Call this the education issue.
Students on the Bay Islands and throughout Honduras returned to classes for another public school year in February. I say “students” and not “children” because many if not most of those here who would be considered of school age in other countries are not students. They do not attend school.
A teacher confirmed to us in this issue what we had heard unofficially – more than 70 percent of Roatan’s children drop out after sixth grade, when they are no longer required by Honduran law to attend. More than a third drop out even earlier.
As a guest columnist pointed out last month, trying to make it in today’s high-tech world with a sixth-grade education is like planting a garden with your arms tied behind your back. Even completing high school is not enough in the 21st century. In the US, wages of those with only a high-school education have stagnated for decades.
The evidence from around the world is clear. Those countries that have made serious inroads against poverty and achieved higher standards of living have invested heavily in education.
When I was studying economics in the 1980s, development economists were trying to draw the right lessons from the experiences of the so-called “miracle” economies of East Asia in the previous two decades. One seminal paper found that, after accounting for increases in average education levels of their workforces – what economists call “human capital” – the rest of the “miracle” disappeared. Education was everything!
Education is the key to productivity growth, which is key to rising wages and living standards. Beyond that, it is crucial to creating healthy, stable societies and functioning democracies.
What Honduras in general and the Bay Islands in particular are doing to their youth by depriving them of a decent education is therefore nothing short of criminal. We’ve written a lot about crime here in recent months; perhaps too much (for some people’s taste anyway). The state of the islands’ education system has to be the crime of the century (so far).
In this month’s Interview, Juan Simpson, rector of the Methodist Bilingual School, says the education system here is “a shambles.” We are not giving young people what they need to be successful and stay out of trouble.
Of course, education does not occur only in the schools. Alfonso Ebanks comments this month on declining moral standards, both public and private. Simpson strikes a similar theme, commenting that as a result of “family disintegration” young people are not being exposed to positive values and are consequently “running wild.” He urges people on the islands to take a “holistic” approach to “engage” these youth constructively.
In this month’s Culture section, we learn that one tactic for motivating young people on the islands to stay in school is to respect their native language and culture. In earlier generations, the children of English-speaking Bay Islanders who wanted to preserve their heritage had to gather in private homes to study from the Royal Reader. At least they were learning something useful.
What useful lessons are we imparting to the islands’ youth today?
All this reminds me of when I was a young man living on my own for the first time, in New York in the 1980s, and First Lady Nancy Reagan was popularizing her “Just Say No” campaign against drugs and other vices. This was at the height of the crack wars in New York, with illegal drugs being sold openly on the streets, much as they are now in parts of Roatan. Almost every night when I returned to my apartment building in the East Village there was a crackhead hanging out on my front stoop trying to sell me drugs. I always said “no,” heeding Nancy’s advice and trying my best to be polite. At times I wanted to shake her and say, “Remember this face! I’m never going to buy crack from you. So you can stop asking me every day.” But then I realized this young woman’s brain was probably so fried from drug abuse that she had no short-term memory and didn’t realize she was soliciting the same person every day.
At that time I was also writing a column in my spare time for a monthly East Village tabloid – one of those publications you find on top of cigarette machines in bars and restaurants (come to think of it, it was a lot like the Voice). I wrote a column once about the drug problem in the neighborhood. The catch-line was, it’s not enough to tell our young people to “just say ‘no.’” You have to give them something to say “yes” to, like an opportunity, like a job, like a possibility for a better life.
Rev. Simpson seems to be about giving youth something they can say “yes” to. Other people have caught onto this as well. We published a list of them last month. But they can’t do it alone. It has to be a whole-community effort. And it starts with teaching our children well; teaching them to do right, to do good.
There’s been a lot of senseless violence on the islands in recent months. This has understandably given rise to calls for drastic measures, to “string them up” or “lock them away.”
Obviously, there are people among us who are committing these acts whom society has already failed, they are beyond redemption, and for the safety of the law-abiding they must be removed from the community and locked away. But how many people can we lock away?
We have to stop producing such people. It starts with education.