Contamination by Excellence

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
May 23, 1999


The list is long in Guyana of problems needing solution and the list isn't shortening. However, top problem in my personal list remains the state of education in the country. Schools are shamefully under equipped: in a computer age we hardly possess enough abacuses to go half-way round. Teachers remain grossly underpaid and young people are not taking up teaching as a long-term profession. Private lessons are widely considered as a substitute for the classroom. Sport no longer holds an essential place in the educational system. Parents who can hardly afford it are digging deep into depleted pockets to supplement their children's "free" education.

But the deepest problem in our educational system is something other than all of these - and it is a problem which we need to appreciate if our children are not to be left hopelessly behind in the 21st century. The problem involves the fundamental purpose we should have in mind in educating a child for the complicated, eternally changing, infinitely challenging world he or she will inherit.

It is not enough simply to cram facts into students: words about words - hardly anything about the intricate tapestry of meaning which lies behind mere words repeated over and over again. Standardised, memorised knowledge is hollow knowledge, a shell without the life of true learning. Rote learning drains away all that is valuable in knowledge: the inventive soul, the habit of seeking better ways to do anything, the impulse to discover the deepest wells of thought and understanding. Richard Feynman, the great American scientist, Nobel Prize winner for his work in quantum electrodynamics, has instructed us how we should approach science in our schools:

"Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgements can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud and from show."

Feynman was a scientist so he spoke about science. But his advice is just as applicable to all the subjects in the curriculum of any school.

The evidence is that our children in their vital formative years are being subjected to an educational regime which is hopelessly unsuited to preparing them for the accelerating challenges that lie ahead in this world. Day after day we cram them with stalely repeated information ordained year after year by tired examiners going through the motions in an impoverished and infinitely slow-moving system. Words about words about words,repeated again and again, remain just that: inert, stultifying, lacking the life and magic of how the real world works, giving little clue how to unravel the subtle mysteries of what men seek to know and need to understand.

There is a marvellous passage in George Steiner's book Errata in which he describes his experience at the University of Chicago. Here he gives us an insight into education at its most profound level.

"A worthwhile university or college is quite simply one in which the student is brought into personal contact with, is made vulnerable to, the aura and the threat of the first-class. In the most direct sense, this is a matter of proximity, of sight and hearing. The institution, particularly in the humanities, should not be too large. The scholar, the significant teacher ought to be readily visible. We cross his or her daily path. The consequence, as in the Periclean polis, in medieval Bologna or nineteenth-century Tubingen, is one of implosive and cumulative contamination. The whole is energised beyond its eminent parts. By unforced contiguity, the student, the young researcher, will (or should be) infected. He will catch the scent of the real thing. I resort to sensory terms because the impact can be physical. Thinkers, the erudite, mathematicians or theoretical and natural scientists are beings possessed. They are in the grip of mastering unreason.

What could, by the lights of the utilitarian or hedonistic commonwealth, be more irrational, more against the grain of common sense, than to devote one's existence to, say, the conservation and classification of archaic Chinese bronzes, to the solution of Fermat's last theorem, to the comparative syntax of Altaic languages (many now defunct), or to hair's-breadth nuances in modal logic? The requisite abstentions from distraction, the imperative labours, the tightening of nerve and brain to a constancy and pitch far beyond the ordinary, entail a pathological stress. The 'mad professor' is the caricature, as ancient as Thales falling into the well, of a certain truth.

In the critical mass of a successful academic community, the orbits of individual obsessions will cross and re-cross. Once he has collided with them, the student will forget neither their luminosity nor their menace to complacency. This need not be (though it may be) a spur to imitation. The student may well come to reject the discipline in question, the ideology proposed.

He or she may head, with relief, towards an altogether mundane, middling way of life. He or she may fail to take in the best of what is being taught or the philosophic-scientific debates around him or her. More often than not, he or she may feel threatened by the mental powers, by the celebrity, be it hermetic or far-flung, of the masters. Almost unconsciously, excellence bullies.

No matter. Once a young man or woman has been exposed to the virus of the absolute, once she or he has seen, heard, 'smelt' the fever in those who hunt after disinterested truth, something of the afterglow will persist. For the remainder of their, perhaps, quite normal, albeit undistinguished careers and private lives, such men and women will be equipped with some safeguard against emptiness."

It is no doubt impractical to expect our educational system in its present parlous state to expose students very often or very much to contamination by excellence. But as best we can, for the sake of the children, we must never lose sight of the ideal, however distant and glimmering it may be.


A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples