“Not one single community can claim to be Mauritian to the exclusion of others

Encounter – François Sarah

The challenge, then, is to arrive at an education policy and system that would provide a national standard while encompassing the rich diversity of our cultures”

* ‘The increase in divorce rates, the phenomenon of absentee parents, the lack of authority figures, financial destitution, etc. make for precarious, if not impossible, conditions for the development of well-rounded individuals’

* ‘There is a lack of common or coordinated vision regarding the future of Mauritian society as an organic whole. In such circumstances, some of the young feel lost, with those having the means and the skill emigrating’

Francois Sarah emphasizes the role and importance of the socio-cultural milieu centred around the famlily/extended family (family plus close relatives) as the crucible which nurtures and motivates the growing child towards seeking educational excellence beyond mere employability concerns. He feels that the excessively labour-oriented system that has abandoned the important core elements of the traditional system which developed the sense of aesthetics, wonder and openness to the rich diversity of cultures we are privileged to be exposed to is to a large extent responsible for the paucity of our present education system.

Francois Sarah holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, Scotland and was awarded The Rt Hon Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Prize for International Relations as well as the 600th Anniversary Doctoral Scholarship. He previously obtained his Bsc Hons in Political Science at the University of Mauritius.

Mauritius Times: You started off at Bain Boeuf, Cap Malheureux, and went on to do your PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, winning along the way a number of awards. The notes on your background seem to indicate that it’s the cultural milieu and the background in which you grew up, which have contributed as much as hard work to your achievements in education. Based on your own experience, how do cultural milieu, family background and values help in educational performance?

François Sarah: The family as the domestic society, which fulfils certain basic educational functions, is determinative of the educational performance of children. I was very lucky to have parents who took their duties very seriously and provided me with the right environment and means for the development of my academic skills and ambitions. I will be ever grateful to them.

Alongside schoolwork, my mother had set up a parallel and complementary course of homework supervised by herself, my father, and some other family members. In addition, I also followed the courses of the Alliance Française. My mother took care of the languages while my father helped with mathematics, and they split the rest among themselves. The timetable at home was as regulated as that of school. I was not allowed more than 30 minutes of television on weekdays – only after having completed both schoolwork and homework. The older cousins who were at university were held up as examples to follow. And there was also a sort of competition among cousins of the same age group about school rankings and results.

Early on, my parents had passed on to me the love of reading. Books were, and still are, everywhere in our house. When I was at secondary school, most of my pocket money would go towards buying books for my own library. After school hours, and when not taking private tuitions, I would frequent a number of bookshops in Port Louis, namely, Le Trefle, Allot, Nalanda, University Bookshop, and Harry Bookshop.

* Does this mean that those without a proper and conducive cultural milieu and family background will have the odds stacked against them, which is why so many of our youngsters in some areas are unable to make much headway in education despite free education opportunities for all?

I am convinced that it is so. Without the active support of the family, the task of teachers is made more difficult, as there is little to no effective communication between school and home. Parents and teachers ought to be partners in the education of children.

Free education was a blessing. It was introduced at a time when families were more closely knit together and able to provide some support. It was also a time when consumerism, excessive individualism, and a certain model of social mobility had not yet conquered the minds of Mauritians. Since then, society has moved on for the worse and the education of children suffers as a result.

The increase in divorce rates, the phenomenon of absentee parents, the lack of authority figures and the absence of mentoring, financial destitution, etc. make for precarious, if not impossible, conditions for the development of well-rounded individuals.

* In fact, if there is an increasing number of young Mauritians who have done very well in education, there are also the thousands who are left on the wayside every year. Do you think the authorities, public and private, are doing the right things to mitigate the incidence of educational failure?

As far as both the public and private authorities are concerned, I believe there is a lack of common or coordinated vision regarding the future of Mauritian society as an organic whole. There are no directive principles and objectives of state policy beyond the promises and retractions of electoral cycles.

In such circumstances, I can understand why some of the young should feel lost, with those having the means and the skill emigrating, and the rest being left behind, trying to eke out a living in the context of the lack of national vision and the scarcity of resources and jobs.

