What is a good education? Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
December 16, 2001

It is unanimously agreed that a nation will make little progress if it lacks a sound educational system and if it fails to provide sufficient funds to improve educational facilities. Finance Ministers in every country stress the point when budget time comes around. Every UNDP report emphasizes the link between improving education and accelerating development. (Those reports, by the way, do not suggest what is to be done when a poor country makes a supreme effort to improve education only to have rich countries snatch away the trained educators and the best educated emerging out of this supreme effort).

But what is a good education? It is certainly not cramming unassimilated facts into untrained minds. It is certainly not forcing the children through those cramming factories which churn out "extra lessons." A good education begins with encouraging the young child to love reading and comprehend what is being read and teaching him or her to write clear English and calculate with numbers. It proceeds by enlisting the interest and imagination of the growing student in a variety of subjects from which he or she will gradually come to choose the one or two which better suits his or her liking and talents. At University a good education should reach its formal end by stretching, developing, provoking and strengthening the intellect so that the mysteries and challenges of an adult career and life can best be understood and mastered.

Interwoven in the education of the growing child must be awareness of the moral grounds of life. Virtue and values do not reside in the intellect. This is a larger subject that can be dealt with in this column but to get a sense of the matter let me quote from a speech given by a friend, Dr Ralph Thompson, poet and a leading private sector industrialist in Jamaica, at a symposium on education on October 11th, 2000. "Given the advances in technology, I have to ask myself is my greatest need as a business for computer programmers, research scientists and industrial engineers? Or did the greatest shocks and setbacks occur when a highly paid and competent financial controller was caught embezzling the company, when a purchasing officer was found taking "kick-backs" from suppliers, when a director used insider information to trade in the shares of his company quoted on the stock exchange, when a union officer promoted class warfare and workers did not have sufficient background in logic or economics to distinguish between truth and self-serving propaganda and went on strike for three weeks."

To return to the learning process, it starts best with a love of reading. Non-readers, who will naturally be non-writers, suffer a tremendous handicap since the capacity to internalise any subject increases or diminishes to the extent that a person can or cannot express himself or herself clearly. At the opening last month of the Book Foundation's admirable and well-organised Book Fair, the first in Guyana's history, I said the following which I deeply believe: "If one had the power to give a child a single gift and no other, the gift to choose would be a love of reading. That is a gift which incomparably combines immense usefulness with life-long access to intellectual stimulation, emotional delights, spiritual inspiration and unceasing entertainment. The usefulness comes in the huge head start a love of reading gives a child in his or her education. A child who loves reading is going to learn faster and better than his or her peers who do not and is going to be able to retain and organize and express what is learnt much more usefully and with infinitely more effect than those whose minds are closed to books. I guarantee - all the top students in Common Entrance, CXC and Advanced Level examinations and at University are constant readers and love books."

By the time the young man or woman reaches university the mind should be ready to be stretched and sharpened, its capacity rigorously and variously tested. The university must be the guardian of intellectual life. Noel Annan, Provost of Kings College, Cambridge, and later Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, provides a definition of the university's function which I like:

"They exist to cultivate the intellect. Everything else is secondary. Equality of opportunity to come to the university is secondary. The matters that concern both dons and administrators are secondary. The need to mix classes, nationalities and races together is secondary. The agonies and gaieties of student life are secondary. So are the rules, customs, pay and promotion of the academic staff and their debates on changing the curricula or procuring facilities for research. Even the awakening of a sense of beauty or the life-giving shock of new experience, or the pursuit of goodness itself-all these are secondary to the cultivation, training and exercise of the intellect. Universities should hold up for admiration the intellectual life.

The most precious gift they have to offer is to live and work among books or in laboratories and to enable the young to see those rare scholars who have put on one side the world of material success, both in and outside the university, in order to study with single-minded devotion some topic because that above all seems important to them. A university is dead if the dons cannot in some way communicate to the students the struggle - and the disappointments as well as the triumphs in that struggle -to produce out of the chaos of human experience some grain of order won by the intellect. That is the end to which all the arrangements of the university should be directed."

And at the formal end of the whole experience, after university, on the verge of full maturity, if the education really has been good, the emerging adult will have learnt just about enough to know that he or she has arrived at the very beginning of knowledge and how it is to be applied and understands that learning never ends until the brain dims forever and goes out.