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Serendipity and thinking long, hard

The trinidad Guardian / Education is one of the most critical issues for any society. Getting it right is complex but successful nations always have successful education systems. From today, we will bring you a column on education by Dr Fazal Ali, a scholar and education professional.

We are, all of us, descended from slaves, or almost slaves. All of our autobiographies, if they went back far enough, would begin by explaining how our ancestors came to be more or less enslaved, and to what degree we have become free from this inheritance. Our collective colonial past is always present in Caribbean societies.

Many of us have no recognisable slave masters, but we know we have limited freedom since we are at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, personal circumstances and blunted ambitions buttressed by the unfreedoms that hinder the nurturing of our capabilities and reasoned agency. The modern descendants of slaves have less hope than any sinner-who can repent; however, the powerless, trapped human being can see no comparable instant cure. Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, the main victims were the Slavs – who gave their name to slavery. Hunted by Romans, Christians, Muslims, Vikings and Tartars-they were exported everywhere. The word Slav came to mean foreigner.

Entrapped by the caste system in India, many escaped to the West Indies as indentured labourers. Lesser whites on plantations worked in brothels and taverns and were managed by the wives of the planters. Lesser white women who undermined the boundaries of whiteness through relationships with men of colour were considered ‘undeserving’; so much so that their children were schooled separately. These mothers were literally cast out of whiteness. The layers of whiteness in the West Indies have never been simply a question of skin colour; rather the shades of whiteness were determined by social action. Successfully staged whiteness conferred privilege, social standing and material benefit. The story of slavery from Hammurabi to those involved in human trafficking, the cult of suffering and self-sale today is too long and too wide a tale to unravel here.

What concerns us now is that the solution to slavery is not in its abolition; at least that was not a total solution for the West Indies. Freedom is not a matter of rights, to be enshrined in legislation. The right to express yourself still leaves you the need to think and to imagine and to decide what to read, write, design and listen to, and to find markets in one or more cultural setting in which your creations, inventions and designs are useful. All that the law can say to you is that you can play your Blue Guitar. But first, you need to know how to play a guitar and you need to get hold of one. So declarations of human rights provide only a few of the ingredients out of which freedom to invent, innovate, imagine alternatives and become an entrepreneur can emerge. Releasing the imagination is what is at stake.

Is the answer for the West Indies merely inside connectivity, laptops and bandwidth? Benjamin Riley of Dean’s for Impact says that our minds are not built to think. Thinking hard about things does not come naturally and if schools avoid thinking some children will dodge it as well. Students need an accumulated ready store of mastered facts if they are to develop many forms of creativity and critical thinking. Serendipity favours only the prepared mind.

In this eternally Google-able world of smart intelligent devices, it is tempting for students not to fill that store with critical bits of mastered facts, and for their teachers not to worry too much about what is missing-after all, the unmotivated teacher and the student without grit both believe that the answer to everything is on the worldwide web. Well, the surprise is-it’s not.

Maryam Mirzakhani is the only woman to have won the Fields medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Mathematics, and also the first Iranian to have achieved this celebrity. Maryam had an insatiable appetite for reading literature. Later in her life, her Mathematics had a literary tinge. Very much like Walcott’s painterly approach to poetry.

She envisaged mathematical problems as unfolding plots and parts of the problems evolved like characters within the narrative. And just as she believed that she started to get to know some of the characters she would soon discover that her first impressions were gravely mistaken.

Her teachers in Tehran thought she was slow. At Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, she would tease out solutions on vast sheets of paper on the floor of her home. She would not scribble all the fine details but try to stay connected with the problem. She saw the problem as a forest as she gathered knowledge hoping to come up with some insight that will catapult her to the top of a hill allowing her to see the entire terrain of the plot with greater clarity.

Maryam Mirzakhani recently died at the age of 40. Her story is one of genius, grit, immigration, isolation, exile and thinking long and hard.

Dr Fazal Ali

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