From ‘dunce’ to liberation: Jamaica’s educational paradox

One of the Dunce knapsacks popular among high school students

When school doors were flung open to welcome students for the 2023/24 academic year in Jamaica, a disturbing trend emerged. Youngsters sporting bags branded with the word ‘Dunce’ strode into classrooms. While it’s easy to lay blame on dancehall artistes like Valiant, who have popularised this anti-education sentiment, the roots of this ‘dunce’ culture are deeply embedded in the education system itself – a system that has long been labelling struggling students, including those with undiagnosed learning disabilities, as ‘dunce’.

Jamaica’s youth are already ensnared in a complex web of violent crime and further entangled by an education system that promotes disdain for learning. A quarter of the population languishes below the poverty line, with an alarmingly high number of post-high-school youth stuck in cycles of violence, either as perpetrator or victim. In a landscape where Paulo Freire’s ideals of liberation through education should reign supreme, the system’s hypocrisy and the recent wave of ‘dunce’ culture stand in stark contradiction.

However, the reality is far more nuanced. Some young Jamaicans, ambitious and ‘bright’, may choose to wear these ‘Dunce’ bags as a fashion statement, complicating the straightforward narrative of educational disdain. Moreover, there may be a sentiment among many Jamaicans that this trend symbolises a rejection of mediocrity and a lack of ambition, attributes that they believe the current education system perpetuates. This isn’t merely a failure of culture; it’s a glaring indictment of an education system that is desperately in need of self-critique and transformative action.

Bob Marley’s timeless verse echoes Marcus Garvey’s urgent decree that “for though others may free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”. Yet, herein lies an ethical quagmire. Renowned economist Sir Arthur Lewis grappled with the paradox of an ‘unlimited supply of labour’ coexisting with stunted economic growth, a dilemma our educational system must also address. The transformation of ‘bodies’ into an empowered workforce is an indispensable part of the equation.

As we traverse the contours of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, thinkers like Alan Kay, whose groundbreaking work laid the foundation for modern computing, insist that we are co-creating our future in real-time. Our educational system stands at a critical juncture, besieged not only by traditional issues of access and quality but also by new challenges like technological literacy and adaptability. It’s a system, as a body so to speak, grappling profoundly with both its ‘corporeal’ limitations – such as inadequate infrastructure and outdated resources – and its ‘mental’ constraints, like outdated curricula and teaching methods that don’t prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly evolving world.

Frantz Fanon declared that ‘each generation must discover its mission, or betray it’. In a society drowning in disparate voices, our generation’s mission couldn’t be clearer: to reimagine an educational system that serves as a true catalyst for social and economic transformation. Our ‘collective challenge’, then, is not merely to sift through opinions but to unearth transformative solutions.

This isn’t just about raising test scores or modifying curricula. It’s about establishing an educational environment that demolishes socioeconomic barriers, curtails violent crime, and eradicates the educational hypocrisy that has given rise to the divisive ‘Dunce’ culture. As we confront these labels and limitations, let’s navigate toward a liberated, co-created future—for our children and their children’s children.

Othneil Blackwood is a military officer in the Jamaica Defence Force who is pursuing his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He is the Marcus Garvey Public Sector Inaugural Scholar, a Trinity Hall Bateman Scholar, a Postgraduate Studentship Awardee, and a Cambridge Trust Scholar.

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  1. “Some young Jamaicans, ambitious and ‘bright’, may choose to wear these ‘Dunce’ bags as a fashion statement, complicating the straightforward narrative of educational disdain.” Yes, you are quite right, as some teachers were on the cusp of sporting their DUNCE bags to school had the Principal not divinely intervened. It gets even worse, the minister of education told schools that they should not turned away students who sport the particular apparel to schools .She must have had her dunce bag plus the dunce cap too. No bright ambitious and self-respecting persons would wear such a label, only the followers of the Middle Age High Scholasticism Philosopher John Duns Scotus. (1266–1308).who were called “dunce” (without the negative stigma.) Most of all, no ambitious and ‘bright’ and self-respecting black person anywhere else in the civilized world would wear such a bag. considering the epistemic social and racial stigma that the shibboleth “Dunce” hold for black Jamaican students. I dare say that Jamaica is the only society in the world where the “bright” people are led by the ” dunce” and the degenerates. Paradoxically, any teachers, students, nurses, doctors, preachers, etc. who support a noisy, vulgar, run-down and unpunctual transportation system like ours for so long, must by some great act of psychological conditioning be a collective of Dunce Bats.

  2. Wow!!! My little cuz you’re amazing. It’s good to know and recognised why learning was not just about kid’s that was know as stupid but also had problems grasping things.

    Thank you It’s later for many of us but not the young one’s.

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