CHOOSE YOU THIS DAY

Graduating Class of 2013 of Jamaica College

 You have accorded me the great privilege of addressing you as you mark a major milestone in your maturity and journey in life. I seriously doubt if I am going to saying anything to you that you have not heard before. I hope, however, that I am going to remind you of their importance. I feel pretty sure that many or most of you have already made critical choices about your life going forward. Yet I feel constrained this afternoon to confront you directly and unequivocally about those life choices. For those who have not yet made any choice, my aim is to challenge you yet again to set your course for going forward. There is an African proverb that says if you do not know where you are going, any road can take you there. For those who have already made choices, my intention is to have you evaluate those choices against these reminders.

The title of this address is “Choose you this Day”. Yes, the title is from the book of Joshua in the Bible but my text is from the history of Jamaica and the contemporary world into which you are graduating. Allow me to do a quick recounting of Jamaican history in order to remind you of the society into which you are graduating.

THE MENTALITIES AND MODALITIES OF MODERN JAMAICA

Modern Jamaica, founded by the British in 1655, was not inaugurated on the basis on any noble vision or principles. Britain was a latecomer to seeking territory and resources from the New World, which was happened upon by Christopher Columbus a hundred and fifty years earlier. It was mainly British men who came to Jamaica. These men came with the aim of making it rich quick and of returning to Britain to live in style and ease based on the fortunes made here. Exploitation of resources and people, including some of their own, and extortion in the name of the Crown, were the main means of making quick wealth. Largely absent was the restraining influence of women in general and wives in particular. The heroes of this era were the pirates, buccaneers, and the grandee. Just in case you are not familiar with the grandee, his lifestyle spoke for itself. He was a planter or overseer who rode hard, drank much, gambled a lot and had numerous brown-skinned progeny. The grandee was a pirate on land. The pirate, the buccaneer and the grandee lived hard and cared little about the people they exploited or used in their enjoyment. They inaugurated what I am labeling the ‘spoils mentality and modality’ characterized by exploitation, extortion, greed, selfishness and a licentious living, which is still romanticized as a way of living of successful men.

Within this climate of self-indulgence and self-‘gasification’, seeds of a different mentality and modality were planted. John Wolmer was a goldsmith. He became wealthy through his trade in trinkets and bullion. But he had no children to bequeath the wealth he had accumulated. So he left his fortune to rescue the children of men who could not care for their children because of their lack of means. The schools that bear his name give testimony to his conscience, expressed posthumously.  Martin Rusea was a Protestant fleeing religious persecution in France in 1685. He and his brother were on their way to a French island when they were ship wrecked off the coast of Lucea in Hanover. Nursed back to health by missionaries and slaves, they settled in Jamaica. Martin became very wealthy but was always grateful for the kindness shown and the care given to him in his hour of need. He left his entire estate for the establishment of the school that today bears his name. A similar story of conscience can also be told of Thomas Manning who left cattle, slaves and land in Burnt Savannah as the means of providing a charity school for the poor in Westmoreland. But it was the missionaries of non-conformist denominations that fully displayed the mentality and modality of care for others and commitment to the common good as they resisted exploitation, protested injustice, highlighted inequalities, exposed many of the horrors of slavery and advocated for its abolition.

In the slave society, the planters and their allies practiced the spoils mentality and modality. The missionaries and their deacons resisted the spoils mentality and worked for the common good. However, it was planter administered spoils modality that was in the ascendancy. These are the two major modalities and mentalities that have existed in modern Jamaican society. They are present in every era although they seem to alternate in terms of which is dominant and in the ascendancy at any particular time.

EMANCIPATION AND INDEPENDENCE

Immediately after emancipation, the missionary mentality and modality prevailed. Free villages like Sligo Ville and Sturge Town were established with the infrastructure of small farms, churches and families. So too were elementary schools, teachers colleges and theological colleges. However, free trade measures adopted in Western Europe and the termination of Imperial Grant in 1846 put the planter spoils mentality back in ascendancy. The result was the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. This brought the Imperial Government back into the picture through Crown Colony Government and with it support for the common good modality. The result over the next 35 years was significant progress. For example, the police force and public health system were established; the elementary school teachers college system was expanded and improved; charity schools like Wolmers, Rusea’s Manning and Titchfield were transformed into high schools; Jamaica College was founded to be the premier high school and intended to become the first local university. The Cambridge Examinations and Jamaica scholarships were introduced. During this period many Jamaican high school students topped or were place in the top 10 in the British Empire in several subjects sat in the Cambridge Examinations. Also in 1900, Jamaica ranked 14th in the world in the spread of elementary education. We were only surpassed by nine countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Imperial Government handed back control to those who presided over the spoils modality. But that is only half the story. The other half is that the various denominations that had championed the causes of the exploited descended into competition for converts and membership instead of cooperating for the common good of education. Several children of missionaries joined the ranks of spoils modality. Moreover, many missionaries were offended by many of the teachers and parsons that they had trained who had other ideas, were now talking back to them and challenging them for leadership. This fractured the coalition that had worked for common good. Hence the spoils modality and mentally re-gained the ascendancy in the first half of the twentieth century. The result was retrogression in several spheres, economic stagnation, and social upheavals in 1930. However, people with a sense of the common good did not disappear. They formed the core of two new ventures: the formation and operation of trade unions and advocacy for independence through political action. Together, but with much tension, these two ventures produced the nationalist movement which brought us first to full internal self-government in the 1950s and to independence in 1962.

In the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the common good modality and mentality regained the ascendency as people from all walks of life rallied to the call of nation building. Fired with the motivation to build Jamaica there was an explosion of opportunities as the bauxite industry was developed, tourism was expanded, agricultural production increased, light manufacturing gained a foothold, schools were built, colleges were expanded and people migrated to seek opportunities elsewhere. The spoils mentality did not disappear during this period but it took a back seat to the common good.

However, as the generation of those who spearheaded political independence past from the scene, the generations who have succeeded them have increasingly embraced again the spoils mentality and modality. Emancipation was about personal freedom. Independence was about national freedom. Currently, we as a people appear lost in freedom. We seem confused with respect to what to do with these freedoms. Many seem to hold the view that the nation exists to ensure their rights and to provide for their needs with little or notion of their reciprocal obligations. Look around and see the numerous examples of persons who want to reap what others have not sown; who want to make withdrawals when they have made no lodgments; who want to enjoy success where they have made no sacrifice.  To add insult to injury, politicians have pandered to the people by assuring them that they will provide and that the only problem is the incompetence and corruption of their opponents.

The lesson we must learn from our history is that the spoils mentality and modality only serves to benefit the few while exploiting the many. It leaves economic stagnation, social upheaval, political apathy, crime and poverty in its wake. It is the mentality and modality of working for and commitment to the common good that creates wealth, builds community, engenders hope and brings fulfillment to the many.

THE CHOICE

Men of the Graduating Class of Jamaica College of 2013 which mentality and modality have you decided to adopt and practice going forward? I am not asking for any public answers, no show of hands. My plea to you is to look within and listen to the better angels of your silent conversations about your life and its meaning going forward. To look around in your homes, communities, country and the world to see people in need of your care, service and devotion and then look up for the divine strength that will be needed to execute the choices that you make.

Choose you this day.

God Bless you.