The History of Formal Education: From Ginen to Haiti
The Haitian people have thirsted for formal education “depi lan Ginen.” In the northern part of Ginen Africa, formal education took place at universities built in some of the Muslim influenced regions. In many parts of Ginen, formal education was controlled by Hougans who taught their initiates reading and writing in a style that became known as vèvè in Haiti. This teaching was largely restricted to various religious organizations. By the 1500’s, the noble class of the Kongo attended schools thought by Catholic Capuchin priests from Portugal. The most famous of these Kongolese schools was Lenba, a word that means tranquil and that survived in Haiti as another name for the peace loving Kongolese King, Don Petwo IV. There was a school in every district of the Kongo and Portuguese was used as the main language of instruction. Portuguese also became the language used by the Kongo Kingdom for international commerce. Kongolese people arriving in Haiti were accustomed to having their state officials use a language that was spoken by very few of their citizens.
In Haiti, the practice of using a foreign tongue to handle official affairs continued with the adoption of French as the official language and as the language of instruction. In Dahomey, rather than use a foreign written language as the official language, Kadya Bosou who ruled from 1708 to 1724 was inspired by the Roman alphabet to create his own alphabet for the writing of the Guedevi-Dahomean language.
Formal schooling in Haiti began when the Spanish Queen Isabella decreed that Taino leaders and their children be converted to Christianity and be taught to speak and to write Spanish and Latin. From the onset of formal education on the island, the local culture and its religion were not part of the curriculum. The education ordered by Queen Isabella was to be conducted by Catholic priests whose primary goal was to convert the Tainos to European Christian beliefs. Initially, these priests tutored people privately and were given a monopoly on education. Later, in 1528, Father Ramirez de Fuentes opened the island’s first school. That same year, the University, Santo Tomás de Aquino, opened on the eastern part of the territory and for over 250 years, it remained the only university on the island.
Before independence, nearly all the Africans living in Haiti could not attend school. The French ruled Haiti for over 100 years and during that time they built not one university. People of European descent who wanted to pursue their education had to travel to France for secondary and for university level studies. This option was not available to Africans and to their descendants who were enslaved.
After the French took the western side of the island, it became common practice for priests as well as for secular people to privately tutor students. The involvement of non-priests in education frustrated the Church and in 1717, the French enacted a law to ensure that only Catholic priests could be teachers. Following this law, the Sisters of the Company of Jesus were given permission to open a school for European girls. In 1743, the school also accepted people of African and European parents. In 1780, the school went further and admitted free African girls, but that resulted in the European students fleeing the school. About 200 years later, the United States would experience similar events during the Civil Rights era. In 1792, Sontonax closed the school. By that time the school had about 400 students of African descent.
In general, under French rule, there were few elementary schools in Haiti. Most formal teaching occurred at home and by private tutors. For the most part, the French government denied formal education to the African population of Haiti. The few schools that did operate in the territory were all run by the Catholic Church. It is largely because of this precedent that the Haitian government later paid the Catholic Church to run its public schools. The Haitian government hoped that by subjecting itself to the Church’s will, the country would gain favor with the powerful Christian countries that isolated Haiti because it abolished slavery.
In an attempt to stop the revolutionary movement that began in 1791, the French promised to build schools in Haiti. They built the National School in Cape Haitian. Nonetheless, by 1804, this school had closed and there were no schools operating in the country. Following independence, the Haitian government made great efforts to make schools available. Dessalines’ constitution of 1805, called for the building of one school per military district. Later, Christophe was able to secure help from two European British abolitionists and from one African American. He opened several English schools in the north. Lacking sufficient teachers, he adopted a strategy that was in use in England where a teacher would teach a lesson to a group of students and these students would than teach a class the same lesson. Part of the school curriculum involved learning surgery and this led to the beginning of the country’s first medical school.
