Monday, November 01, 2004

Dan is the man in the van

If me head was bright, I woulda be a damn fool

Sparrow - Dan is the man in the van

That is the title of a 1963 Calypso from the Mighty Sparrow. On first listen you find yourself asking what silly nursery rhyme stuff is Sparrow going on about. With rhymes about Twisty and Twirly, Puss in Boots and Humpty Dumpty you really wonder what possessed a grown man to write music for big people talking about this rubbish.

However on deeper examination one realizes the extent of the social commentary in this song. Sparrow is singing about the education system in Trinidad and indeed the entire Caribbean at that time. Most of the nursery rhymes listed in this song actually come from a books called the West Indian Readers, by British author Capt. J.O Cutteridge, which were used to teach students in the region from about the 1920s to the 1960s. Sparrow is lamenting the use of these books for so long to teach the children of that time. The use of these books indeed to indoctrinate our society with things British which made no really sense to the locals.

KRS-one also takes a similar potshot at urban schools teaching black youth in North America in the 1989 song "You Must Learn" when he raps;

"See Spot run, run get Spot
Insulting to a Black mentality, a Black way of life
Or a jet Black family,"

It is understandable that everything you learn in school cannot relate to your immediate surroundings or culture but in many cases the extent to which what is taught veers away from what the students sees in reality is quite drastic when it doesn't need to be and by not having what is learnt in school enforced in a student's regular daily life it becomes harder for those youth to learn.

A few paragraphs in Cecil Foster memoir Island Wings come to mind. He speaks of doing an exam in Barbados in the 50s or 60s to determine which High school he would go to. The exam questions had been set in Britain and a number were quite unfamiliar to what the students had been learning in school. Luckily, some local teacher however examined the paper, determined it was rather unfair on the kids and gave the students the answers to the questions he deemed culturally biased.

Lets face it most of us do better when we can relate what we are learning to the familiar. It gives us a foundation on which to build. I had one Professor at University continue to use the sport of Curling for his science examples so I tuned out. Now had he been using basketball or cricket I might have aced the course.

Back to Sparrow though. As the above quote says 'If ma head was bright, I woulda be a damn fool'. To Sparrow's mind what were these books really teaching? Was there some hidden agenda to keep all us colonial subjects docile and subservient to the Great Empire by brainwashing our smarter students? After all it is usually easier to maintain subjugation by brainwashing than to fight wars.

Anyway if you can find it, listen to the song's lyrics and see what you think.


Abeni said...

Yesterday after school I was talking with two friends and the topic came around to the Carib Wars.Now,those are a significant part of Vincentian history but largely unknown by the citizens.It makes me realise that there is much more work to be done regarding teaching of things that is relevant to us.

Anonymous said...

This song is excellent commentary on the school system then. Unfortunately too many persons seem to be quite comfortable with this. Today when one talks about Caribbean history and wanting to discuss these isssues from a Caribbean perspective, few persons are interested. As a history teacher it is a challenge when students first come to my class as they are upset that they have to learn about history. What is shocking to me is that it is our history yet we do not want to know it. Is it any wonder we repeat the same mistakes and have so little sence of our individuality and identity as a people?