Alissa Trotz is Editor of the In the Diaspora Column

In a letter written in the August 3rd edition of the Stabroek News, ‘One must prize freedom and use it to make proper choices,’ Pastor Darion Comacho offers a number of interesting reflections on the theme of freedom, some of which we will return to in future diaspora columns. One of the points he makes is that we must use freedom to “choose a path of education.” We will leave it to others to respond to Pastor Comacho’s position that education today is “free, unbiased, and most accessible…begging to be embraced”; even the most cursory glance at available statistics, newspaper articles and letters to the editor, most recently in relation to President’s College, suggests that this is by no means a settled issue. This week focuses on the question of
what education means in the broadest sense of the word, and its relationship to freedom.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

Brazilian educator Paolo Freire expressed the view that “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” In a similar vein, our national poet Martin Carter says in his 1980 collection, Poems of Affinity, “Show me a little freedom, different from this.” Thinking about these words in the context of Guyana today, do we want to integrate the younger generation into the logic of a corrupt and morally bankrupt system based on the reproduction of division, suspicion, fear, the impossibility of reconciliation or a viable shared future? Or do we instead want to participate in initiatives that nourish the capacity for critical thinking, for the building of a robust citizenship? This would give meaning to Article 13 of our Constitution which as Justice Roxanne George reminded the class of 2010 in her Convocation address at the University of Guyana, provides “for a right to participate in decision-making and for the need for meaningful consultation in decision-making.”

For me, Walter Rodney stands as an example of the embodiment of Freire’s call to make education the practice of freedom and inclusion. As a teacher, I often tell my university students that they have a choice. They can see higher education as an individual achievement, as a reward because ‘they bright’ and those who didn’t get in ‘less bright or stupid’. This is not to underestimate or ignore what Rodney described as the ‘mental and intellectual discipline’ that is required of all of us, the individual effort that one must aspire to and be rightly proud of, the need to take such studies seriously and apply oneself well. At the same time, when in a letter to his Guyanese high school friend Gordon Rohlehr in the late 1960s, Walter Rodney referred to some of his colleagues at the University of the West Indies as ‘rum-sipping intellectuals’, I believe he was describing those who had chosen to see education as a means of establishing or maintaining social distance between those allegedly ‘more able and less able.’ A good example can be found in those persons who always feel obliged to list all the various letters they have earned behind their name – and get vexed if you leave the list incomplete – to impress audiences that they have somehow arrived or that whatever they say must be right or the final word on the matter. Arrogance rather than humility is the road taken here. Such a choice denies or negates the labour and struggles of those who made that education possible, through pretending those of us with university credentials stand alone, when really we stand on the shoulders of so many. Walter Rodney understood that his studies were paid for by his parent’s generation, by working people whose sacrifices would be recognized by his accomplishment.

In a short piece titled “The Birth of the Guyanese Working Class and the First Sugar Strikes 1840/41 and 1847,” he talked about the post-emancipation decision by ex-slaves to withdraw children from estate labour and to emphasise the need for them to go to school, in a move that directly conflicted with the imperatives of the plantation.

Education, then, is not a gift but a right, one that directly comes out of the struggles of our ancestors. It is also, however, a site of profound contradiction. I grew up in Guyana in a household that included my great-grandparents, who lived with us until I was about fifteen years old. My memory of my great-grandfather was of a highly educated man, very strict but always involved in our upbringing (in fact, I don’t remember ever seeing him smile or laugh but I know with certainty that he surrounded us with love). My mother tells us that when she was a child, granddad would have her stand before him and read aloud sections of the newspaper every day. He was a voracious reader, always to be found with a newspaper or book in his hand, or playing crosswords, and reminding us of homework to be done.

After he moved to the US in the final years of his life to join other members of our family, he would regularly write us, in precise and impeccable script. But there is so much that I now realize that we did not know. In the final weeks of his life, a family member was taking my grandfather to a Brooklyn hospital, a one-way trip from which he would not return, when to our complete surprise my grandfather, made frail by illness and age (he was in his nineties) began conversing in fluent Hindi with the taxi driver. I have since learned that granddad was mostly self-taught, that he likely did not even complete high school, that before he joined his small family business in Georgetown, he worked as a government clerk, one who would occasionally be called to the courts when translation between Hindi and English was required.  Thinking about all this now, I think about the worlds my grandfather inhabited, born in the late nineteenth century as a descendant of indentured labourers, someone for whom acquiring an education was everything, but also living in a context in which he would likely have had to convert to Christianity in order to secure a government position, where his ability to speak Hindi was a useful skill but to be truly educated and civilized one’s command of standard English was the only acceptable passport.  It makes me wonder what parts of himself did my grandfather have to suppress? Does education always have to exact such a price? I was too young then to ask those questions, but even if I were not I am not sure he would have answered them, as he was a private and very proud man.

After he died, my brother reminded me that my great-grandmother packed up and threw out his things, which included all of the notebooks and scraps of paper that granddad had meticulously recorded his observations on. As a child I remember that he had bundles of notes scribbled to himself on pieces of paper and tied together with elastic bands, which he would keep in several places, including in the pockets of his clothes.

What clues had he left behind that are forever lost to us? What would he think of what I have written here today, and would he recognize himself in any of it?

To seriously consider this history, and the contradictions embodied in my great-grandfather’s experience, requires us to radically revisit how we might approach education. In Walter Rodney Speaks, Rodney reflected on what he had learned from his childhood years attending PPP meetings and distributing booklets to households, on what this taught him about class and other forms of privilege and the role of the school system in upholding that:

These were our people expressing themselves in a way that they certainly weren’t taught in secondary school. Because I knew from my little experience, and I moved on into secondary school shortly after, that the schools were very hostile to this kind of manifestation.

Secondary schools weren’t about training people to express themselves for the people…

In this model we are a community of learners, whether formally schooled or not. It was not in school that Rodney would learn what drove his intellectual and political life, the way he walked in this world, and that is the belief in self-emancipation. His experience, observation and study of history allowed him to insist that, “I feel that I had a grasp and a confidence that our people have the capacity to deal with their own situation, and that has not changed in me since.”   Here we not only see a radical revision of the unthinking distinctions we make between learners and teachers, we also see a non-negotiable point of departure, one that insists we begin with and by looking at the interests of working peoples, precisely where the movement is that will produce the transformative changes we need.

What is this education for, and to whom do we answer? In other words, Walter Rodney did not shirk the social responsibility that this recognition required. Will we?