Education in the Caribbean

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Education in the Caribbean

The Spanish introduced formal schooling in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century. Although African slaves were present in the early Spanish Caribbean settlements, they were seldom in a majority anywhere in the Caribbean until the end of the eighteenth century. Schools for slaves did not exist, though some African slaves might have been literate in Arabic. The few schools in the Spanish Antilles were for the children of rich settlers and privileged persons of mixed racial descent. The major achievement in education during this period was the formation in 1538 of the Roman Catholicowned University of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, which today is the oldest university in the western hemisphere. Still, it was the norm for rich settlers to send their sons to Spain for education.

The Other European Colonies, 1620s to 1840s

Sugar plantation economies with black African slave majorities were first established by the English, French, and the Danes in the 1620s. From then until the late eighteenth century there were no schools for slaves in these colonies, and little schooling for the free population.

The French and the humanitarian revolutions, which occurred between the 1790s and the slave emancipations in the 1840s, brought improvements in schooling though the latter weakened the Roman Catholic Church. The rebellious slave societies were open to various antislavery ideologies. If slaves were to be freed, they were believed to be in need of religious instruction. Protestant missionaries were allowed more space to provide this service, and they began to take haphazard opportunities to teach Bible reading. In a few towns, a handful of children of privileged slaves began to visit part-time schools, and eventually the idea of schools for slaves was countenanced by liberal French metropolitan governments in the early nineteenth century, and by the Danish authorities in the 1840s just before Emancipation. Full-curriculum day schools were never possible, but an incipient breakdown of the rule that literacy was incompatible with slavery was occurring. Writing and arithmetic did not yet enter the picture. In Haiti, however, where slavery was defeated by the slaves, a completely new revolutionary opportunity for full-curriculum day schools of ex-slaves had been created. Everywhere in this revolutionary era, the free colored population claiming full equality with whites wanted more local public colleges.

Major Developments in the Nineteenth Century

There were major advances in education from the mid-nineteenth century to the start of the twentieth century. During this period, momentous developments significantly changed the context in which schools and formal education developed. There was the independence of Haiti (1804) and the Dominican Republic (1865); the threatening independence movements in Cuba and Puerto Rico; and, of course, slave emancipations that occurred in the other empires.

The task of governments in Haiti, with a black majority, was to construct from scratch a system to serve the new black nation. But Haitian governments only made provisions for a small elite of coloreds and blacks, leaving the black masses in the countryside uneducated. In the Dominican Republic, where blacks were in a minority, the task was rather to integrate them into the schools for whites. There were few schools, however, and the country was so turbulent that education made little progress. Nonetheless, the professional education of the elites in law and medicine in these countries was provided for better than in colonial times.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico the problem was to integrate the black ex-slave minority into the schools for the whites. Many schools for the free population had been destroyed by the independence wars in Cuba. These schools and their teachers, especially the private schools, became politicized

as teachers and students took a stand for or against independence, and Spanish governors hired or fired teachers according to their known political views. In Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and even Puerto Rico, the question of the role of schools in nation building was blatantly posed. Schools were expected by nationalist politicians as well as Spanish loyalists to foster patriotism and nationalismeven for the mother country, Spain.

Neither the black rural majority in Haiti nor the black minorities in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico generated their own schools, except in the case of some Afro-Cuban societies in the early twentieth century. Generally, what this meant is that the African cultural elements found no place in schools organized for the blacks; instead, schools continued to work relentlessly for the Europeanization of the population.

In the sugar plantation colonies with black slave majorities, the major challenge was to establish a new educational provision for the black masses, and some major successes were recorded. Emancipation provided the first opportunities for the governments of the British, French, and Danish colonies to develop a system of mass provision of full-curriculum primary day schools, including writing and arithmetic. Religious instruction was still the lifeblood of these schools, representing a key element in the search for new bases of social consensus.

The British, French, and Danish governments gave moral and financial support to new schools. In the post-Emancipation nineteenth century, governments accepted the responsibility of funding schools, and government inspection and control via boards of education came into existence at that time. Governments also formed open, if problematic, partnerships with churches to provide schools. The Roman Catholic Church was turned out of such a partnership in Martinique and Guadeloupe in the later nineteenth century. Generally speaking, the intention was not to provide upward social mobility, but social peace and continued economic production.

Primary school was all that existed for all but the few who were to become the new black and colored teachers, the vanguard of a new lower middle class. These teachers did not attend secondary schools, however, but went to teacher training colleges, usually run by the churches. As in slavery days, secondary schools were for the whites (or near whites) who had the means and ambition to study abroad or become junior civil servants. The best secondary schools aspired to be Latin grammar schools, and indeed without Latin grammar no school was truly a secondary school.

Despite the social and racial chasm between primary and secondary schools, some black and colored boys began to enter secondary schoolswhere custom, not laws, provided the racial barriers against them. Inevitably, postslavery societies became more responsive to academic talent, and secondary schools were the most public arena of academic competition even in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which had universities. A few secondary schools in the British colonies submitted their work to overseas examiners in England, using these examinations to set high standards of work and to judge the winners (often talented black and colored boys) of scholarships to English universities.

