A Little Theory, If You Don’t Mind Too Much, Part One

I’ve said before that our work’s central mission is to teach a process that helps people take over responsibility for their own education. This is a complicated claim, requiring some explanation. I thought I would attempt the beginning of one.

The claim carries a harsh implication: that someone or other is, currently, not taking responsibility for his or her education. And when I think about the lengths many Haitians I know go to for an education, the charge seems terribly, patently unfair.

Let me give some examples. I met a boy – somewhere in his late teens – going down the mountain the other day. It turns out he already knew me. He lives about 200 yards farther than I do up the main road that leads from Bwa Moket past Ka Glo. The lakou, or cluster of houses, that he lives in is significantly poorer than my own, but somehow they had been sending him to school, and he appeared to be an excellent student. He spoke a few words of English with me, and they were fluid and correct. I wondered where the folks
where he lives could have gotten the money to send him to a decent school.

As we walked down the mountain, we talked, and he asked if we could make a little detour. I looked to Toto, who was walking with me, and we quickly agreed. It turned out that he had to make a stop at Malik, the first larger town down the mountain from me. It’s where good electricity and phone service end, so there are a number of wealthier Haitians who live there to get out of the Pòtoprens heat.

One of these wealthier Haitians, or boujwa, is a former minister in the national government, and he did very well for himself during his time in office. He was, as Toto told me quietly, a “gran manjè,” or “big eater.” That’s idiomatic Kreyol for a corrupt official. Toto began to explain. The gran manjè is related to them both. The boy that was going to see him, though, depends on his help. His own family somehow scrapes together a chunk of the money he needs for school, but the boy needs more. For reasons I don’t yet understand, he needs a “patwon,” too. The boy was humbly visiting a nasty man he does not like to beg for a favor – a letter of reference, I think. Though schools have been open for a week or two, and though the man had agreed to write for the boy, the boy was still waiting. As he told me later, his patwon is not “prese.” He’s in no hurry. For a few minutes as the three of us continued down the mountain, the boy tried to explain that the man isn’t so bad. In the end, he admitted to us that it was nasty business.

But what choice does he have? By the time we reached Petyonvil, he was explaining to me how I could arrange to teach at a Haitian university next year. That would connect me to the university system. And that, he didn’t quite say, would connect him. He only has one more year of high school. He’s thinking ahead.

Another example: Now that school has started, one sees young people studying almost everywhere one looks. At night, in Pòtoprens, where electricity in homes is spotty, you see them sitting or pacing under streetlights, chanting texts in French, in an exercise of usually uncomprehending memorization. Where I live, where there are no streetlights,
children get up with the sun to chant before they have to leave for school, usually by six in the morning. At night, they gather around kerosene lamps, squinting as they chant.

One more: Kasann – I’ll write more about her sometime – is the oldest child in the home I stay in. A beautiful little 12-year-old girl. She finished elementary school last year, and is now starting secondary school. A few weeks ago, I came home to find her bawling in our pantry. She had just learned that though she had graduated, and though she had been admitted into the school she now attends, she would not be receiving her diploma. She had missed passing the national exam by the slimmest of margins. She was

The question is this: In a place where proud young people humble themselves, where they seek out any source of light than can permit them a few extra minutes of studying, where a young girl can be heartbroken because she hasn’t quite captured her diploma, in such a place, what does it mean to suggest that people are not taking responsibility for their own education?

People here could hardly care about and value their education any more than they do, it seems. Clearly they are taking responsibility, accepting responsibility, in a very deep way, in a way that reaches to their hearts. And I have not even begun to mention the sacrifices people make to put together the money they need.

Taking responsibility is a complex notion. Many of the young people I know here are indeed taking responsibility. They’re taking responsibility for entering into an educational process that they do not, however, own. They struggle to get themselves a place in a classroom where they do not pursue their own questions, a classroom in which all initiative is outside themselves, where they are passive respondents – copying, reciting, sitting in silence.

When I say that we are introducing people to a process that can help students take increasing responsibility for their own education, I mean that it is a process which invites students to take initiative. The Touchstones process, which we here call Wonn Refleksyon, encourages students to develop the habits of forming and pushing their own questions and of working together towards answers. They gradually assume not only responsibility for taking their places in their classroom, but for taking control of the classroom as well.

I’ll write more about this next week.