We can’t hope to carry out a successful reform of the educational system in isolation. There must be an integrated policy in which the systemic defects of all areas of both sectors are considered and addressed together. It is only in redefining the objectives of the State in terms of the fundamental needs of the people, of which education and occupations are essential elements, that we will give ourselves a framework in which opportunities can be created.

* You personally have chosen to come back, why do you think an increasing number of our students abroad are settling down there? Is there more to it than a simple answer to that question?

Yes, I think this would demand a full-blown study! But I will try to identify one or two salient factors. Following on your earlier question, I would say that there is a general lack of incentive to return for those who have spent years of study abroad. I come back to the idea of social mobility I just mentioned. As far as salaries, quality of life, and work environment are concerned, Mauritius cannot really compete. There is also the perception that the society here is not really meritocratic, in spite of much official protestations to the contrary.

* We also learn in your background notes about the attachment of your larger family, consisting of your parents as well as great-uncles and great-aunts, to social, religious, and civic duties, as well as their appreciation of tradition on the one hand, and on the other hand their openness to different non-Western cultures, thus their decision to have you learn Hindi as an oriental language at school. Tell us more about that and how has this helped?

I was brought up in an environment that put a premium on heritage – both material and cultural. My great-uncles and great-aunts were the “guardians”, as it were, of family memory and tradition, and they imparted to me a solid sense of continuity and communion with the past.

Some of the great-uncles with whom I grew up had fought in the Second World War, and they instilled in me a sense of civic duty and patriotism. Even though the family was culturally Western, we were mindful and proud of our diverse origins, of which the Indian was a prominent component. Thus, my parents decided that I should study Hindi at primary level. They themselves had Hindi-speaking friends who were regular visitors to our house and with whom I was able to practise (in addition to our Hindi-speaking neighbours).

Even though I haven’t studied the language to a higher level, I still retain a love and a taste for it, and for Indian civilization in general. I think it was that introduction to Hindi at primary level that helped me choose the “elective” on Indian classical music and dance when I was at the University of Mauritius. That “elective” opened to me such vistas of aesthetic and philosophical insights that have been crucial in the formation of my worldview.

* It’s a pity that we do not get a more profound exposure to different cultures, languages and literature other than their mass-appeal representations that are broadcast on TV. It’s Mauritianism’s loss, isn’t it?

You are quite right. Mauritianism will remain a dead letter if we do not articulate and implement a consistent policy of cultural education and communication. The media ought to have been the choicest platform for cultural communication.

I have often thought that we would need to create and broadcast a programme on the level of “Civilisation” by Kenneth Clark, but broadened to all the cultures found on the island. We need to promote the study and pursuit of traditional and classical art forms, and encourage children to take up one such art form alongside their academic studies.

We already have specialized schools and institutions, and, more importantly, the qualified personnel, that could come together to create a national programme, which would form the basis of a national endorsement and promotion of the arts.

* In what ways can the rich diversity of Mauritian heritage redefine the orientation of an overarching education policy?

One of the advantages of Mauritius is that there was no indigenous population before the arrival of the Portuguese and of the Dutch. Not only was it legally terra nullius, but also, culturally, a tabula rasa. Not one single community can claim to be Mauritian to the exclusion of others. The challenge, then, is to arrive at an education policy and system that would provide a national standard while encompassing the rich diversity of cultures that coexist in Mauritius. For this purpose, we must be able to create spaces where the most salient elements of different cultures are showcased and communicated to the community at large and to learners in particular. Endeavours in this direction already exist; they need to be acknowledged, upheld, and encouraged.

Furthermore, we must not be afraid to refer to “classical” standards of taste and value to guide us in the elaboration of such a policy. In other words, let us not be afraid of “high culture” or let us not hesitate to construct such a system where “high culture” occupies a normative position. I do realise that this is a rather controversial view, but I stand by it.

Education, after all, is about the cultivation and improvement of oneself, for the sake of oneself and for society’s sake. It must instill in the young the sense of those things which make life worth living. I am convinced that those things (love, friendship, loyalty, virtue, creating, building, dwelling, thinking, etc.) have been given a most sublime treatment in the works of the classical poets (for example, among many others, Kalidasa, Sophocles, Vergil, Du Fu, Ferdowsi), and in the legends of countless other cultures and folks.