Secondary schools worked as powerful agents of European civilization. Their curriculum was often a direct replica of that of the metropolitan schools and was designed to prepare students for university work. As in slavery days, sending children away for an education remained a primary policy of all who could afford it. In Haiti the lycées took their inspiration from France, and in Martinique and Guadeloupe the official policy of assimilation, accepted then by the aspiring black and colored middle class, drew the post-Emancipation lycées into a very close relationship with the lycées in France. The enormous prestige of secondary schools, which continued well into the twentieth century, was cemented in the nineteenth century in the face of a system that provided little beyond primary schools for the masses.

The secondary schools of the islands offered no technical or vocational subjects, thought then to be wholly inappropriate for such schools. Even primary schools had a "bookish" nature, but there were more voices in favor of exposing boys in primary schools to agricultural work, if not to agricultural skills. But the clerics and parents were unhappy with this direction for schools, and as in Europe, the inferiority of agricultural education and trade training was recognized by their exclusion from formal schools.

Major Developments in the Twentieth Century

The second half of the twentieth century saw the expansion of secondary education for the masses and the opening of more universities. It was a century of progress and improvement in which Caribbean countries narrowed the gap between their educational institutions and those of western Europe and North America. In 1900 secondary education was reserved for whites or near whites, or for those who could pay for it; by the 1960s it was almost a right of all children; in 1900 the Caribbean had two or three universities; by the 1980s it had scores of universities, with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic each having several. And while in 1900 the European churches were the major providers of education, which was thought of mostly as service for the personal advancement of individuals, by the 1970s governments had become the major providers in most territories and education was for national development.

Some remarkable developments occurred in the interplay between the newest imperial power in the Caribbean, namely the United States of America, and the Greater Antilles (excepting Jamaica). In various invasions and occupations, and in the case of the Danish islands and Puerto Rico through acquisitions, the United States imposed its education models on Caribbean territories for the first time. This Americanization worked to expand primary schools, to increase the participation of women and girls as students and teachers, and to include agriculture and trades as worthy element in schools. The U.S. insistence on the primacy of technical-vocational education in Haiti in the 1920s evoked great resentment among Haitians, while the use of the English language for instructional purposes in schools became a focus of resistance by Puerto Ricans. The Danish West Indian islands were too small to resist Americanization effectively. United States influence in education continued everywhere in the twentieth century as the most potent source of the Europeanization of the Caribbean.

As in the nineteenth century, political turbulence in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico created situations in which teachers and students sometimes supported, but more usually stood against, certain regimes or dictators. In this sense, education was very politicized in these territories. In the colonies of the French, British, or Dutch, teachers and students stayed out of politics generally, while student disturbances on university campuses in Havana or the Dominican Republic were not uncommon. The political involvement of University of the West Indies students in Jamaica and Trinidad in the Black Power politics of the late 1960s was really exceptional and not sustained. Also, the greater secularization of life in the twentieth century loosened the hold of some European churches on the Caribbean populations. It was still exceptional, though, for governments to reject these churches completely as partners in the formal provision of schools. This was done most resoundingly by the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. The Roman Catholic Church remained a vital element in a few territories, and dictators in the Dominican Republic managed to use its schools as part of their mechanism of suppression.

The Caribbean country to depart most fundamentally from its nineteenth-century path was Cuba under Fidel Castro. The socialist revolution allowed radically new education models to be developed. Cuba abolished private schools and put in new programs at all levels, from the mass literacy campaign of 1961 to the reorganization of the universities in the 1970s. Work-study programs appeared in almost all schools, secondary schools were built in the countryside and made to produce goods, and the universities were made to concentrate on science and technology. The hope was to produce a new socialist person, and education was free for all who supported the revolution.

The British territories did not experience a revolution and had to build on educational foundations inherited from their imperial masters. But they too sought a measure of decolonization in education after independence: They reduced the role of the churches, secondary education was democratized, schoolbooks and curricula were redone to reflect local themes and interests, and the traditional classical grammar school education was partly deemphasized to make way for technical-vocational subjects. All these changes left the education models in the British Caribbean well within the colonial framework of the past, but notably decolonized.

In the decolonization of education, the solutions could vary greatly from island to island. The redefinitions of education in Cuba before and after the Castro revolution had nothing to do with blackness or Africanness. Neither did the fierce cultural resistance of many Puerto Ricans to Americanization involve any cultural strivings after blackness or Africanness. All the Spanish-speaking territories identified themselves as white or colored Creole societies in which citizens of African descent had no official cultural existence apart from the Hispanic mainstream culture. However, in the Caribbean societies with black majorities there were feeble attempts to introduce elements of blackness or Africanness into schools. But the ascendancy of metropolitan educational culture remained intact even in Haiti.

Schools also faced criticisms that they were too "bookish," and one of the major twentieth-century trends was towards the greater inclusion of technical-vocational subjects into schools. School gardens became a feature of primary schools in British colonies especially in the first half of the twentieth century. The notion that education was a factor in development that came to the fore after World War II made technical-vocational education seem all the more important. But this kind of education was still treated as inferior. The traditional grammar school curriculum of secondary schools, even after reforms eliminating Latin, remained stubbornly in the mainstream of what was thought to be proper secondary education. Although it was not always easy to fit girls into technical-vocational education, a major twentieth-century trend was the rise in participation of girls in all levels of education.

See also Education in the United States; Educational Psychology and Psychologists


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carl c. campbell (2005)

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Education in the Caribbean

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Education in the Caribbean