The Value of an Education

Once in a while, someone expresses a thought so perfectly that the phrase just jumps out at you.

I was meeting with a small group of university students. They are studying a range of subjects – administration, medicine, accounting – at a range of schools, public and private, in Port-au-Prince. What they have in common is that they are all from Hinche or thereabouts. Hinche is an important city in Haiti’s central plateau, a rough five-hour ride from the Port-au-Prince outskirts. Our meeting had been arranged by a med-school student who is a friend of mine and is also part of the group.

He suggested that we start by introducing ourselves to one another, so we went around the circle we were seated in, saying a few words about ourselves. After that, the one of them who seemed oldest started to speak. He had been chosen as their spokesperson. He talked about the group and about why they had wanted to meet with me. He said that they were all committed to development in Hinche. He talked about various problems he and his friends see Hinche as facing and about how much the group feels that Haiti’s central government ignores the region. He showed me the group’s statute, written in what looked to me to be good formal French, and explained that they had applied for official government recognition that they had not yet received. The recognition is in the works.

The group had, he said, lots of dreams, but they found themselves hindered in their hoped-for progress, and that was where they thought I might be able to help them. Their group, he explained, lacked clear direction. They needed someone to show them the way, someone older, he said, someone with “plis bagaj intelektyèl,” or “more intellectual baggage.”

I managed not to laugh.

As I thought about what he actually meant, I also thought to myself that my years at Shimer and St. John’s College, at the T.U. Braunschweig and Loyola University of Chicago had certainly provided me with all the intellectual baggage that someone could want. I had been granted the opportunity study, both a student and as teacher, a nice range of classical European works. Almost all of this is precisely intellectual baggage – at least in the sense that we might give the phrase. I once was, for example, something like an expert with respect to a certain book by Anselm, Archbishop of Cantebury, but little needs to be said about the value of that knowledge for the group from Hinche.

It is hard to explain what I am doing in Haiti. I can talk in detail about the different projects I’m involved in, whether they are classes I’m teaching, study groups I join in, or something else entirely. I can explain why Johny St. Louis and I decided to read Racine with his high school students, or why the teachers at the Matenwa Community Learning Center and I are studying Piaget, or what’s behind the literacy work that Frémy César and I are joining in with Fonkoze and GTAPF. But each of those activities is unique, with its own goals and difficulties. There’s no clear overall picture. It’s hard to say what, precisely, I bring here. I have no expertise in Racine or Piaget, or in literacy or adult education for that matter. What I have is a lot of intellectual baggage. My meeting with the students from Hinche brought to mind in a striking way just what such baggage might be for.

Haiti is a place where formally acknowledged expertise counts for a lot. It is probably not alone in this, but the example I come across most regularly here is the constant desire among some of the people I work with for a certification process for Wonn Refleksyon discussion leaders. The desire can come up in the very first meeting of a new group: Someone will ask whether they will be awarded a certificate. Or it can emerge after a group has been meeting for awhile. Several members of the group that Johny and I are reading Rousseau’s Emile with asked the two of us to arrange for them to receive a certificate of participation. They want certificates so that they have a way to show people what they’ve done and can do.

The members of the group from Hinche are especially likely to feel the importance of such expertise because they all are working so hard to acquire it. That is, after all, a big part of what their university education is about.

So if their growing expertise is not giving their hopes for Hinche any direction, it’s not hard to imagine why they would look to someone whom they seen as being farther along than they are at more or less the same game. All this is to say nothing of the range of reasons they might have for assuming that a blan, or a white foreigner, is the one who is likely to have their answers, let alone one ten or more years older than they are and with the gray hairs to prove it.

It’s just as easy to imagine at least one explanation for the fact that they don’t know what to do for Hinche: They aren’t there. Some of them have been living in Port-au-Prince since they were children. Instead of being immersed in the realities of the Central Plateau, they are living and working in Port-au-Prince, a city with its own very particular set of realities. They may all have family members and friends who daily face all the challenges that life in Hinche throws at them, but they themselves must focus on very different things.

There are simple questions about the nature of expertise, or know-how, very near the surface when one confronts a situation like this one. Apart from the prejudice that pretends that know-how is the province of those who have completed formal training and who have the documentation to prove it, the notion that know-how is something absolute, that it’s something that can be detached from the particular conditions in which it is supposed to act is at least questionable. What is the basis, after all, for an assumption that plans and programs developed in Washington, Paris, or Port-au-Prince will work when they have to enter a plce like Hinche?

At the same time, there is a logic that argues against continually reinventing the wheel. It’s hard to see why the lessons of experience drawn from one context should be without any application to another. If the students from Hinche were learning nothing in Port-au-Prince that they can apply towards improving life in their home city, then it would be hard to imagine why we should have anything like higher education at all.

So there must be a middle ground, a place where young people who are pursuing advanced studies in a major city can bring what they are learning to bear on a set of problems most clearly understood by the population that is living with those problems everyday. The challenge is to find that middle ground.

But that ground will remain hidden from those students as long as, rather than seeking it, they look instead for a formal expertise even more rarified than the one they are struggling to acquire. If what they look for is a more expert expert, taking that word in its traditional sense, then the people who could truly give them direction will appear as though they have nothing to tell them.

What will happen, however, if the expert they turn to tells them that he has no idea what they should do? And what if he explains that he cannot have any idea what to do for Hinche because he’s not part of daily life there?

I am right now scheduled to continue to meet with the group. What I hope to do is help them see that I am not the place they should be turning to. I hope to help them see that intellectual baggage is the last thing they should be looking for. I will try to convince them that their friends and families in Hinche must know much better than they or I could what the Central Plateau really needs. I’ll encourage them to try to organize a meeting back home at which they can figure out how to turn to the people living and working there for direction. They might find that there is a lot that they can, as emerging experts, do for their home region once they learn to listen to the people they would be doing it for.

This is a role that my intellectual baggage – and the other baggage I carry around with me – can usefully play, I think, and it is one part of the supportive role I can play in Haiti. If I can put to use the importance that I’m sometimes given by virtue of the fact that I am a middle-aged white foreigner with a doctorate, if I can make it help people turn to themselves and to the people around them for the guidance they need, then that importance can become a tool, and a useful one.