The advantage of the ancient poets is that they expressed those things in compositions whose beauty has withstood the test of time, and which present us with a high degree of moral and philosophical sophistication and elegance. At the same time, the human element of those old stories remains remarkably close to us, and their concern speak to our own.

At this twilight hour of civilization, I would probably also include mediaeval and early modern works in my “canon” of high culture (e.g. Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Tagore, T.S. Eliot, etc.) Classical culture, thus redefined in terms of the union of the ancients and the moderns, has the potential to provide any scheme of education with a very sound basis for cultivation and emulation.

The return to an educational paradigm where the Humanities (languages, history, with mathematics) constitute the basis of instruction for all children has a number of advantages. It enhances the need for universal literacy, and provides it with a textual context and cultural frame of reference. It also provides an intercultural interface for the learning of languages, and an avenue for teaching moral and civic values.

* We understand that you guide the kids of expats in their studies of the classical languages, in particular Latin. That’s interesting, because we do not get to hear much about our own local students taking up these classical subjects, as well as Geography, or even History as examinable subjects since they are considered unrelated to the labour market. The expats seem to think otherwise, it would appear?

The families with which I have the privilege to work are seized of the critical situation in which the Western world finds itself since the 1960s, with May ’68 as the paradigmatic event. The dissolution of the family unit, the decline in religious practice, and the replacement of history by ideology — all form part of the ongoing crisis of the West.

In seeking to provide a classical education for their children, the expats intend to re-establish the links with the past, to revive tradition, and all the positive aspects of Western civilization which owes so much to the Greco-Roman culture. Furthermore, the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church since the 1960s with the loss of the traditional Latin liturgy and rituals has contributed in no small measure to the disenchantment of the West, with a decline in the sense of the sacred. Those parents who approach me want to renew with both the secular and sacred roots of their identity, and transmit them to their children.

To come back to Mauritius, I believe one of the problems of an exclusively employment-oriented education system is that it needs to be constantly updated to keep pace with the ever-changing requirements of industry. We need to identify or articulate an inner core of the education system which will remain more or less stable. Other subjects, as the needs arise, will then be added to the curriculum organized around this core.

Thus, we must provide pathways and places for those who would like to pursue the humanist/classical core up to the level of higher studies, just as much as we need to recognize that some learners will only be able to take in a minimum of core, by virtue of their inclinations or circumstances. Those students can be directed towards more concrete subjects, again depending on their desire or the career path intended for them.

* The traditional model of education is described by Salman Khan of the Khan Academy as essentially sitting “in a chair, and the teacher tries to project knowledge at you; some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t.” Khan further avers that it creates an attitude of “you need to teach me”. How do we change this mindset? How do we create a system where curiosity is instilled in our students?

Khan seems to be referring to a didacticist and mechanistic style of education, which he rightly criticizes. However, I will temper this by saying that any transmission of knowledge necessarily includes a degree of formulaicism – a need for the learner to be taught and to master the basic elements of certain semantic and conceptual fields in view of application and replication.

It has its place but it should not be the whole of education, nor the sole criterion for academic success. It can certainly coexist in the younger years with more visual and interactive items and activities that would present those semantic and conceptual fields in a concrete manner. Repetition is not bad, but it can become barren when divorced from the organic life of the learner and the teacher – when the whole experience of teaching and being taught takes place in a sort of bureaucratic vacuum.

One of the ways in which the curiosity of learners is aroused is to introduce them to items with which they are not familiar at all. It can also be aroused by introducing them to unfamiliar aspect of familiar things. This introduction will have to be punctual and consistent with the subject being taught and studied. It will rely on both visual and auditory support, and include discussions where the learners will be called upon to express their thoughts on the item. Class trips to museums, historical sites, nature reserves, and other places of interest should become a regular feature of school life.

The classroom must not be a prison cell but the porch of knowledge. It is also not a “preaching hall” in which the students have very little to say. Learning and most activities relating to it, after all, take place in the foreground of an implicit conversation or dialogue between the past and the present, between the teacher and the students, and among the students themselves.

One of the most fundamental tasks of teachers is to help the students build up their own confidence and enlarge their stock of knowledge in order to participate in this great conversation.

* Published in print edition on 10 August 2021

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