as “broken.” In this I’m not exactly unusual; almost everyone I know is unhappy with the current state of things and with the quality of education that children and teenagers are receiving. The challenge isn’t one of motivation, but rather execution: How can a country overhaul its educational system without a period of great disorganization, and without protest against the ways and means of getting it done? Goodrich and James document one possibility, carried out as an experiment with a limited reach that still managed to make a vast difference. I would certainly recommend that educators and administrators take a look at this book––it might just prove the very thing that’s needed going forward.
Editors Goodrich and James cover the results of the Experimental Secondary Class (ESC) programme in Jamaica in the years before that country’s independence. The book provides a thorough and inspiring template for modern educators to learn from as we continue to face educational systems drained of funds and adequate support, as well as the freedom to innovate.
WHERE TO BUY?
The next book on my list is The Portal by David Bernstein, which won a CIPA EVVY merit award back in 2018 for Juvenile Fiction. It’s a work of fantastical science fiction, and promises me robots and time portals, so I’m quite excited about that!
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
* Courtesy of Bookshop.org book listing.