Difficult Times and Usual Choices



Sir Howard Cooke and Lady Cooke, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, friends of the Mico, relatives, spouses, and friends of the Graduating Class of 2009 and members of the Graduating Class, welcome. In this 174th year in the life of the Mico we are delighted that you could join us to celebrate this milestone in the professional journey of those who graduate this afternoon.

The Mico University College continues to make its transition and in the process to record several important firsts. The University College appointed its first Professor in the person of Professor Claude Packer, President. He is now Professor of Mathematics Education. The University College also appointed two outstanding graduates of the Mico, both of whom hold professorships at the University of the West Indies, as Honourary Professors. They are Professor the Honourable Edwin Jones as Honourary Professor of Public Administration and Educational Leadership and Professor Neville Ying,  as Honourary Professor of Educational Measurement. The Board and the Senior Management, working together, have developed the first strategic plan of the University College and are now setting about to implement it.

There has been great demand for the University College to mount new programmes. There is also a great demand for places in these programmes. The Mico is, therefore, bursting at its seams. But these are difficult times in Jamaica, the Caribbean and most of the world. The University College has not been exempted from its vicissitudes. Hence, Government subvention is declining in real terms, significant numbers of students are finding it difficult to pay the costs, the University College is stretched to provide all the materials and equipment needed, lecturers are pressed to find effective ways to continue to offer high-quality instruction and the leadership is exploring every avenue to make ends meet.

This is the context in which we celebrate the accomplishments of the Graduating Class of 2009. To borrow a few words from the Book of Revelations, ‘these are they who have come out of great tribulation’. I would hope that they have all washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. However, what we can say for sure is that they are all wearing gowns that mark their advancement in the professional and academic community.

I feel constrained this afternoon to say a word on not only behalf of the Graduating Class of the Mico University College but also on behalf of the graduates of all colleges, universities and secondary schools across Jamaica and the Commonwealth Caribbean in 2009. Recently, I have been examining data from Surveys of Living Conditions that have been done across the Caribbean. In these Surveys, it is common to find statements concerning the proportion of people in the population not possessing any formal educational qualifications. However, a closer examination of these data shows that our secondary schools, colleges, and universities have been graduating more and better-qualified students than at any other time in the history of our Caribbean countries. In a nutshell, hard empirical data are showing the very opposite of what now constitutes conventional wisdom in many very influential circles and often in the public media.

The fact is that Jamaican and Caribbean education has always developed and produced more talent than Jamaican and Caribbean economies can absorb. This is because Jamaican and Caribbean education is controlled and driven by the independent actions of Governments, communities, parents, teachers, and students. On the other hand, Jamaican and Caribbean economies are highly dependent on decisions are taken elsewhere and very vulnerable global economic factors. The current economic condition in the region is a prime example of Caribbean economic dependence. The fact therefore that thousands of young people graduating from secondary schools, colleges, and a university will not be able to find jobs is by no means reflective of defects of Caribbean education or deficiencies of Caribbean youth. Compounding the problem is that fact that the safety valve of emigration is practically shut because high rates of unemployment is being experienced in the labour markets to which Caribbean people have always run for rescue.

On November 24 there was an Editorial in the Jamaican Observer tilted ‘Showing it’s possible to beat the Recession’. The Editorial recounted the fact that 27 of the publicly traded companies that have reported third quarter earning, 23 had reported profits and 15 had reported increased earning compared to the same period last year. I was about to join in applause because it is a significant accomplishment if in these difficult economic times businesses can break even or post a profit. Then it hit me, before celebrating are there not questions that should be asked of the 15 companies that increased profits even in these difficult times? How did they do it? Those companies that found new opportunities in these difficult times, expanded their businesses, kept their complement of staff and employed some young people are deserving of the highest commendation. But it is possible, that among these 15 are companies that opportunistically took advantage of the current difficult circumstances to improve their bottom line by increasing prices, cutting back services, laying off workers and putting greater pressure on those than remained? If there are, such companies deserve no commendation and are not examples to follow.

