Needing Permission

I want to try to connect a couple of experiences in Haiti that might seem unrelated. I’m not sure whether the connection quite works. I might be stretching. But they are each related to one rather awkward way that I’ve occasionally tried to express my hope for the educational programs I work with in Haiti. I’ve said that educational programs should help their participants overcome habitual passivity. That’s a mouthful, and a pretty clumsy one. But a couple of examples might make it clear.

Case One: I wrote recently about Vunet, Jidit’s nephew, a 17-year-old who’s just come to Pòtoprens to try to pass the sixth grade and thus, perhaps, to finish school. His aunt has been preparing him for the beginning of school for a couple of weeks: getting the books, ordering a uniform, paying his registration and first term’s tuition. He’s been doing his share as well, studying his schoolbooks whenever he can. We’ve spent some time together doing some basic math.

He seems bright to me. He picks up new things quickly. I don’t think, for example, that he had ever seen decimals before, but within a few minutes he was handling them easily.

We were practicing long division. He was a little unsure of himself. At a certain point, he needed to know how many times eleven goes into sixteen. So he tried nine. He calculated 9 x 11, and discovered the answer was too large. Then he tried eight times, then seven, then six. He finally tried one, writing out 11 x 1, and calculating the answer.

I was dumbfounded. Vunet got the right answer. It’s not as though he couldn’t figure things out. But his extraordinary dependence on an ingrained process rather than on intuition would have been comical if it hadn’t been so real, so limiting. I want to say something like that Vunet felt he lacked permission to look the problem in front of him straight in the face. It was as though letting his real intelligence work for him was not an option. He had learned to follow the rules that had been set out for him and follow them without reflection.

Case Two: It was only natural that the workshop should begin with introductions. Each participant was to respond to series of questions: name, hometown, and a couple of questions about their experience with Fonkoze. The questions were projected on the wall of the room we were meeting in. I should add that, uncharacteristically for groups of adults in Haiti, all participants were literate.

But though they could read, they wouldn’t answer the questions.

Let’s be clear. It’s not as though they refused. No one was taking, as we say in the States, “the fifth.” But each would wait for me to ask every question before she would respond. None would simply make her introductory speech without my close guidance. They each wanted step-by-step instructions, though they each heard those same instructions as I gave them to the women before her.

I was trying to juggle a number of priorities – making sure that the workshop leader, for whom I was translating, would get what he was asking for, ensuring that the introductions would not eat much too much of a packed schedule – so, rather than asking the women why they so patiently and unnecessarily waited for me to explicitly invite them to speak, I simply repeated the questions one after another. It all went smoothly enough, but it was frustrating to watch the women’s dependence on my cues.

Case Three: One of my most consistent experiences when I visit groups of Fonkoze borrowers – mostly poor rural women – is that my questions are greeted with silence. If I put a question to a group, it is likely that no member of the group will answer right away.

If I’m traveling with another member of the Fonkoze staff, they are likely to repeat my question right away, insisting that the women answer. Though I speak Creole with the women, it is as though the staff members think that they need to translate my Creole into Creole again.

I think I understand why they do what they do. First, though my Creole is improving, it is not as though I speak it like a Haitian. They may genuinely believe that rural women could have a hard time understanding me if they are unaccustomed to the way I speak. And I must admit that there’s something to that. Second, they are used to the women’s reluctance to talk in a group setting, and they want to encourage them, even push them, to speak up. Third, they have lots of work to do, and can feel pressed for time. They don’t believe they have the leisure to wait.

So they hurry things up, thus guaranteeing that none of the women need to show the assertiveness it would take to answer my questions directly. Or even just to say that they don’t understand what I’ve said.

What we teach is less important than how we teach, because the knowledge and skills that we acquire are less important than the habits that make us what we are.

Classrooms alone have not made Vunet what he is. Much less are they the force that has shaped the clients of Fonkoze, many of whom haven’t been to school. But they do offer an opportunity. If we design classes – whether they are one-on-one tutoring sessions or larger classrooms – that encourage, even require, initiative, then we can help those whom we work with overcome the passivity they are so used to. And overcoming passivity is equivalent to setting and pursuing one’s own goals.

Haiti will not change until the Haitians who need change are constructing a vision of the Haiti they want, expressing that vision, and insisting upon it. The habit of passivity is a barrier on all three counts. Helping overcome that habit thus supports change in the most fundamental way.