When stone masons were architects, artists engineers and poets politicians.

A recent comment on Dominica News on Line posed the question: are we becoming an Academic Elitist Society. I share the writer’s concern for in my experience we loose rather than gain from an overload of academic qualifications and specialization.

As we haven’t yet quite reached the dubious distinction of a “graduate in every home” and as 15% of West Indians are – like me – dyslexic, my own slant on the academic vs the practical may be relevant. Academic qualifications have a place in the overall scheme of things. We do need highly qualified doctors, lawyers and accountants. But at the same time we need skilled artisans and the current imbalance may be one reason why we are not moving forward as we should.

Whereas it is the norm for academic subjects to be encouraged from a very early age, skills, with the exception of sports, receive virtually no attention at all. The artisan relies on the coordination between hand and eye and for this to develop it must be practiced from an early age.

Five hundred years ago, at the age of twelve, Michelangelo was considered too old to begin learning the trade of a sculptor. Leonardo da Vinci served his apprenticeship as a painter and had no formal schooling in architecture, science and engineering. Thomas Telford, the godfather of civil engineering, was raised in poverty and at the age of thirteen began his apprenticeship as a stone mason. Andrew Marvell, the most lyrical of all 17th century poets, was a politician.

Our means of recognizing and measuring intelligence is flawed. Examinations cannot measure creativity and innovative thinking. Such attributes are not on the set answer sheet. Neither can they measure manual dexterity. The skilled carpenter’s eye is his gauge to measure beauty by.

One Dominican that I would rank in the realms of genius did poorly at school and you won’t find him behind an office desk or sat on a committee. Yet companies and government departments with a score of graduates on their pay roll depend on his knowledge and skills when their equipment breaks down.

Sixty-five years ago I failed miserably the Eleven Plus – the UK forerunner of our Common Entrance Examination. Yet in the same year I designed and built a model aircraft that could fly the length of a football field. Needless to say, that achievement counted for naught.

The school that I was sent to was labeled, “sink secondary modern”, meaning failing. Many years later, when my engineering studies put me alongside ex-grammar school students, I realized that my “sink” school had better prepared me for my life’s work than theirs had. At my school the boys had a fully equipped wood and metal workshop and the girls, a sewing room and kitchen. We had an art room and music room and inspirational, non graduate teachers. All of the subjects were compulsory. Many of my classmates became high achievers in diverse fields. And that was from what were perceived to be failing pupils and a failing school.

Incidentally, I honed my skills as an artist, not at college, but on the pavements of France with a wife and nine month old baby in tow.

Granted, here in Dominica, we have made some attempt to include non-academic subjects in school syllabuses but at all levels we fall far short of a balance between the practical and theoretical. As one headmistress told me when I was offering free Saturday morning classes for students with an interest in art: my girls do not have time for that sort of thing. And most parents have a similar mind set. Thus, Dominica falls short of its human resource potential.

The illustration is taken from my book “Caribbean Sketches”