“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” ~ Darwin
Who are the ‘best brains’ or the ‘cream’ among our secondary school learners? My interest in the notion of an elite group labelled as the ‘best brains’ was first invoked by a statement made by George Odlum. Commenting on the appointment of individuals to public office, Odlum asserted that we must locate our ‘best brains’ in the right positions. Initially, I wrestled with the notion of ‘best brains.’ I however eventually became convinced that there was merit in Odlum’s assertion. I saw it as speaking to guarding against perpetuating nepotism and inefficiency by placing square pegs in round holes or even the converse round pegs in square holes.
My interest in the notion of a ‘best brains’ elite was rekindled recently, when a school principal in a brief radio interview applied the ‘best brains’ epithet to secondary school students. This principal proposed that the ‘best brains’ in our secondary schools should be assigned to one location.
The principal further implied who is incuded in this ‘best brains’ elite when the conversation took as its most important concern the return of the sixth form or ‘A’ level students to selected secondary schools. It was unbelievable that this suggestion was coming from an educator. It is noteworthy that this sentiment pertains in an era when educators are championing inclusion and opposing exclusion, which often takes the form of stereotyping and labelling of schools and learners.
Such rhetoric therefore must be a bracing reminder that stratification remains an abiding reality for our education system. The status of the proposer further left me wondering. I wondered whether such a proposal would find favour among the arbiters of education policy, as well as within the pale of serious discussions on education. This led me to ask the following question: Why is it that educators who proclaim education as the great leveler are so obsessed with stereotyping and the need for a hierarchy of students, subjects, careers and schools. Upon reflection, I realized that within this proposition, the language of equity and equality supposedly undergirding partial-zoning had collapsed into a discourse of skepticism. It is such skepticism that has maintained a notion of our secondary school system as fashioned in Orwellian pessimism, viz “all are equal but some are more equal than others.”
The reason for such skepticism may be mined from history. Indeed history is never foreclosed, and as a result, tradition and nostalgia typically bubble to the surface when we reflect on the shortcomings and accomplishments of the education system. To me therefore, the principal’s world view appears to be based on his reminisces of the success of the colonial grammar school model of education with which he is well-acquainted. It would not surprise me if there were an avalanche of support for his proposal based on strong fraternal feelings of past grammar school scholars. My discourse therefore may win me no popularity contest among the traditionalists, particularly those whose ideas are located within the corpus of colonial thought where education is concerned. Experience has taught me, that put to a plebiscite, traditionalism usually is the victor. Nevertheless this discourse should create an understanding of our obsession with a grammar school education model as prestigious. It should also ignite an interest in demystifying the nature of learners’ intelligence.
How can we understand the present interest in the isolation of a cognitive elite and the hierarchical ordering of the curriculum in our secondary school system? We can begin by recognizing that all obsessions have a history. As a result we can understand this obsession if as educators we situate the pedagogical and the political context of our education system in an historical context. Such an historical insertion will help us trace the genesis and evolution of this obsession. Subjecting our secondary school system to an historical analysis should reveal in our institutions the historical context that informs their meaning and the legacy that both hides and clarifies their philosophy, political intentions and functions.
The history that is anchored in the philosophy of education in each school gives meaning to the way they think about education. The value of historical analysis in this regard was highlighted by Durkheim more than a century ago. He argued that the institutions of secondary education were not understood adequately in relation to their past which was “the soil which nourished them and gave them their present meaning apart from which they cannot be examined without a great deal of impoverishment and distortion.”
Presently the increasing bureaucracy at the central level has resulted in a divide between policy-makers and teachers. The resulting policy disorientation of secondary education is now even more conspicuous than before, as it is manipulated by recurrent waves of disjointed policy variations and modifications. Durkheim’s strictures therefore still have resonance today. The relation between the present and the past have become increasingly hard to discern and unravel. It is this historical thicket that I will attempt to clear by linking this discourse to the development of grammar schools in the colonizing country, England.
While this discourse is located in a St. Lucian setting, we must be aware of the larger historical context. That is we must trace the historical trajectory of our secondary education system from secondary schooling in England, particularly the function of the’ eleven plus’ exam. This exercise provides an illumination of the legacy of a cognitive elite and the notion of ‘best brains.’ This legacy dates prior to 1300, however we will begin from 1393 when Winchester, the oldest public grammar school, served as a model. In these grammar schools, ecclesiastical domination was the central feature. Although the curriculum was dictated by the bearing of subjects upon the dominant social and individual culture, they were not independent of ecclesiastical colouring. It is instructive to note that grammar took a leading position in these schools as indicated by capitularities issued by Charles the Great. These capitularities were issued to abbots and bishops requiring them to ‘attend rigourously to spread the study of letters,’ in other words to organise a system of Grammar schools throughout the provinces of his empire. The words ‘scola grammatice’ became common in the 13th century when the necessity arose of distinguishing grammar schools from the ‘schools’ of higher faculties in universities. (Watson 1968, Musgrave 2007)