An Act of Faith

(Part Two)

Address by Dr. Harold A. Drayton, on the occasion of the launch of his book, An Accidental Life, University of Guyana, August 24, 2017

To the memory of Walter Rodney and Josh Ramsammy

Editor’s Note: Our thoughts are with the peoples of the region and her diasporas, living through the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, which has powerfully underlined the vulnerability of the Caribbean and low-lying mainland coastal communities. As we begin to mobilise to assist our neighbours in the affected regions and islands, it is imperative that we widen and deepen our conversation about climate change. An article in the online magazine The New Republic cited the environmental group 350.org’s declaration that “we should be naming hurricanes after Exxon and Chevron, not Harvey and Irma,” drawing attention to the need to “hold individual fossil fuel corporations accountable for causing global warming.” For a start, it points to the kinds of silences in Guyana at the moment on these questions in the broader public imagination, and urgently underscores that this is where the discussion about Exxon in our country needs to go.

 

In last week’s column, the reader’s attention was directed in particular, to the increasing disunity, inter-racial strife and violence between the two major ethnic groups within our Guianese polity. We pointed to the limited utility of courses such as Social Biology, in effecting stable behavioural Changes in individual members of human populations.

What was to be done? 1963 was just to make a start with institutional development in Guyana of post-secondary/tertiary education/training. Our government could only afford to allocate to the university project from its Development Fund BWI DOLLARS 338,000, of which ONLY BWI $169.000 (US $101,400) were available for ‘drawdown’ in mid-1963. We could then barely afford to meet the expenses in offering programmes in 3 Faculties-Arts, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences.

When we ask the same kind of question in 2017, more than 50 YEARS after our Foundation year, we find that our Government has allocated $2.9 Billion (Guyana Dollars”) to support UG operations, “and to construct a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teaching learning complex”. Although I would argue strenuously against any attempt to divorce science/maths education from the humanities, that overall level of support for the University by the Government of a poor country like Guyana, cannot be described as “miserly”. Especially so, when UG is no longer restricted to the basic three Faculties of Arts and Sciences; it now has 5 faculties, 5 Schools and 1 Institute.

One would also like to know the progress that has been made thus far with the “repositioning” activities to mobilize additional funds from external sources for UG. At the very core of planning for the development of institutions (including universities) in small poor countries, is always the sobering reality that the costs of any new programme may be prohibitive; and government may find it more economical to send its nationals for training in any particular specialty to a nearby country. The same kind of reasoning would apply to existing programmes. For example, if one finds that over a five year period, 80% of the graduates from a programme, emigrate, should that programme not be discontinued?  In small poor countries, should there not be limits to growth?

In his 1992 literary dialogue with Cardinal Newman’s 150 year classic, The Idea of the University, JAROSLAV PELIKAN jokingly remarks that

One of the most besetting vices of the university, and yet one of its most charming characteristics, has always been its quaint tendency to look inward and ignore the context of the society within which it lives and without which it could not exist.

Newman’s educational philosophy, on the other hand, clearly states its fundamental social and political presupposition: that training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself, best enables him to discharge his duties to society.

But Pelikan emphasizes that Newman’s vision of the university’s duties to society was not merely individualistic. The tenor of all his lectures and discourses, was in anticipation of the intellectual and cultural development that would accrue to his native Ireland as a whole, from investment in the University  in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. He points out too that historians of the Italian Renaissance of the 14’th and 15’th Centuries have shown that it was primarily an urban phenomenon, generated by much interaction among researchers, practitioners, and teachers of the Social Sciences, the Arts, and Human Biology.

What can we identify as the primary feature of our Guyanese context today- not in 1953, nor even in 1955 or 1957?  Surely it is the increasing disunity, inter-racial strife and violence between the two major ethnic groups within our Guianese polity.

In his only foray into African Politics- his seminal Politics in West Africa  in the Whidden Lectures for 1965, Sir W. Arthur Lewis- the first Caribbean-born Nobel Laureate, makes the point that:

Most of the new states created in the twentieth century include people who differ from each other in language or tribe or religion or race; some of these groups live side by side in a long tradition of mutual hostility……French writers use the word ‘cleavage’ to describe a situation where people are mutually antipathetic, not because they disagree on matters of principle, like liberals and socialists or because they have different interests, like capitalists and workers, but simply because they are historical enemies. Cleavage cannot be overcome merely by argument and economic concessions….because it is not based on disputes about principles or interests.

It seems to me quite unnecessary for us to theorize as to whether Guyana is a “plural” society, like those described by Sir Arthur in many of the 20’th Century African States, when the empirical evidence over the past 60 years clearly demonstrates that our two major ethnic groups have increasingly become ‘mutually hostile’ and ‘mutually antipathetic’.

In his monograph, Sir Arthur went on to observe that the ‘democratic problem’ in such societies is “to create political institutions which give all the various groups the opportunity to participate in decision -making, since only thus can they feel that they are full members of a nation, respected by their more/ less numerous brethren.”

Unfortunately, the 1963 Sandys decision to change the electoral system of BG from “first past the post”, as it had been for many decades, to a type of “proportional representation” was made so as to ensure the defeat of one political party and not to institutionalize the processes of extensive popular participation in decision-making.

In that regard, what has been Guyana’s experience since Independence in 1966?  In the four National elections in 1968, 1973, 1980, and 1985 “Victory” went to one Party; and in the five held in 1992, 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2011 to the “other” Party.

And in Guyana’s most recent 2015 elections, the ‘victorious Party’ won 50.3% of votes cast; the ‘losing’ Party 49.2 of votes cast: those differences translated into a one seat difference in the National  Assembly. That was almost the mirror image of the 2011 result.

Especially with such very small differentials what can “victory” really mean??  Sir Arthur takes the argument much further:

In such a society a slogan that the will of the minority should prevail, would make better sense than the slogan that the will of the majority should prevail, but neither slogan is appropriate. It is necessary to get right away from the idea that somebody is to prevail upon somebody else, from politics as a zero-sum game. Words like winning and losing have to be banished from the political vocabulary of a plural society. Group hostility and political warfare are precisely what must be eradicated if the political problem is to be solved; in their place we have to create an atmosphere of mutual toleration and compromise.

In my view, we must first ask the rhetorical question: Who are ‘we’? By far the majority of us- citizens of Guyana- are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of slaves who were involuntary migrants, and of indentured immigrants who came to these shores more or less voluntarily. And for a century and more we have lived together, slaved and been exploited together. But through all those years together we have survived as a polity, though increasingly alloyed with that major political problem, identified by Sir Arthur. We might note in passing that it is not a problem that can be resolved by a Cabinet of Ministers, who share a common ideology, either to the right or left of the political spectrum

Like Newman and Pelikan cited above, I too cherish the view of the university in its generic sense “as a ground of promise in the future”. In the specific case of our own 50 + year old University of Guyana, I make bold to suggest that in addition to research and teaching in the Arts, Sciences and professional programmes, UG.’s strategic plan over the next 5 years, should include a University-wide Programme to address the major political problem (discussed earlier), which has confronted Guyana for so many years, and which many believe to be a serious obstacle to National Development. The use of the phrase ‘University-wide’ is intended to emphasize that the resources of ALL Units, Departments and Institutes of the UG should be harnessed. The cooperation of the Government of Guyana would need to be sought, and possibly also, representation should be invited from the UWI and the CARICOM Secretariat.

The overall objective of the suggested programme would be: to design a system/s that would ensure the optimal participation of all ethnic groups identified in Guyana’s Census, at all levels of National decision-making.

Hopefully, enhancement of democratic practice will be a national reward for half a century of investment in our University.

 

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