From zero students enrolled in school in 1804, enrollment increased to 10,000 students by 1860. The building of schools and the provision of textbooks by the government took a setback when the French demanded from Haiti an indemnity for property it lost on the island during the Haitian Revolution. To pay this indemnity, Haiti slowed the rate of building schools and even closed some schools altogether including the one university on the eastern part of the island. In 1848, President Soulouque built many new schools and required that they be built on large parcels of land so that the students could grow their own food and learn agriculture as part of their curriculum. These schools were called Lekòl Fèm (Farming Schools). One was built in Pestel.
In 1860, President Geffrard appointed Elie Dubois as the country’s first minister of education and Dubois increased the number of schools from 119 to 229. He also dramatically increased the number of girls enrolled in schools. In his honor an all-girl school in Port-au-Prince now carries his name. Among the newly built schools were many vocational schools. By 1898, the Haitian government had organized the elementary and secondary schools to reflect the school grade system used in France. The entry grade was 7tyèm and the last grade was philosophy. As with many things seemingly French in Haiti, the school system was not built by the French. It was built on a French model by Haitians who had become familiar with French culture through their travels in Europe.
Haitian efforts to provide quality education to the population was impaired not only by the French indemnity but also by an embargo that made recruiting teachers nearly impossible. Additionally, the effort to provide formal education and various academic career options to the population has been constantly compromised by the inability of the government to keep pace with the ever rapidly growing population. In 1850, the Haitian population was only 500,000 (less than half of the current population of Carrefour). Today it is 10 million. Out of a population of approximately 4 million school age children, only 50% are enrolled in schools.
The long standing Haitian appetite for education was a key educational issue in the 2011 presidential elections. The insatiable thirst for knowledge allows many people in Haiti to be exploited by providers of substandard education in schools where education only occurs by chance. These substandard schools are called “lekòl bolèt.” Whenever a person calls a place a school, Haitian people flood it. This problem persists even at the university level. There are several universities in Haiti and most of them are not certified by the state. The universities that are accredited have access to additional funds by participating in the Francophone league of schools. This membership allows France to maintain influence on Haitian higher education and to promote French culture, religion and language.
In keeping with the structure first established on the island by Queen Isabella, nowadays, over 90% of Haitian schools are run by Christian foreign organizations. One important difference is that over time, the Catholic Church has lost influence to the Protestant Churches who now educate and evangelize 50% of Haitian children enrolled in schools.
The African American Anglican church was the first Christian Church to return to Haiti after the end of slavery. Its growth in Haiti was facilitated by Boyer’s government which made the once common practice of stoning Protestants illegal. The Protestant Churches became a serious challenge to the Catholic official monopoly on education after the American invasion in 1915. The US is predominantly a Protestant country and it facilitated the introduction of its churches to Haiti. Today, the US is Haiti’s most important trading partner and this makes the rich US Protestant churches a formidable force in Haitian education and religious life. As a result of this history, education in Haiti is widely controlled by Christian organizations. Since this religion originated in the Middle East and evolved in Europe, today Haitian students are taught European and Middle Eastern history and religion. Haitian culture and Traditional Faith as well as African history are not taught in Haitian schools but are instead demonized. Haitian students know about the walls of Jericho while few know about the walls of Zimbabwe. They know about the river Jordan while few know about the river Kongo. In other words, they know other people’s history and not their own. This is largely due to a school system that is largely foreign operated.
Despite its shortcoming, there are some important achievements in Haitian education since Haiti’s independence. Among people older than 13, the illiteracy rate has been reduced from nearly 100% to now 43%. This is a remarkable achievement, considering the hurdles that Haiti had to traverse. Nonetheless, Haiti needs to do more, particularly because it has the largest percentage of illiteracy in the Americas. History teaches us that our fore-parents decreased the illiteracy rate by 57 percentage points. It is up to us to eliminate the last 43%. While President Martelly has promised to provide education to all school age children, he has not addressed the necessity for curriculum reform. We hope that he is sensitive to the need to have more science and more Haitian history and culture taught in Haiti’s schools. Haitian schools need to produce citizens capable of addressing Haiti’s problems and of competing in the global economy. The task to make Haitian schools Haitian has fallen upon our generation. While recognizing the accomplishments of our fore-parents, we know there is much work that remains to be done.