You become what you have learnt Ian On Sunday
By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
May 2, 2004

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The debate on improving educational standards never ends. And in this debate I am glad to see it is generally realised that new school buildings and classroom furniture are only a very small part of what matters. Let us consider what is meant by giving a child a good education in the total sense of the word.

Education is important not simply for imparting information about specific subjects but, more importantly, for the passing on of a whole 'culture' of learning, attitudes, and behaviour - a variety of distinct 'languages' of understanding, including self-understanding. As Michael Oakeshott, the English philosopher, writes, "A man is his culture. What he is, he has had to learn to become."

Good teaching initiates the student into an inheritance of human achievements. This inheritance consists of a variety of abilities. Each of these abilities combines 'information' and 'judgement.' When united with specific information, judgement generates knowledge or 'ability' to do, to make, or to understand and explain - it becomes, in the end, the ability to think wisely and compassionately.

What should we look for in the well-educated adult person? What should we expect for our children in the education process from nursery school through university and including what they should learn in the setting of home?

First, you should have enough knowledge of your cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. For us in Guyana and the West Indies the acquisition of such knowledge is not straightforward, and indeed the right balance in imparting such knowledge is still being worked out. This is because there are various closely interwoven strands in our cultural tradition. Those strands neglected in the past - our Amerindian, and in particular our African and Indian heritages - are being given greater prominence as our historians and educators deepen their ability to impart their importance. In the meanwhile the European tradition remains very important and it is unintelligent to see something lamentable about the fact that many of the prominent philosophical, scientific, literary, and intellectual figures in the tradition which still permeates our culture are European, even though the great majority of us are not ourselves European. This is a historical fact whose causes should be explored and understood.

Secondly, the well-educated person needs to know enough about the natural sciences so that he or she is not a complete stranger in this world of computers and high technology. This means at least knowing enough about physics and chemistry to understand how the physical world is constituted. This would include some knowledge of the general and special theories of relativity, and an understanding of why quantum mechanics is so philosophically challenging. At a minimum, also, you should know enough biology to understand the Darwinian revolution and recent developments in genetics and microbiology.

Thirdly, you need to know something about economics - that is you need to know enough about how the world works so that you understand, for example, what a trade cycle is, or how interest rates will affect the value of your currency, or how uncurbed government expenditure leads to that biggest of all frauds in any society, inflation.

Fourthly, you need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature which that language has produced in the original, and so that you can carry on a reasonable conversation in that language. One reason, out of many, why this is important is that you can never understand one language unless you understand at least two.

Fifthly, you need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about formally 'educated' people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and I believe very importantly, a well-educated person needs to acquire the skills of writing and speaking with candour, rigour, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

These are the specifics of a good education through school and university. There are two other requirements which need to be instilled into children so that they can grow into maturity enjoying to the full the marvellous potential of each of their unique lives.

There should be an awareness that the body, in good health and finely tuned, is a source of abounding joy. Such an awareness not only ensures that you appreciate the importance of maintaining physical well-being in yourself, but also opens up the prospect of a lifetime in which the enjoyment of games, either as a player or spectator, provides a pure and immensely fulfilling satisfaction.

Finally, the spiritual must find a secure place in your reckoning of the world and your life. This does not, should not, involve dogmatic religion which leads to fanaticism, the cultivation of competing hatreds, and communal strife. It does mean accepting that there is a dimension in life which will always be beyond the explication of scientists and that in this dimension dwells a presence, a force, a law, a God, call it what you will, which establishes an ultimate morality and gives us all recourse ultimately to the hope that everything we do, and everything the world is, is not meaningless.

All this may seem an Everest-tall order, especially in Guyana where the basic educational system verges on a state of permanent crisis. But it should not be considered out of reach. No parent should want less for his or her child. Even in the worst of times our educators should never lose sight of the ideal of the well-educated person which is the right of all citizens. And all of us, as parents, must do our part to give substance to that ideal in the lives of each of our children.