“The future of Mauritius is hybridity and change”

Interview: Satish Kumar Mahadeo, Associate Professor, UOM

“Every nation needs the best and brightest in all fields to contribute to the growth of the nation. But this should not happen to the detriment of those not fortunate enough”

“An equitable society where everyone gets a suitable position would be a completely inhumane society, when it does not take into consideration people who achieve little”

In the wake of the proposed reform in education namely the introduction of 9-year schooling, Satish Kumar Mahadeo, Associate Professor in Linguistics, Faculty of Social Studies & Humanities of the University of Mauritius, shares with his considered views on the reform proposal and the related themes.

These include issues of fairness and equity, the transferability of imported models, the political dimension of reform that is influenced by the politics of identity amongst others, the potential impact on teacher interests such as private tuition, and the question of elitism as well as the role and importance of English in the language and development landscape.

Mauritius Times: Yet another education reform plan – the nine-year schooling — to be implemented as from 2015 and which, in the words of Minister Vasant Bunwaree, “rests on the philosophy of being fair and equitable to all learners… and which is stress-free and devoid of intense competition and at the same time does away with the phenomenon of private tuition”. As an educationist, do you think the new system will live up to its promise of promoting the “holistic development of learners and render learning experiences of children more enriching and enjoyable”?

Satish Kumar Mahadeo: Back in 2001, in his report on “Achieving Education for All”, Mr Armoogum Parsuramen, the ex-Minister of Education, referred to the vision which was enunciated in the White paper on Education in 1984, and which stated as follows: “Let us always remember that, in education, we are concerned with the future prosperity and even the survival of our nation. The future lives of our children should unite rather than divide us.”

My point is that, instead of reaching a consensus transcending political party loyalty, and giving Minister Vasant Bunwaree the benefit of the doubt, it is lamentable to observe the “ethic of aggression’, which seems to predominate in political and public discourse. I fail to understand why in this society we feel compelled to fight about everything for cheap political gains. A well-known American sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen, denounces what she calls the “argument culture” in political and public discourse, which rests on the assumption that opposition at all cost and confrontation are the best ways to get anything done. Passionate opposition and even strong verbal attacks are often appropriate and indicate the vitality of our democratic institutions. However, smashing heads, as is evident from media coverage on a crucial issue that concerns the lives of our children, does not open minds. The introduction of nine-year schooling and the abolition of CPE is an issue which requires the commitment of all partners, involvement of the community and a clear-sighted and rational vision of education as an integral part of the human development process in this country.

A holistic approach to child development seeks to simultaneously address the physical, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of a child’s life. For my part, I have to say that the High-Powered Committee which will look into the modalities of implementation of nine-year schooling will be called upon to explore a variety of approaches to help educate and groom children into healthy, sustainable adults. I believe that the introduction of this educational reform is an ideal opportunity to provide scope for the teaching of the Arts and Humanities for the promotion of the relational development of our children.

We live in a world dominated by the profit motive – which suggests that education in science and technology is crucially important to the future success of nations. There should be no objection to good scientific and technical education, and nations should not stop trying to improve it. However, in the wake of what some may perceive as the growth of a callous and ‘affectless’ society built on intolerance and distorted notions of belonging and identity in our midst, there is a risk that other abilities, equally crucial, are getting lost in the competitive flurry.

The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both in the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. They include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach issues as “citizens of the world”. And, perhaps most important, the ability to imagine empathetically the predicament of another person. This essential ability can be called the narrative imagination: it leads us to be intelligent readers of other people’s stories and to understand their emotions and wishes.

The cultivation of empathy was a central public task of Ancient Athenian tragedy, and thus a key element in ancient Greek democracy; it has also informed the best modern ideas of progressive education in both western and non-western traditions. With the abolition of CPE and the introduction of nine-year schooling, avenues will be open for instruction in literature, music, theatre, fine art and dance, which are the best ways to cultivate empathy in early childhood, and ensure a future which will force our children to engage with a world that is transforming itself, and wrench them out of inflexible ideologies based on intolerance of the “Other”.

* “Fairness and equity” – as promised by the Education Minister in his reply to a Private Notice Question to the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, this month, is going to prove to be a very tall order indeed, isn’t it? How far is this realisable, or is it but a myth?

Notions of ‘equity’ and ‘fairness’ are two separate concepts. An equitable society where everyone gets a suitable position (thanks to tests or other forms of competition) would be a completely inhumane society, when it does not take into consideration people who achieve little – the handicapped, the ill, the failures, the old people. The achievement principle which is the basis of an ‘equitable’ and meritocratic society must be complemented and balanced by a counter principle – the principle of ‘fairness’ or ‘the principle of love’, which, in practical and materialistic terms, appears to achieve nothing, and not to be necessary.

A German political scientist, who worked as an adviser to ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, evoked in one of his essays the “Necessity of the Superfluous”. By this, he meant that if our society is to remain humane, it is indeed the superfluous that turns out to be necessary and absolutely crucial for human existence. Hence the concepts of “fairness and equity” as stressed by the Education Minister. The nine-year schooling will hopefully lay down the foundations of both these principles.

* Can we draw inspiration from the experience of other countries with regard to the “holistic development of learners” and the rendering of the learning experiences of children “more enriching and enjoyable”? Learning from the Singapore or from the Nordic countries in matters of education may be the right thing to do, but are their experiences transferable to other countries, including Mauritius?

Indeed, the media has constantly referred to Finland as a model of nine-year compulsory education, whose objective is to provide everyone with equal opportunities for education and training. The success of a nation is built on a well-educated population, and Finland considers it important to ensure that no one is left behind without an education. Their success can be measured by the fact that almost 95% of basic education leavers continue their studies immediately on completion of basic education, unlike what the present situation is in Mauritius, where almost 10,000 children are rejected and hence marginalised every year by the CPE exams, which definitely constitutes a pathetic waste of our human resources.

Now can the experience of Finland and other Nordic countries be transferable in the Mauritian context? I have a few doubts, however. Already, I hear voices of resistance against the introduction of the principle of mixity envisaged in the wake of the nine-year schooling on the part of individuals motivated by their religious convictions (forbidding, for example, mixing of boys and girls in the adolescence stage) rather than by pragmatic factors. I don’t know how long policy making in this society will continue to be contaminated by religious considerations or the politics of identity /politics of difference instead of a more rational and empirical approach to issues?

It has been well established that segregation of boys and girls can cause them to evolve in two separate worlds, whereas the principle of mixity will help them to cope with each other so as to dispel myths and misgivings about the other sex. How can we talk of gender equality and keep pace with the changes in society, while, in the same breath, we continue to segregate boys and girls in our schools? It sounds like practising double standards to me.

* It is quite possible that most parents might consider that the price their wards are having to pay to ensure admission to the best State-funded public and private schools (the ‘Star Schools’) are too high, in terms of the “trauma” the CPE causes, and they would therefore welcome Minister Bunwaree’s proposals. Do you think that would indeed be the case?

In all societies, we have privileged parents who feel that education is competitive, and there should not be anyone else in the same class as their child. But, in general, I don’t think that parents will be hostile to the educational reforms. Clearly communicating what exactly the reforms are about is very important.

* What do you think would be the response of the other stakeholders, namely the teachers, who are said to have a vested interest in the status quo?

Mauritius, being what it is, consists of many pressure groups which represent narrow interests that often conflict with the interests of the nation as a whole. If the Ministry of Education is convinced about the soundness of the philosophy behind nine-year schooling and the abolition of CP, the onus is on them to fine-tune their methods of persuasion to counteract the fierce propaganda machine that their detractors will mount through the mainstream print media and private radio stations to win the hearts and souls of parents and other stakeholders. The advisers attached to the Ministry of Education will be called upon to communicate effectively in the face of the defenders of the status quo who may have an easy time arguing that change will bring uncertain results.

* As an educationist, would you say that the CPE and its attendant comrade-in-crime – private tuition – are indeed the devils in the system?

When referring to the stress and anxiety and “trauma” of students as the Minister of Education says, one should not leave aside the issue of private tuition. Most people will agree that private tuition is perceived as a “necessary evil” in our system of education or the inescapable path to success. Students – or rather their parents — are turning more and more towards private coaching because their expectations are not being met at school. With the rise in indiscipline and violence at school, teachers are not giving the best of themselves. Passing laws to condemn private tuition may lead to illegal practices. On the other hand, legalising private tuition does not promote meritocracy; instead, it ensures the educational achievement of those students who can pay. It sounds like a vicious circle. Time will tell if efforts to get rid of private tuition in early childhood will pay off, or if private tuition is enshrined in the Mauritian culture.

* Whilst it can be argued that it is the constitutional right of parents to seek and pay for the private coaching or tuition for their kids, we sometimes tend to overlook the fact that the 7- to 11-year-old kids have to bear with a 8.30 am to 5-6 pm school and tuition schedule plus more hours over homework or for parental coaching. Do you consider that to be a reasonable price to pay?

Parents in Mauritius are, in general, very concerned about the education of their children, and are willing to make massive investment on it because they are firmly convinced, rightly so, that, with our history of slavery and indentured labour, education is the only instrument at their disposal to achieve social mobility and get out of the cycle of poverty. They are ready to pay any price for it. I personally have heard a few parents say that even the tuition fees are only a small amount to pay for education of their children, which, for them, is of infinite value.

