Everyone knows good sense when they hear it, and Barack Obama’s back-to-school address on September 8 to students from kindergarten to 12th grade in the United States was perfect good sense.
It was as applicable to students in the tiny Caribbean Island of Montserrat, in the overcrowded urban centres of Brazil, in the leafy suburbs of France as it was to students in the United States. And, it was delivered with an authenticity that could only come from someone who had experienced serious challenges and overcome them.
The message, broadcast to schools throughout America, was compelling: “Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you... you write your own destiny”.
US President Barack Obama addressing students across the United States
Obama’s observation would strike a visceral chord in at least two generations of Caribbean people who climbed out of deprivation by absorbing education to write a destiny very different from the future to which their circumstances pointed. When he described his mother giving him extra tuition at 4.30 in the morning because she couldn’t afford to send him to the school other American kids attended in Indonesia where they lived at the time, men and women in developing countries the world over could identify with the problem and the determination.
In the Caribbean, waking up with sun’s rise to study was a norm for many students in rural areas whose homes had no electricity and whose parents could not afford private schools or extra lessons. In some cases, study in the light of the early morning sun preceded work in the field before setting-off for school.
Many of the professionals in Caribbean life today reached the pinnacles they have by recognising then what Obama, from his own similar experience, could say today: “Each of you has a responsibility for your education, (It is) a responsibility you have to yourself”.
And, Obama’s message was not patronizing. His was not the voice of a privileged guy for whom talk is cheap. The students saw the President of the United States, but the voice they heard was that of a successful man who had once been a fatherless child, brought up in tough circumstances by a single mother. The lesson was clear.
As he said, “My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn't fit in. So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I'm not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse”.
All over the Caribbean today, there are children abandoned by fathers and being brought-up by struggling single mothers. The extent to which this has a deleterious effect on the children is a matter that sociologists and others are studying, but already there is evidence that many children in such circumstances find little motivation in schools and in formal education.
But, the problem of turning away from education is not restricted to children of single mothers alone. It is particularly manifest – and worrying – in Caribbean Universities which today graduate more women than men because fewer men than women are seeking higher education.
University of the West Indies Administration Building, Trinidad
There appears to be a disconnection between many young people in the Caribbean and the formal education system. Obviously, given the fact that President Obama chose to talk to students throughout the United States in their first week back at school, the problem exists there as well.
He could not be more passionate in his call to students to seize education for the good it will do them. “You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it”, he said.
In a passage that appealed to the students to do good not only for themselves, but for their country, Obama declared: “You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy”.
All that he said to American students, holds true for students in the Caribbean, but even more so. For the Caribbean needs skills and knowledge much more than countries, such as the United States, in the developed world. In this regard, the resource that the Caribbean most needs to develop is its human resource. Businesses and governments in the region require people with capacity in a range of skills that include engineering, management, accountancy and auditing, marketing and negotiating.
Students in Computer Laboratory on UWI Campus, Jamaica
The region’s need for such skills is worsened, of course, by their migration out of its borders into places such as the US, Canada and the United Kingdom. The fact that over 60% of tertiary educated people from the Caribbean have left (in the case of Jamaica and Guyana, the figure is over 80%) speaks powerfully to the importance of educating even more of the region’s young people in the skill areas that are needed.
But to get more young people into tertiary education, the Caribbean has to get them successfully through secondary education.
This is why Obama’s powerful message, directed at young people in America, should be cheered by every serious business entity in the Caribbean.
For Caribbean youth who may have missed it, Chambers of Commerce should join with schools in arranging for it to be broadcast in schools in the region, and discussed by students, their teachers and potential employers. There is a destiny to be written.