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Catholic Education as Giving Thanks Dr. Francio Guadeloupe President, University of St. Martin (USM) Keynote speech Catholic Schools week

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - “Give Thanks”! It is an expression you have probably heard uttered from the mouths of various men and women who wear dread locks on this island and follow the mystic livity of Rasta—the pursuit of wisdom: the quest to appreciate and venerate life in order to live in a truthful, upful, beautiful way overflowing with goodness towards everything and everyone.

To me “Give Thanks” are the first words that ought to come out of the mouth of a human who acknowledges that he or she is not a God or a Goddess who stands above the world. Such a person is genuinely reverent to all of life and the ultimate Life Giver and appreciates that they are but part of existence.

Good morning, “Give Thanks”. Now bear in mind that I did not begin this address by stating “I give thanks to the world or I give thanks specifically to you”. I simply said, “Give Thanks”.

As the mystic strand of Rastafari intimates it is the Word (born of and simultaneously birthing Power and Sound), that hails the “I” and “You” and “They” into being. So by saying “Give Thanks” I acknowledge the Word (and Power and Sound) explicitly, and subsequently yet simultaneously, you—you the teachers, you the Catholic school board, you the invited political dignitaries and work shop leaders, and, last but not least, you the trees and the dogs and the rest of extra human life and matter that are also here today. And let me just add rather provocatively, that Rastafari is but a repetition with a difference of Catholic universality that in its turn repeats other older religious traditions seeking to remind the world of the higher law of Justice and the non-coercive ethic of Love. Give Thanks.

Whenever we speak, relate, and experience each other, there are always 3 sets of forces and a Force that is beyond any force and being thus not a force or being involved. Permit me to explain. There is I (who is giving the keynote) speaking to you (the public) about them (students and parents, etc, neglecting often the extra human). And we do so enveloped and infused by God, one of the most beautiful names for Love; it is this absence presence, this Cosmic Attractor and Creator that brings all of life into communication and ideally communion. Any talk or execution of education in Catholic schools, with newfangled methods or philosophies of learning that is not based in this existential realization, which does not start with “Giving Thanks” and being faithful to a life of “Giving Thanks” turns out to be nothing more or less than methodolatry; the idolization of a method.

I have entitled this keynote Catholic Education as a Giving Thanks. I will not be presenting you with a method today. Nor will I be discussing the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) that I know you are currently being trained in. My contribution is more modest. I will be seeking to remind you of the importance of reconnecting to the liberating strand of Caribbean Catholicism that is premised upon Giving Thanks. In this living tradition born of the struggles of courageous men and women belonging to all strata of Caribbean societies, an ethic and habit of combining a Love supreme with the pursuit of Justice for those yet to be redeemed holds through in the concrete work done to alleviate spiritual, intellectual, social, economic, and ecological poverty. To repeat, A Love supreme is a Love which undoes the power of power in love relationships, and Justice is a Law which undoes the partialities and violence inscribed in enshrined laws.

This keynote is dedicated to Father Cornelius Charles, who rebuilt and shepherds the Mary of the Star Catholic church in Grand Case on the Northern side of this island. Throughout his years of service on St. Martin, he has nurtured this liberating strand of Caribbean Catholicism. I am of the opinion that reconnecting to this living heritage, infusing it in whatever teaching method or management protocol you choose, should guide your efforts as teachers and managers. Consider this address a remix of what Father Charles has been doing and saying for years.

My talk is divided into 3 parts. I will begin by presenting you with my view of St. Martin society. I will then go on to further assay this view as it relates to the field of education. Third, as everything is related to everything else, directly but mostly indirectly, I will usher an invitation for you to flesh out the wider societal and existential implications. And, think about what this could mean for your practice as educators and managers.

We often use terms without fully explaining what we mean by them. I stated that I would begin by conveying my view of St. Martin society. Now society is not reducible to a government or nation-state. Therefore in this speech I write St. Martin society and not Sint Maarten or Saint Martin society. Society is also not the same thing as culture or ethnicity. These concepts—cultures, ethnicities, government, nation-states, and of course society—are however related. There will always be many cultures and ethnic groups in any nation-state that governmental apparatuses presuppose they have to manage. I understand any society, and thus also St. Martin, as a series of questions that emerge out of the ongoing historically and contextually specific harmonies and disharmonies (violence, downpression, and dehumanization, if you prefer that sort of language) between forever changing and forever emerging cultures and ethnic groups whereby governments also play a role. The people engaged with those questions—the concrete individuals in variedly related associations and institutions—are the members of the society. Here is my take as recorded in the essay I published two years ago, entitled “Notes on the Making of Nation within the Kingdom”

1) The Question of Purpose: like all other countries in the overdeveloped North Atlantic, Sint Maarten is riddled with anger and anxiety. It has to do with the loss of purpose. This generation will be the first since the end of World War II who will not have it as good as or better than their parents. They need a new purpose and value system.