* There may be another angle to the question of access to ‘Star Schools’: there is the belief, it’s almost a matter of conviction, amongst people living in the rural and less privileged areas even in the towns and cities, that admission to ‘Star Schools’ is conducive to promoting the “épanouissement” of their wards. That’s quite a legitimate aspiration, don’t you think?

As parents, we all want our children to have the best possible preparation and a headstart in life. I find this natural, legitimate, and even commendable.

* You do know, don’t you, what it means to get enrolled in the Royal Colleges or the QEC and what psychological fillip it gives to those who toil and get admitted to those places? What’s wrong with that?

I find nothing wrong with that. Every nation needs the best and brightest in all fields to contribute to the growth of the nation. But this should not happen to the detriment of those not fortunate enough to get admitted to such colleges. Again the concepts of ‘equity’ and ‘fairness’ should be uppermost in the minds of people.

* You mean elitism in education may not be a bad thing for the country’s development, but politically not correct?

“Elitism” has a double meaning. It can refer to being the BEST at some task or activity (e.g. art, music, athletes, mathematics, teaching, design, etc.). Or it can mean belonging to some social group or subgroup (e.g. the rich, the powerful, etc.). It seems to be assumed by many that being elitist is inherently bad. I disagree. There is a kind of elitism that is valuable, namely a concern for quality of teaching and learning. For me, a very good mechanic, or plumber, or builder should also be regarded as forming part of the elite of our society.

However, when society’s brightest and most able think that they make good because they are inherently superior and entitled to their success; when economic inequality gives rise to social immobility and a growing social distance between the winners of meritocracy and the masses; and when the winners seek to cement their membership of a social class that is distinct from, exclusive, and not representative of Mauritian society – that is bad ‘elitism’ because it threatens to divide the inclusive society that we seek to build.

* There is a ‘history’ associated with the public and confessional ‘Star Schools’ – the RCPL, RCC, QEC, St Esprit, St Joseph, etc. It’s also a matter of institutional pride, or to put it in marketing terms, of branding. Why should those who support the maintenance of these schools (parents as well as confessional authorities) agree to do away with the Form I-to-VI stream and join the new system?

Meritocracy, taken to selfish extreme, can result in what is termed “crab mentality”. This refers to a situation where crabs in a basket try and climb over each other to get out, while other crabs try and grab down those above them. Such a situation would break down the political and social structure which has enabled Mauritius to succeed. The solution is not to hold back the able and gifted (what you call the elite) or pull down those who have succeeded. Nor is it to replace meritocracy with another system – there is no better and equitable alternative. Efforts should be made to ensure that our brand of meritocracy remains compassionate, that it is fair and inclusive for all.

* The few who have the financial means are quietly (and increasingly) shifting towards private fee-paying primary and secondary schools, and the vast majority have to make do with State-funded schools. But a section of the population seems to have some difficulty to make the most of the system despite the ZEP and Enhancement Programme. Why is that so and how can they be helped?

Studies have clearly demonstrated that parental interest in the education of children is a strong predictor of achievement of students at school. We all know that education, provided by educators, continues at home. Parents need to monitor the work of their children by verifying homework and report books. When they are interested in what the child does at school, it motivates the latter to work even harder. However, when we have children coming from broken families, with alcoholic or drug addicts as parents, or having one of the parents being a convict, or children with financial problems leading the child to come to school without lunch, all these can have an adverse impact on educational outcomes.

* It would seem that besides parental care and supervision and a conducive home environment, the medium of instruction is an important enabling factor in the teaching and learning process. Will Creole, as canvassed by a number of educationists and NGOs, help make the difference in the classroom?

There exists a consensus among many linguists that appropriate language-in-education policies that enable teachers to instruct in the language a child speaks most at home and understands well enough to learn academic content through their mother tongue (Creole or Bhojpuri) improve pupils’ critical engagement with content, foster an environment of mutual learning, and improve inclusion.

It seems rather surprising that local language activists, who influenced the Ministry of Education to introduce the Creole language as an optional subject in primary schools on a par with ‘Oriental’ languages have not made their voices heard regarding implementing L1 literacy (i.e. as a medium of instruction) within the framework of the abolition of CPE and nine-year schooling. All this, in my eyes, indicates, again, that the politics of identity or the politics of difference takes precedence over pedagogical benefits of L1 literacy.

Having said that, there are quite a number of challenges that need to be addressed for an effective use of L1 (i.e. mother tongue) literacy in the education system, such as language status of Creole and Bhojpuri, for which ‘prestige planning’ would be required.

* It does not seem however that we are doing sufficiently in terms of what is required either in the classroom or in the media, both written and audiovisual, for the promotion of English. Yet there is compelling evidence of a clear link between English proficiency and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI). This has been brought out again in the latest EF English Proficiency Index, the world’s largest ranking of English skills by country, which every year looks at assessment tests from 5 million language learners from 60 countries and territories over the past 6 years to see who is getting ahead, who is falling behind, which teaching methods are proving most effective, and what are the economic correlations associated with “good English.” What do you think?

