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University of Guyana: the Center of the Making of New Guyana

By Richard Drayton

Guyana Journal, February 2010

My fellow Guyanese, I must begin with my apology that I am not able to be with you tonight in person to celebrate you, the University of Guyana, and also my father, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday, and whose life and work and love for the university has always been an inspiration to me. This is even more a disappointment to me than it must be to you. Although I do take some pleasure all the same in having my father read to you aloud what I had written specially in part for him. What I am truly sorry about is that I didn't share in your dinner, and in that liquid refreshment from our home country that so many of us enjoy. (I do promise not to keep you too long from that special pleasure, nor from the dance floor where I am sure some old romantic melodies, many excellent calypsos and reggae are waiting.)

While, so far, I have never been a student or teacher at UG, the university was the first formative experience of my life. If I do my sums right I think I was conceived around the time the University began its academic year in 1963, and was born when it was just coming to its first year. My earliest years were spent in Queens College compound, and while memories from that age are cloudy I do believe that I could feel the excitement of that little world in the evening. I certainly remember my first drive up to Turkeyen past the sea wall on the left and rice paddies on the right, and the smell of curry powder from Beharry's factory as you turned the corner to where the steel, concrete, and glass buildings were growing as magic out of the mud. And the Biology department with the skulls and skeletons of animals, the lab display with a frog's heart beating. I learned to love universities and to want to be an academic from my years in and around UG.

I even had the privilege of hearing my father's lectures from his famous 'Social Biology' course, that great survey of the origins of the world, which began in astronomy and cosmogenesis, and passed via biological evolution to archaeology to the study of human society and the arts through which human beings discover what they feel and think. For long after we had fled Burnham's Guyana for Barbados, my father, who bitterly missed that engagement of teacher with students, used to give his lectures to my sister and me when we drove in the car to school or in the country. It is in the spirit of those lectures whose influence has been wide: just last week I came across an acknowledgement of them in Language and Species, by the famous scholar of creole linguistics (Derek Bickerton), that I want to speak to you tonight.

What inspired those lectures was my father's anger at the deprivation of knowledge and intellectual and emotional experience which had been caused in British Guiana by poverty and colonialism. He knew that he had been one of the very lucky few, but unlike so many of his contemporaries who used the privilege of education only as the means of their own enrichment, he wanted to return all that strength to the society which made him. What moved those lectures was his desperate wish to give all his fellow citizens a sense of ownership over the world of knowledge, both sciences, social sciences, and humanities, a sense of full conscious membership in the human race, a sense of agency, an ability to change the world. It is difficult for us now to remember the optimism and passion of that generation of the 1950s and 60s, of their belief in education as the beginning of personal and social liberation, as the lever which, particularly through the application of the sciences to social life, would make Guyana able to give all its sons and daughters the most complete material and spiritual life.

My own work is as a historian, that is to say that I am interested in time and change in human experience, and how people remember and think about the past. Every one of you, of course, is a historian, forming in your heads conscious and half-conscious stories about who you are, where you come from, what made you, and why you do what you do. So let us think about time together.

Have you ever held a rabbit or a mouse in your hand and felt with surprise how rapidly its pulse beat, how it breathed in rapid nervous twitches, or watched how fast they grow up, breed, and die? Or seen how in just a few years a dog passes from puppy to arthritic and blind, until at 8 or 10 or 12 it dies, or is put to sleep? Now think how we human beings might feel to a tree, let alone a rock, or a star, if they could cradle us in a hand and had the sensitivity to feel our animal rhythm? How rapidly our blood runs, how we rush helterskelter from crawling curious infancy, to playful childhood, ambitious youth, mellow or complacent maturity, dozy or restless senescence, or sometimes, if we are lucky, in the reverse direction.… Close your eyes and think of that smell of Beharry's factory and it will seem like yesterday. Go back further to when you were a boy or girl clanging a steel cycle wheel rim with a stick along the road, or building a box cart with some old ballbearings you begged from someone, losing your new kite on a telephone wire, or cutting grass to feed the animals? It is not so long ago: did you ever then imagine that you would now be in some place called Canada? Have your children or grandchildren any real experience of the world that made you? The human generations rush in and out of time. It was not even very long ago really, that our ancestors - yours and mine - found themselves staring at the brown water as they sailed into Georgetown from Africa, India, Portugal. It is dizzying to think about how fast time passes for us, and how many thousands of human generations, stretching back into the tens of thousands of years underlie us and we hope, will follow us.

But there is a massive difference between our physical material experience of time and how our minds, in the magnificent repeating chambers of memory, hold on to it. There we have the power if not to stop time, then at least to render it meaningless, as we freeze in the organization and activity of our brain cells how a particular moment felt, how an idea linked to another idea, creating slides which we can flick through at will, as if in the moving images in a film, all the stages of change, watching the worm, the pupa, and the butterfly in one, or looking at ourselves and puzzling at all the stages of our experience. Of course, if the truth be told, throughout our lives we edit the film, sometimes making a particular happy or painful moment loom larger or shrink. But what distinguishes us from all other animals is that while we share with them a characteristic natural rhythm, a pacing beat of life, which is set at a particular counterpoint to the universe, and the times of trees, rivers, and stars, we have the capacity, because of our memory and our mind and our capacity to choose, within limits, what we think or do, to make music with time, to choose a particular way to make our energy pulse in the world in exchange with others, and perhaps even to keep alive older musical note or rhythms and to build them into new kinds of chords, more complex music. That is all we really mean by culture: the art of keeping time, of giving life to old rhythms of feeling, and building new ones into it that make the old ones stand out more clearly.

