By DIANE PHILLIPS
Remember when you were little and everyone asked if you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up? You looked at them feigning respect and thinking what kind of idiot is this tall person in front of me? I’m six - my idea of the future is dinner! But as that six-year-old got older, the expectation that she would set goals became more ingrained. We grow up and long before there was such a thing as a bucket list, we were expected to set goals. What we want to be. Who we want to be. Eventually where we want to be. Even how many children we want to have.
If we as individuals are expected to set goals, should not the country we’re part of set goals as well? When did we forget as a nation to plan where we want to be 20 years from now and beyond? We talk vision but I fear we wander, meander along the path, dealing with the day-to-day, taking care of the urgent, ignoring the plan that takes us through the few decades from now when we should emerge as a mature society. That is what the National Development Plan was supposed to do, wasn’t it? On what shelf does it sit now?
What got me thinking about this was a remarkable story on MSNBC this week by Rehema Ellis, the NBC and MSNBC education reporter. She travelled to Finland to see what it had done to make it number one in education worldwide. Globally, Finland ranks in the top five in Science and Math. Dropping out of school is as rare as stockings that don’t run. The national drop-out rate is two percent. The US drop-out rate - freshmen who begin high school but do not finish- is 25 percent. The drop-out rate in The Bahamas is 50 percent. Half of all high school students leave without completing. The percentage of those who do complete and can pass a literacy exam or accurately and independently complete a job application is even lower.
Except for the weather, similarities between Finland and The Bahamas are striking. Like The Bahamas, Finland with a population of over five million is still considered a small society. Like The Bahamas, it is not at the heart of a major continent, but on the periphery and its economy, during the decades it was dependent upon agriculture, was inexorably tied to outside forces and conditions. Just over 100 years ago, the country that now leads the world in education was considered a developing nation.
What did Finland do that made it the world leader in education, creating a system so far ahead of us it leaves us sinking in its cold winter snow? It is very simple really. Finland, as a country, as a people united with a dream, set a goal. Farming, its main economic engine, was seriously on the decline. Although vast sections of terrain were still dedicated to agriculture, productivity was continually slipping. And its education system, originally built to support that industry, was not serving up new graduates equipped for a more modern world. It was a country in economic struggle and it decided to find a new future.
If countries could snap their fingers and say “This is what we are going to do”, Finland’s finger snap could have been heard by the hearing-impaired round the globe. It was so pronounced it outperformed the unmistakable Bahamian wrist-snap-snap. That little country up top of the world near Norway and Russia and other places - where Bahamians would borrow long johns on a summer’s day - decided if farming wasn’t working so well anymore, it would re-make itself as a tech giant.
That may sound easy. It was not. Just as Grand Bahama or anywhere else in The Bahamas that wants to position itself as a tech hub must do, Finland had to prepare. There was the infrastructure, reliable and consistent power supply and all the requisite incentives and provisos. But most importantly, what it needed was people who were trained to fill the jobs that would flow as a result of the makeover, the new Finland. And to that end, they made education the number one priority.
Other matters had to take a temporary back seat. The school system became Finland’s winning quarterback, its knight in shining armour, its royalty and it generated such respect and loyalty most citizens do not remember a time before learning became cooler than cool. Every classroom has three teachers, two to teach the subjects, one to roam throughout and help a student or students who might be struggling with a problem.
Finland did what it did and it became a tech hub because it set a goal and marched toward it. We set short-term goals and constantly move the goalposts. Imagine a football team on the field without goalposts. They’d just be well-built men in tight pants running around throwing and kicking and passing and not sure who’s winning. (Come to think of it, that’s not an entirely offensive picture.) A game without goalposts is like a grocery shopping without a list. You never know what you are going to get. When I go to the store with a list, unless the store is out of something, chances are I am going to return with pretty much what I intended to return with. Leave the list at home and I’m likely to spend twice as much and return with two thirds of what I need.
Google goals’ – why not, we google everything else – and all the words about driver and engine and fuel come up. But my favourite was from the Code of Living, whatever that is, that defines goals as the oxygen to our dreams. The oxygen to our dreams. That’s a pretty good line, not as good as the best line of the week which came from the Jodi Picoult novel Songs of the Humpback Whales. The character defined the impossible (trying to figure out how his wife thinks) as “like putting a leash on a butterfly and taking it for a walk”.
We are not talking about walking a butterfly. We are simply talking about the realm of possibility when a group or a team or a nation establishes a dream, agrees a goal and goes about achieving it, pouring strategy and resources into making it come true.
Had we agreed that our historic buildings were worth saving, we would not have witnessed the tragic collapse this week of the original Pan Am Headquarters on East Bay Street just west of the bridge. Had we valued our historic structures, we would not have allowed the Water Tower with its amazing views of every vista of the island, to deteriorate to such a point that it has been closed for more than a decade. Had we cared more for our publicly-owned larger buildings, we would not be planning imploding or demolishing four of them. Had we taken better care of equipment and supplies at PMH, the Minister of Health would not be announcing cancellations of surgery due to lack of air conditioning.
Most importantly, had we made education a national priority we might actually be ready to be the tech hub we want to be. Or we could create a medical education campus and prepare for what The Bahamas is truly suited to be in addition to a sports tourism haven – the capital of offshore medicine close to the US and basking in the sun. Ideal for further stem cell research and application, senior assisted living, surgical care, extended hospital stays, oncology treatment, transplants. The possibilities are endless, especially if the founders of such a broad facility partnered with key providers and created the ultimate public-private partnership for health care.
A whole new way to look at The Bahamas, but then it takes a goal. Without it, you never know what you are going to get.