What Lessons Can the U.S. Learn from an Island in the Caribbean?

The island is Barbados. And the issue is a moral and ethical one: black/white racial harmony.

I joined academia after a career in business because I wanted to give back by doing something to improve the educational landscape in the U.S. As President of Woodbury University in Southern California, I am proud to say that that one of our core values since our founding in 1884 has been gender and racial equity. The key difference between little Barbados and the U.S. is tolerance and respect between black and white. And what has been the secret recipe? I would argue it is education.

According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults, or 14 percent of the population, cannot read. Shockingly, 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read at all. By comparison, a recent report by the Commonwealth Network states, “there is virtually no illiteracy among people age 15-24” in Barbados. Thus, the fundamental question: How can we have a truly working democracy in the U.S. when many people cannot read, have not assimilated the lessons of world history, and cannot think critically and unemotionally about social and moral issues like racial hatred?

I was privileged to attend the equivalent of a 4th through 12th grade school in Barbados called Lodge School. It was established in 1745. By the time I enrolled in the 1950s, about 80 percent of the students were black and most of the teachers were black. In fact, my doctor and dentist were black and so was my father’s lawyer. Most of the politicians were also black.

By way of historical background, Barbados was a British colony from 1625 until it became an independent country in 1966. It has a population of roughly 280,000 with about 90 percent being of African descent, on an island of only 166 square miles. In many ways, it parallels the history of the American Deep South since its economy was based on slavery and consisted of sugar cane plantations owned by a small, white population, mainly of English descent. Basically, it was a penal colony and a center for the British slave trade. Unlike the U.S., slavery was abolished in 1807 and emancipation occurred over the next 30 years. While considered a “third-world” country, it is a two-party parliamentary democracy and its House of Assembly began meeting in 1639. In fact, Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index has ranked Barbados equal with the United States.

Another lesson we can learn from Barbados is celebration of life. While the key to the island’s stability has been an educated populace, with a strong black middle class and representative government, the “Bajans” have inherited the centuries-old African love of music and dance. Add that the first rum was supposedly distilled in Barbados in the 17th Century and it’s easy to understand the popular belief that, on the island, life is always a party. Perhaps by coincidence, together with Japan it has the world’s highest per capita occurrence of centenarians. But there is also drive, strength and hope, summarized by the almost tri-century Lodge School motto: Possunt Quia Posse Videntur: They can because they think they can.

Woodbury University is a mini-United Nations, with a broadly diverse student body representing more than 40 countries. The university focuses on those principles that are essential to the development of the individual in a knowledge-based economy: ethics, critical thinking, engagement, innovation, and personal transformation in an inclusive, nurturing environment. We are driven to educate future global leaders through experiential learning and character development. We aim to make the world a better place through tolerance and cross-cultural understanding.

The late Dick Gregory helped to break the color line in comedy in the U.S. in the early 1960s. In addition to his biting humor, as a social critic and civil rights activist he cast a bright light on racial injustice and personal responsibility. Among many memorable quotes, I think this one summarizes his perception of the national challenge our nation faces today: “If all you can do is judge a person by their appearance, because you do not have the spirit to judge someone from within, you’re in trouble.”

So, while Barbados may not be perfect in every sense of the word, maybe we can learn a lesson or two from its excellent educational system, its history of compassion and humanity, and the longevity of the people on this little island.

David M. Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.

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