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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Dec 5, 2014 - 10:25:14 PM


So, About that Bahamas National Average: Anti-intellectualism, Masculinity and the Making of Ignorance
By Joseph Gaskins
Aug 17, 2012 - 2:09:37 AM

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The news is trickling out slowly but just to make it official: I’ve moved to Nassau. I’m back in the Bahamas to begin my PhD fieldwork and while I’m here I will be lecturing part-time at the College of the Bahamas (COB). Honestly, I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this opportunity. It’s a chance for me to engage fellow academics who have been studying Bahamian society, politics and history for much longer than I have. What is more important, I have a chance to engage with Bahamian students, to learn from them and teach what I’ve learned during the nine years I was away.

I’ve been sharing my excitement for the last few months with Bahamians still at home and abroad. The reactions have, for the most part, been very positive; however, almost all of them come with similar warnings.

To sum it up, I should closely manage the expectations I have for COB students. It usually starts with, “It’s not like the US,” followed by, “COB students are difficult to teach, they expect things to be spelled out for them, they don’t like to work and they aren’t prepared for college at all.”

Whether these pronouncements are true or not, they haven’t dampened my gung-ho teaching spirit, but that could just be my (waning) youthfulness. Bahamian students may be difficult to teach, they may be lazy but one thing seems to certain -- many of them are unprepared for college.

Over the last week, a number of revelations have come to light, raising deep and difficult questions about the way we educate Bahamians. First, nearly 50% of government high school students
“do not meet the requirements to graduate with a diploma, and are instead awarded leaving certificates.”   To be honest, I didn’t even know “leaving certificates” existed.

Second,
“Students sitting the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE) exams received and average letter grade of D in English language and E+ in Mathematics.”

Already, we’ve had
the obligatory pledge by powers on high that, “urgent action,” will be taken to rein in the stubborn mediocrity of Bahamian students. Of course this was already preceded by promises to double the investment in education. I’ve been hearing that there have been some semantic issues concerning what “double” and “investment” might mean in this instance.

On radio and television, pundits and everyday citizens alike are clamoring to weigh in on who is to blame and what must be done. The finger has been pointed at the Ministry of Education, teachers, parents, “the system,” and the ever-present, always evil media. Apparently, we have to extend school days, cut out summer break, return to traditional methods of teaching and even establish a nightly curfew to ensure students are at home and in bed by a certain time. Also, the sky is falling.

Allow me to briefly wade into the murky waters of this discussion. Bahamian society is one that has come to exalt anti-intellectualism. We prize ignorance. To think critically, “speak smart,” or even dress smartly, is offensive to our very understanding of what it means to be Bahamian.

Who do you think you are talking the way you do? You white, aye?

Why are you analyzing this issue so deeply? You think you better than people, aye?

You read books? You gay, aye?

We live in a culture that has come to regard intelligence as unappealing; intelligence comes with its own stigma and exclusions. No matter who you direct the blame at for the inadequacies of our students, underpinning many Bahamians’ actions, the way we think of the world around us and the value we place on education, is a culture of anti-intellectualism on whose altar we have sacrificed the future of our country.

What is the origin of this anti-intellectual culture? To be honest, there are a number of ways to look at this problem. There is no single socio-cultural fount that is the source of our growing disdain for thinking and knowing. With that said, I want to highlight two things that I’ve yet to hear considered in the present dialogue around our failures in education.

Bahamian Masculinity and the “Sissy Effect”

On August 8th, 2012 the Tribune published an article entitled,
“Girls Do Better Than Boys in Exams.”
The article confirmed that for the fifth consecutive year, girls have outperformed boys in the BGCSEs. I’m guessing there aren’t many who were surprised by this and that is exactly the problem!

We talk a lot about Bahamian boys and Bahamian men, but we don’t talk about Bahamian masculinity very often -- what it means to “be a man” in the Bahamas. We assume that we’re all on the same page when it comes to our understanding of what it means to be a man.

