Guyana’s scholars

The Guyanese who earned first-class results in this year’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) exams are living proof, if any were needed, that despite our periodic jeremiads about the brain drain to Everywhere Else, there is no shortage of intelligent people in this country. (There was, for instance, a 100 per cent pass rate among the 798 students who sat for the CAPE exams.) The prominence of Queen’s College among the top performers is also a reminder that at least one school has weathered decades of political, economic and social uncertainty better than might have been expected.

The brief glimpses that this newspaper’s reports give of the top students’ personal lives indicate precocious levels of discipline among a generation that is often said to have been lost to the distractions of modern technology. This should make us wary of the usual complaints about how far standards have fallen. For at least a generation, countless Guyanese émigrés have been surprised at how well their supposedly deficient local primary and secondary school educations prepared them for higher learning in other countries. (This is not to say that there aren’t fundamental problems about the general level of education in this country – and elsewhere in the West Indies – which require urgent solutions, problems that should not be obscured by the success of high achievers.) As with other developing countries, however, our success at the high end of the academic spectrum merely re-emphasizes how hard it is to retain overachievers once foreign academics and prospective employers have had a chance to assess their talents.

With luck, some of these students will have absorbed the soft-spoken patriotism that our best schools can impart. In October 2009, at a well-attended Queen’s College reunion, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine gave a memorable speech about QC’s impact on its students’ subsequent lives. After acknowledging QC’s vestigial Victorian Public School traits, Roopnaraine remarked that it had, nevertheless, “instilled [us] with the sense of responsibility to the traditions to which we were now heirs, traditions of scholarship in the classroom, prowess on the field of sports, and leadership within the group. [A]s the cream of the crop, we were to be trained to take up our rightful place in the middle and upper echelons of the colonial hierarchy.” Sadly, the absence of comparable traditions, and fields of employment, especially after the unsettling mass migration of the middle class during the ’70s and ’80s, has meant that few of our best students have similar enticements after their academic triumphs, except those that can be found abroad.

In his QC address, Dr Roopnaraine cites a remarkable comment that George Lamming once made about Walter Rodney. Lamenting that “the mystique of the educated one has proved to be a mystifying influence on the Guyanese and West Indian masses throughout the process of decolonization,” Lamming suggests that the “supreme distinction of Walter Rodney [was] that he had initiated in his personal and professional life a decisive break with the tradition he had been trained to serve.” Roopnaraine correctly qualifies this insight with the observation that at QC “along with the tradition we were being trained to serve, or even within it, we also extracted … the value and techniques and tools of contestation and critical thinking and, in the best instances, the moral basis of private and public action.” It hardly needs saying that the loss of so many well-rounded citizens has exacted a very heavy toll on this country.

While celebrating the current crop of outliers, we would also do well to remember that serious education extends well beyond the attainment of certificates. The most profound teachers stir the creative imaginations of students, and encourage them to formulate, and answer new, and different, questions. The experience of Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani who recently became first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, at the age of 37, illustrates the character-building that a good education can entail.

Mirzakhani told the Guardian that she “did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.” One of the major failings of contemporary educations, in every country, is the failure to teach the patience and perserverance necessary to master difficult subjects. Once Mirzakhani grasped the beauty of her mathematics, her rise was meteoric. She won the 1994 and 1995 Math Olympiads (the latter with a perfect score), graduated from Harvard and taught at Princeton before being appointed to a full professorship at Stanford.

Looking over the accomplishments of the Guyanese students who have aced their CSEC and CAPE exams, it hardly seems like a stretch to imagine that one of them may well emulate the extraordinary accomplishments of Ms Mirzakhani.