2) The Multicultural Question: the enormous diversity asks of us, in thinking about creating a new purpose, to also address the question of how to deal with difference.

3) The Question of the Sacred: we need to ask ourselves again, what is of ultimate concern. Once we know this, we can translate it into a collective purpose

As these are to me the relevant questions on both sides of the island, and the conversations and confrontations aren’t fully reducible to the existing administrative borders, it is best to speak about St. Martin society. In addition, and this is a somewhat tricky aside, due to social media, some of the persons who continuously make and are made by St. Martin society and consider themselves part of it don’t reside on the island. So the 3 recurring questions I outlined above, which in my interpretation are de facto St. Martin society, are simultaneously sub-national, national, outer national, and transnational.

Now solutions to these questions are sought in the social institutions, the various civil associations, social movements, political societies, and other interest groups. I will be focusing on catholic schools.

Persons who work as teachers or managers are acutely aware that nowadays many pupils do not believe that education leads to economic uplift. That was yesterday’s myth which was considered true because social advancement did occasionally happen. Back then a few sons and daughters of the tillers of the soil, and those of the hucksters and gardeners, did become a school teacher and a bank teller.

In this global recession that also affects us here on St. Martin, there are too few Reginald F Lewis’s of those children of hucksters who became school teachers. In the eyes of these and many other youngsters, education is not viewed as the most effective tool to get more rich and famous. For them the Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne, and fictional figures like Jamal Malik of slum dog millionaire, and the jeremiads of their parents and other grown-ups that work doesn’t pay prove this. And when they still acquiesce to yesterday’s myth, their choices of study are those professions that will at least get them the Lexus and employment in an air-conditioned environment. Methods designed to stimulate students to do better, and be more involved with their studies, rarely address this worship of Mammon; or what I have termed in an essay published in 2010, the religion of the urban cool.

Though the dominant educational systems and theories sought, and today still seek to conceal the matter, sociality and spiritual self-realization are relegated to a peripheral status in the learning chain. These two latter affairs, which are intricately related to the human condition—after all we are social beings and when dread knocks on our door are individually seeking to understand the why and what of our existence—are implicitly appraised as mere means to the end of living large and being in charge of others. Everything and everyone is thingified in the hegemony of instrumental rationality (nothing and no one is held sacred—as everything and everyone can be a means). Reading, Writing, Arithmetic are privileged while subjects such as social studies, religion, the arts, history, and sports are viewed as mere fluff (unless someone successfully argues how they can generate lots of revenue).

Since the old game, so to speak, has lost much of its appeal, we need to come up with a new purpose and value system. In doing so we will also need to address and seriously interrogate the lure of instrumental rationality. I would be the last to deny the benefits that this mode of rationality has brought about: electricity, running water, cars, vaccines, computers, space travel, in short, the autonomy and rise of science and technology wrenched from ineffective magic and dogma. Yet our addiction to instrumental rationality has also led to unprecedented destruction of the nonhuman world and human life. Teachers in catholic schools cannot go on unwittingly promoting this gospel of means to an end rationality where value is reduced to an afterthought. To remedy this we will have to render life sacred again; human life, animal life, inanimate life, and the Life Giver—Love which is God which is Love. The subject religion venerating the Life Giver, science and mathematics in combination with the arts investigating and engaging inanimate and animal life, ethics and social studies enculturating and honoring human life in a way that historical wrongs are not perpetuated—would be in dissociable and of equal importance for they would all homage life. And therein student, teacher, manager would be transformed and become transformative forces positively affecting and infecting others.

I trust you understand that in my utopian dream sacralization and creating a new purpose go hand in hand. Education cannot then be solely a means, but must just as importantly be a reminder. In this scheme of things, the school ought to be a place of remembrance and reverence. And therein one memory stands out. The time worn memory which is repeated in these words:

God said; Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God's?

These words of the Catholic Bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, who lived from 335-393, could have come out of the mouth of the first dominated man and woman in the Caribbean (the Native Americans African captives and Asians who were bamboozled or the Irish indentured) who converted to Catholicism in a time when the high officials in the church denied the humanity of darker skinned peoples subjugated by western powers. And it is this that brings us to the multicultural question. To me this question can only be resolved if in social institutions such as catholic schools an ethic is practiced whereby students and teachers and managers can recognize this same cry repeated with a difference among persons who practice other faiths and profess other ideologies. Then all will ideally be able to hear in these words of the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr. a repetition of Gregory of Nyssa rebuttal to the wicked of his day, all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality

Then the absence presence that brings all of life into communication, God will truly be recognized, leading to communion. The transformation within the catholic schools will then pour out to rest of St. Martin. Cultural practices and religious edicts, economic logics, and political strategizing, will then be appraised in terms of whether or not they are true to that memory by Giving Thanks.

Give thanks.


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