Masculinity, like femininity, is a social construct -- how we understand what it means to be a man or woman is dependent on where and when. What it means to “act like a man” in the Bahamas may be quite different from what it means to “act like a man” in Malaysia or Brazil. Indeed, what is means to be a man in church is different from what it means to be a man on the basketball court or in a corner bar. Our specific history, language and our material conditions -- where we are and how we live -- influences how we perform masculinity in opposition to femininity.

If we can agree on the above assertions the question becomes, what is it about the way masculinity in the Bahamas has been constructed and is performed that makes being a man and achieving in academics antithetical?

In her examination of why Jamaican boys underachieve in school, Dr. Odette Parry concluded that “...masculine gender identity as it exists in its present construction appears wholly detrimental to the educational interests of Jamaican males.” This construction of typically “macho” or “hard” masculinity leads to both a disinterest in academic work and behavioral problems in the classroom. Despite this, teachers and society at large reinforce this behavior as a way to assuage “homophobic fears.”

The characterization of language based subjects like Literature and History as “feminine,” compared to the “masculine” subjects like Technical Drawing or Physics, is problematic when our students are clearly underperforming in English language.

A culture that bonds materialism and masculinity doesn’t help either. The better the car you drive or the newer your Jordans, the more appealing you are as a man. Instead of considering education as an investment, many of our young men see school as an impediment, preferring to hustle for money to outfit their masculinity with the most impressive accouterments.

Scholarly work needs to be done to better ascertain why, in this country, being a man and being educated are increasingly opposed to one another. We have to better understand why boys who do try to succeed in our schools are often labeled as “sissies” and why boys who have the potential to do well don’t even try for fear of being labeled.

The Making of Ignorance: Religion, Politics and Agnotology

By highlighting the specific plight of our young men it is not my intention to let the rest of Bahamian society off the hook. Our culture of anti-intellectualism is not limited to a specific sector of Bahamian society -- it is endemic. I want to argue that part of the explanation for this is that the most influential voices in Bahamian society -- religious leaders and politicians -- have elevated misinformation and obfuscation to a high art form, and we have become comfortable with this.

For a decade now, Robert N. Proctor, professor at Stanford University specializing in the history of science and technology, has been using the term “agnotology” to describe the study of culturally induced ignorance. Proctor uses the term to specifically reference the purposeful dissemination of inaccurate scientific information. More generally, the term agnotology speaks to the use of public relations, the media, suppression and inattention to alter, limit or restrict knowledge in a particular cultural environment.

That politicians and church leaders wield the greatest power in Bahamian society is reason enough to presume an agnotologic project is consistently underway. Both the institution of government and the church have historically relied on ignorance and the restriction of knowledge to maintain power. Politicians nor pastors have encouraged the Bahamian people to think critically about the world around them; in fact, they would rather do the thinking for us.

As country, we can go through the campaign season barely hearing about the issues from our political candidates, so why should we bother learning about politics, economics or sociology. Religious leaders misleadingly mix Biblical doctrine, personal opinion and socially conservative political ideology on issues such as sexuality, women’s rights, gambling and immigration policy, so what purpose is there for science, history or even a critical theology. These manipulations are amplified by the media, often going unchallenged and fostering an environment of intellectual shallowness.

What I want to suggest is that the national averages in Math and English language are just symptoms. Our problem of anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in the way we socially and culturally understand ourselves as Bahamians, as men, as Christians, as PLP, FNM or DNA. For us, critical thinking is unattractive and challenging pastor or “Papa” (and I use this not only to refer to Hubert Ingraham but for any politicians to which we defer) is not only unacceptable, it is un-Bahamian. This isn’t just a matter of teaching methods or putting more computers in classrooms and we have to recognize this if we are to change the direction of our country. We need radical social and cultural intervention.



Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology.  Joey  lives in Nassau and is a part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas. He also writes for  the Nassau Liberal  www. nassauliberal. webs.com  and The Tribune.

You can reach him at  j.gaskins@lse.ac.uk


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