Pilot programme for Portuguese in schools betrays elitism

Dear Editor,

As I skimmed the articles about last week’s National Education Awards ceremony, I repeatedly encountered the trope of inclusivity in the speeches of the Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand, and Prime Minister, Samuel Hinds. Minister Manickchand reproached the opposition leaders for not commending “our Guyanese sons and daughters”, while Prime Minister Hinds emphasized his government’s commitment to “advocate growth from the widest base possible.”

In each delivery, there is an unmistakable invocation of national unity, if not a national identity, and the veracity of these statements seems obvious when we acknowledge the ethnic, gender and geographical heterogeneity of the awardees. If not for discretionary restraint, I could have easily consumed these overtures as distilled truths, as reflective of national inclusion and representativeness. But education in Guyana is hardly the “equalizer of the conditions of men”, and even as the National Awards ceremony honoured students from different regions of the country, the Ministry of Education is pursuing a foreign language pilot which promises to marginalize some of these very students.

The details shared about Guyana’s impending secondary schools’ Portuguese curriculum leave me amused, if not disconcerted, especially in light of these recent sentiments of non-discriminatory and just delivery of education. Foremost, this foreign language initiative perceives the diplomatic and economic advantages of engaging a burgeoning economic hegemony such as Brazil. In this regard, I laud the discernment of the Minister of Education and her educational planners. As to why the five schools piloting this project all exist in Georgetown, however, reminds me of structural policies of the state which calculatedly neglect people of certain regions of this country.

Certain anxieties, expenses and privations might have evaporated when Berbicians were finally able to access a university education at Tain, but they surely share the vexations of Essequibians every time they need to get their passport renewed. In other words, they know what it means to be country folk who must undertake inevitable pilgrimages to the capital city if they expect to be functional citizens.

Few people go as far as to declare that geographically, Guyana has first and second class citizens, but rural folk know otherwise. Politicians generally veil the truth of latent spatial and cultural segregation in this country, because to confront the apparition of provincialism is to cede the myth of equality and inclusiveness. They would much rather employ rhetorical broad strokes of national unity, than peer into the numerous fissures of institutionalized discrimination.

Some are simply more equal than others in this land, and the introduction of the Portuguese curriculum signals that. Historically privileged and favoured schools located in the heart of Georgetown, and all of which have earned a nebulous title of “Senior Secondary Schools,” will form the first cohort for this new language project. From my understanding, students of these schools will be the first beneficiaries of the tutelage of Brazilian exchange teachers, and pedagogical resources developed by the Ministry of Education. By the time the Caribbean Examinations Council deploys its first Portuguese examination, Guyana would have prepared its candidates, except that they are not truly representative of all “Guyanese sons and daughters.” If you will, privileged schools would have received government funding to prepare for this examination, while students of unselected schools would either have to wait their turn, or use private funds to get prepared. Not the most arresting display of inclusiveness.

I understand that economic and logistical constraints can inhibit the scope of projects, but how costly can it be to have Brazilian exchange teachers and Guyanese resources directed to Lethem? If inclusiveness is preeminent for our Minister of Education and Prime Minister, then I can apprehend no reason for denying Lethem students involvement in this project. These are most likely the students with the greatest social investment in learning Portuguese, and the fact that they probably constitute a visible minority means they should be the first recipients of any government declamation of inclusiveness. Minister Manickchand explicates that “Guyana is ready for takeoff,” and I concur wholeheartedly for as long as occluded regions such as Lethem have as much say as Georgetown in the process of knowledge accretion, and social and economic development.

I am yet to see an outcry against the planned implementation of this Portuguese language project, and the compliant silence is scarcely surprising. Generations have lived through institutionalized segregation; we have passively accepted the economic, cultural and intellectual superiority of the capital, which is one reason some of us from rural areas still judge our academic aptitude by acceptance into high schools in Georgetown. Suddenly though that tide has inversed, and top performers appear repeatedly especially from high schools in rural areas—“Junior Secondary Schools.” Intellectual ability debunks the fallacious need of prestige schools, but alas, the institutionalized privileging of the capital and its schools refuses to capitulate. The traditionally venerated schools, regardless of their gradual diminution, receive conventional entitlement by an authority entrusted to educate all equitably. How ironic and tragic.

Minister Manickchand reminded the awardees that “they get to take our country and fashion it in the way [they] would like to see it,” but perhaps unintentionally, she erred by not intimating that structural deficiencies in education will continue to privilege some while marginalizing others.

That the capital will always be the revered metropole, and the rural areas, the periphery. Yet again, confronting the reality of such a spectre is far more indigestible than enunciating varnished rhetoric.

The Zimeena Rasheeds and Yogeeta Persauds deserve to know that as sincerely as the fustian rhetoric may flow that there are discriminatory, structural undercurrents working to discredit their very achievements. Having this knowledge, these potential leaders can help fashion what “Guyana’s tomorrow

looks like”: one that is truly equitable, just and inclusive.

Yours faithfully,
Romain Khan

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