When I was growing up in a suburb of Vancouver, my school occasionally conducted an earthquake drill, which basically consisted of us crawling under our desks and giggling at one another.
Invariably one comedic-minded student would knock his desk over as he stood up. For us, an earthquake seemed a remote possibility and in any case we had no doubts about the efficacy of the emergency-response institutions of our society.
In Haiti the tragic reality is that none of the privileges of our society are present. For instance, the earthquake killed school children and their teachers because schools were unable to withstand the trembling earth. In the aftermath, the local government has lacked the wherewithal to provide effective relief for the survivors.
The history of Haiti and Haitian education reveals interesting facts and details about this complex country. Other than the United States, Haiti was the first nation in the Americas to become independent from its colonial rulers. During the French Revolution (itself influenced heavily by the American Revolution, in which Louis XVI of France played a spoiler role in support of the Americans) ideas such as the ?Declaration of the Rights of Man? were promulgated.
In Haiti, largely populated by African slaves as well as ?free coloureds? and a few white French, these ideas led to the declaration of an independent Haitian republic. The original Haitian constitution of 1805 declared Haiti a black nation, and barred whites from owning property. This was done out of a reasonable fear that colonial power would return and deprive the people of their land once again. Education was addressed in this constitution and mandated the creation of ?rural, primary schools.? Unfortunately ?a comprehensive, accessible school system never developed? in the way that it did in other Caribbean nations.
In the year 1860 the Haitian government signed a ?Concordat with the Vatican? which provided ?new teachers, mostly French clergy.? However, these ?clerics promoted an attachment to France and a respect for all that was French? and also ?emphasized the backwardness of all that was Haitian and denigrated Haitian capacity for self-rule.? This racist and elitist approach did not empower the Haitian people and furthermore ?few priests went to rural areas,? thus accentuating a rural-urban divide which worked to the advantage of privileged elites in cities.
In a non-industrial country such as Haiti agriculture was the primary focus of most people’s lives, yet in the 19th-century education in Haiti consisted mostly of literature and memorization rather than practical skills. Over time this improved, and courses in trades and agronomy were established to some extent. In 1978, an educational restructuring took place that created a National Department of Education.
An important change was the use of Haitian Creole ?as the language of instruction in the first four grades.? This allowed young students to use their true native tongue in their formative educational years. However, despite these modest improvements, by 1982 ?more than 65% of the population over the age of ten had received no formal education at all, and only 8% of the population had received more than a primary education.? What education was given still involved ?rote learning and memorization? and rigid discipline including punishment for eye contact. Students were only addressed by their surnames, further enforcing a parochial and authoritative method of instruction.
From its beginnings as a Roman-Catholic dominated sphere, to its slow change in the later 20th century, Haiti remained a country of non- or under-educated citizens. There are, however, some important intellectual figures in Haiti’s history.
One man, named Anténor Firmin, in 1885 published a book called The Equality of the Human Races. His essential point was that ?the equality of the races could be demonstrated through a positivist scientific approach.? Firmin ?challenged racist writings? at a time when social Darwinism (the belief that the privileged are biologically superior) was prevalent and even ?socialist? academics routinely denigrated blacks and other minorities.
Firmin stood out as a strong Haitian. In his career he ?studied law and held several political offices before being posted as a diplomat to Paris.? He also spoke about nearby America, where slavery had only recently been abolished.
In his writing he noted how the end of slavery in Haiti had influenced abolitionist thought in the States, and went on to say of America that ?this big country is destined to strike the first blow against the theory of the inequality of the human races . . . it seems quite possible that, in less than a century from now, a Black man might be called to head the government of Washington and manage the affairs of the most progressive country on earth.? From the example of Haiti, America did many decades later finally end the abomination of slavery and now in the 21st century proudly has a black man as its president.
Above all, Firmin spoke of his desire to ?inspire in all of the children of the Black race around the world the love of progress, justice, and liberty.?
The human devastation of the recent earthquake seems starkest against a backdrop of rational idealism such as Firmin?s. Among the dead were three of Haiti’s most prominent feminists: Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin, and Anne Marie Coriolan. They were known as ?enterprising activists who had taken on a legal and social system which, in Marcelin’s words, treats women’s bodies as commodities? including the ?use of sexual assault as a means of control and oppression by soldiers, police and criminal gangs.? In the face of the immense impoverishment (both educational and material) of their nation, these women maintained an idealism ?so forceful and so visionary and so original.?
Out of the devastation of the earthquake, one can only hope that the strength of the Haitian people, and humanity as a whole, will shine through and lead to a better future for the groundbreaking yet starkly impoverished nation of Haiti.