This question contains three issues, namely (1) the link between English language proficiency and economic growth, (2) the concept of what constitutes “Good” English, and (3) the “most effective” teaching method in connection with ELT (i.e. English language Teaching). Let me address these three issues one by one.

Firstly, many developing countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, are faced with unresolved questions regarding the choice of language(s) that would best support economic and social development. The significance of language in development lies in the fact that it provides the medium through which skills and knowledge are acquired, and is therefore central to the concept of human resource development. Many would thus point to Singapore as an outstanding example of a country whose dramatic success is largely attributed to its choice of English as the dominant working language to help Singapore directly ‘plug into the global economy’. Not surprisingly, it is in the education system that the government’s role in language planning is most clearly manifested.

However, this idea that English necessarily leads to economic success has been debunked by scholars like Phillipson in his “Linguistic Imperialism” and Skutnabb-Kangas who has labelled English as a ‘killer language’ in her work on “Linguistic Genocide”. What these two scholars are proposing is a form of ‘additive bilingualism’, in which English can be acquired as an additional tool in the intellectual development of non-native children, while still encouraging the academic development of local languages, which, in our case, would be Creole and Bhojpuri.

This leads us to the discussion of what constitutes “Good English”. By this term, do we mean “native speaker” English? Do we mean Oxbridge English (i.e. Oxford/Cambridge English)? I know that in virtually all postcolonial settings, the privileged position of the native speaker teacher remains entrenched, while the local teacher’s model is negatively evaluated, not least by the non-native speakers themselves. Linguistic benchmarks for English remain derived from the native speaker model. But many linguistic experts on English would now argue that expecting a native speaker model is neither ‘necessary’ nor ‘desirable’. International intelligibility is a more important goal than the acquisition of a model based on native speaker performance. So the concept of “Good English” must be revisited in the age of globalisation where several “Englishes” exist in different parts of the world.

As for the most effective teaching method, here again, linguistic experts argue that there are certain MYTHS about teaching English in multilingual settings like Mauritius – myths which undermine learning of English, and therefore they advocate a ‘paradigm shift’ in ELT methodology. For example, despite its popularity as a medium of instruction in the early years of primary schools, English is NOT recommended by researchers. Far from the home language getting in the way of learning a second language like English, the greater the investment in the child’s fist language, the more successful the acquisition of a second and third language will be. Children, according to experts, are able to transfer the L1 skills they have learned to L2 learning.

The implication in terms of ELT methodology is that the introduction of English in primary schools should be delayed until the child has literacy in the first language and until conditions and facilities merit it. This requires a shift of paradigm from the traditional ELT methodology which sees the target of second language learning as native-like proficiency (i.e. the traditional concept of “Good English”) to avoid the inequities in comparing bi/multilingual children to a monolingual child in one of the languages. Instead, we need to consider language learning in the context of complex multilingual settings. Multilingual children in Mauritius who speak many languages will naturally sound multilingual. So multilingual performance and proficiency should be adopted as the language learning model, not idealised native-like proficiency.

In this respect, the shift to the nine-year schooling is an excellent opportunity to consider the challenges of language learning in multilingual Mauritius. I describe them as ‘challenges’ because, for example, parents, and even teachers, may not necessarily see the cognitive and educational benefits of implementing L1 literacy in Mauritius, and there can be lot of resistance to it.

* As a linguist, do you have apprehensions about the long-term combined effects and consequences that Creole in the classroom and overexposure to French in the media might bring about in Mauritian society?

Living in a multilingual setting implies that we have our own linguistic specificities with our mixture of languages such as English, French, Creole, Bhojpuri, and Oriental languages. Each language has its particular function(s). Canagarajah, who is a well-known professor of Linguistics in New York, using Sri Lanka’s (his own home country) multilingual experience, notes that communities negotiate the mix of languages, literacies and discourse and interests rather than abide by government policy decisions. What I mean is that local strategies such as code-switching (switching from English to Creole, for example), where teachers and students use different languages to facilitate communication, have the potential to be successfully developed for better content understanding, but are hardly considered in traditional policy models in the education system.

To answer your question about the repercussions on Mauritian society of using Creole in the classroom and the prevalence of French in the media, the language situation will be as it has always been, with English “seldom used but indispensable”, French, the language of prestige and ‘high’ culture, Creole as our national and home language, and “Oriental languages” as markers of identity and cultural heritage. With the advent of social networks, what we are witnessing is widespread code-switching and code-mixing among all these languages. The future of Mauritius is hybridity and change.


* Published in print edition on 29 November 2013

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