The greatest problem facing Jamaica and the Caribbean is increasing hopelessness among youth. The symptoms and the signs of this hopelessness should be clear for all to see. We should be particularly concerned about those young people who have listened to the exhortation to attend school regularly, stay out of trouble, study hard and obtain the required credentials of success and who are then faced with the blank wall of unemployment when they have done all that has been asked of them. I suggest that a new standard of success for Governments, companies, unions, churches, schools, and colleges, should be what have you done or are you doing to assist these young people? We must as a matter of urgency create new ways to support them and to help them find opportunities in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world.

Graduating Class of the Mico University College of 2009, having spoken a word on your behalf, and on behalf of all your fellow graduates across the Caribbean in 2009, let me speak a word to you directly. Difficult times and graduating classes of The Mico are no strangers. Difficult times have been the cradle in which the professional careers of many great Miconians have started.

The first batch of Miconians in late 1838 graduated in difficult post-emancipation times. It was from the challenges of those times that John Savage rose to be the first Miconian to be Director of Education in Jamaica and to spearhead education reforms in the 1870s that were the most sweeping of the 19th century and from which all of us are still beneficiaries.

It was difficult times when Sir Clifford Campbell graduated from Mico in December 1915 and started to teach in January 1916. The world was engulfed in the first Great War of the twentieth century and Jamaica was in great distress. It was from those times that he rose to be not only a great teacher but a pioneer in the emergence of representative government being a member of the first Parliament formed in 1944 after first elections conducted under adult suffrage and later to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, President of the Senate and first Jamaican Governor General of Jamaica.

It was difficult times when Sir Howard Cooke graduated from Mico in December 1935 and started to teach at the Mico Practicing School in January 1936. The world was in the middle of the Great Depression of the twentieth century and about to embark on the second Great War. Jamaica was on the brink of the greatest period of social unrest in the twentieth century. It was from the challenges of these times that he emerged not only to be a legend as a teacher but an outstanding insurance executive, politician extraordinaire and respected Governor General of Jamaica.

But Miconian luminaries of difficult times are not restricted to Sir Clifford and Sir Howard. Included in this pantheon are thousands of graduates whose deeds are recorded in the annals of just about every organisation, every sector of society and every community across Jamaica and whose memories are recalled and recited in the personal histories of myriads of persons whose lives they enriched and life chances they changed. Time would fail me to record their names individually.

To use the words of the College song, having ‘Breathed the Spirit of the Mico’ they went out in their time and to their generation. They lived lives that confounded the prevailing stereotypes; tackled evident social injustice in constructive ways; sustained the weak; inspired hope and striving among youth and communities who had long given up on the prospects of a different life; and defied all of these odds by their daily devotion to duty and sacrificial service beyond self.

Truth demands that we acknowledge that not all graduates of the Mico have lived noble lives. There is a minority have gone the way of all flesh. They used the power they obtained to diminish the weak. They abused positions to which they have been promoted for personal gains. They gained wealth without producing goods or providing services of commensurate value. They projected status as a symbol of personal superiority instead of using it as a means of uplifting the families, schools, communities, and country whose sacrifices made their success possible. In the words of the College Song, they ‘Breathed the Spirit of Mico in vain’.

As you, the Graduating Class of 2009 go out in your time and to your generation at the end of the decade of the twenty-first century understand that you face the usual choices. However, you face these usual choices in the context of your own times. Materialism is rampant. Selfishness abounds. Adherence to principles and rules is often regarded as a foolish. Injustice in personal and social dealing is everywhere to be seen. Children and youth are killing each other. Standing up for the right often put those doing so at risk. Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof is not uncommon. Yet the prevalence of these behaviours is no excuse for you to join the fray.

We exhort you to choose to honour the Mico tradition that you now join. Plan the trajectory of your lives to engage constructively in efforts to bring hope and inspiration particularly to young people, to secure social justice, to bring about societal transformation and to encourage spiritual upliftment through sacrificial service. Strive without ceasing and depend upon God who sanctifies and blesses lives lived in pursuit of His good. God bless you.

Professor Emeritus the Honourable Errol Miller