That we are able to make music this way, with each other, and with time, is only possible not necessary. By which I mean that this quality of self-consciousness, of being aware of where we are in time, of attempting to act in the world in keeping with that awareness, is not how we are most of the time. And I do mean 'we' - I have the same problem. For in that experience of animal physical time, we are driven to find food, all the needs of the body, those take priority, and we accept a lower kind of consciousness. Martin Carter, our national poet, in one famous line wrote how 'the mouth is always muzzled // by the food it eats to live'; he might have added the mind is numbed too, as a whole other set of systems in the brain have been trained by evolution to reward us with bursts of dopamine and oxytocin and noradrenalin when we have the pleasures of the hunt, of seduction, of the feast. Desire, reward, satisfaction, sleep, desire, reward, on this human survival has founded itself. And when that orchestra of brain chemicals lights up, who needs any other kind of consciousness?

The problem is that there are, and have always been, powerful people in the world who have sought to manipulate this other engine of the mind, and to lock us in to a circuit of unconsciousness, of half-awake half-asleep, zombiefied integration with the social, economic, and political arrangements they control. The Romans talked about 'bread and circuses' - the cheap food and public recreation and spectacle through which the plebs, the common people, were kept pacified, so that they rarely threatened the power and privilege of the emperor or the senatorial class. The invention of modern advertising in the 1920's by a man called Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was based on the deliberate attempt to manipulate human desire and fear, to put the inner engines of the mind to work for those who wanted to sell you something. So that lower machine of survival in our brains becomes hijacked and you come to desire a Rolex watch or a Mercedes, or even a nice overseas war with lots of colorful bombing, or to live always in anxiety about not having the right deodorant or make up. With these powerful interests at stake, our minds are now bombarded constantly with messages, over-stimulated by external cues, under assault by pirates, by mass-produced mental viruses, which want to break into our minds and use its machinery to work for them. How easy it is to succumb, and to become a repeating station for the news, opinions, fashions, styles, and desires broadcast to us.

What has this to do with you tonight, and with the University of Guyana? I would like to suggest to you that the moment you crossed the threshold of that institution you were recruited and trained as a warrior against these slave hunters. Your greatest debt to UG is not the professional qualifications which allowed you to begin the road which led to your achievements in Canada [and elsewhere], but that privileged time when you were asked to take knowledge and thinking as the most important thing in the world. For the point of UG was that it invited you to take your mental powers seriously, to believe that you could be more than whatever you had been, and more, not in terms of wealth, but of consciousness. And there is in you right now stirring a flickering eye of consciousness which is asking you 'who and what do I work for', 'what do I want to do now in the world, thinking about where I have come from, and where I want to go', 'how, knowing how short a time I have the power to change things, to do things for people, to build, to help, to nurture, to organize, am I going to use my strength'? It does not matter, ultimately, how you answer these questions, it is in the asking of them that we begin the work of liberating ourselves, of being all the full human beings it is possible for us to be. I hope each year you take this gathering as a moment of deliberate conscious awakening in the spirit of the University of Guyana, a moment in which you ask yourself: how now can I reset the course of my life, and choose for myself a different path of engagement with the world?

Very few of you, if any, let alone your children, or your children's children, will ever return to live in Guyana. You are part of that great modern historical phenomenon we call the diaspora: the scattering of a community across geographical space. Your relationship with Guyana is a nostalgic one, and may even slide into bitterness, sometimes even contempt, for those who live there. Such a way of seeing comes naturally to those who have left, for without it where they are now would be intolerable. But Guyana is written into the fabric of your bodies and minds, and you have the power to choose whether you turn this passive connection into an active one. The great challenge for us, Guyana at home and Guyana abroad, as it is for the whole Caribbean, is how to find a way to make all the human wealth and capacities of the diaspora contribute, however slightly, to the homeland. Political parties have always sought to use the overseas communities as resources which they can exploit for money, but our governments have singularly failed in using our skills and creative powers. Perhaps those who stayed envy and fear those who left, and are afraid to give them room. Perhaps those who left simply no longer care, and cannot be bothered to put up with the difficulties of visiting home, not least the sense of loss of a past which is inevitably long gone. But if we were to find some mechanism - perhaps visiting adult internships of one or three or six months? Perhaps even some virtual internet-based parliament, council, committee, commission, where a conversation could be opened up with the diaspora? In practical terms, perhaps one ideal target for the overseas graduates of UG, who have, I know, great technical skills and the odd dollar or two, would be to create at UG some hi-tech, hi-speed internet facility which would allow some of you and former teachers like my father to lecture to today's Guyanese students? Why not even, in the spirit of the Open University in England, make these available to anyone in Guyana with a digital connection?

Guyana's history since 1953 has been by any measure a traumatic one, an intersecting set of environmental, economic, political, and social crises which have made our country into the highest per capita exporter of migrants of any country in the world. We have moved to survive, and organized our lives abroad with great efficiency. But we are connected by electric threads to that land, and if we are true to our selves, and seek literally to re-member, that is to say, to put back together the pieces of ourselves into one whole, we know that its destiny is still our problem. The University of Guyana may yet still fulfill its founders' vision that it would be at the center of the making of new Guyana. That new Guyana would not only belong to the Guyanese. For it is the privilege and pain of that land to have been the first human community where all the ancestral traditions of mankind - African, Asian, European, Amerindian - came into encounter. We have scarcely begun to take possession of that richness - it is just the early dawn of that civilization. You are the strong northern branch of that slow-growing tree… where will you grow next, how will you feed the roots?

(Presented at the Guild of Graduates of the University of Guyana. Toronto, October 3, 2009.)