Excellence Is A Moving Target
In the drive towards perfection, the biggest enemy is mediocrity
By Professor Ken Julien
Sunday, July 16th 2006, Stabroek News
THE ANTHONY N. SABGA CARIBBEAN AWARDS FOR EXCELLENCE ESSAY SERIES
In any language,
excellence is a word that arouses interest and expectation. But what
does it really mean?
simplest concept of excellence is striving after perfection - a
perfection which perhaps can never be achieved. This suggests that
excellence is a moving target: as you achieve one peak of
performance, others appear ahead, demanding further steps towards
people, we were once led to believe that the first documented
example of excellence in our region was the so-called discovery of
the West Indies by Columbus, a mistake that led to his name being
enshrined in the history books.
history is not yet sufficiently documented for us to be able to
identify all those of our people who in the past have striven for
perfection and have achieved real excellence.
We have had to rely
on our modern history, less than a hundred years old, to identify
the few who can claim excellence in different areas of human
endeavour. In politics, in sports, in economics, in literature, the
names of Manley, Williams, Cipriani, Butler, Crawford, Lara, Sobers,
Walcott, Sparrow, Minshall, Kitchener, Mannette, Lewis and Naipaul
are obvious names with a claim to excellence. They do not need to be
justified by any "international" criteria: they are justified by our
own standards, which in turn are coloured by our environment.
That can present a
problem. In countries which are still in a developing mode,
mediocrity, and a single performance that may not be repeatable or
sustainable, can easily be placed in the category of excellence.
This can lead to a lowering of the bar, even to self-deception. For
excellence demands above all continued work and sustainability. To
demonstrate this point: if asked to identify a recent example of
excellence in sport, few would doubt that Brian Lara eminently
qualifies. Whereas the Soca Warriors, who have received so much
attention, still have a mammoth task, as underdogs, to prove and
sustain a level of excellence in the international arena.
Sustainability must go hand in hand with a high level of
performance, as we can see in the work of Naipaul, Walcott, and the
steelband movement and its practitioners.
science, engineering and technology, there are many examples of
excellence. But they remain hidden, for these areas do not attract
the same media attention and glamour as sports and politics.
unfortunate. For the world of today and tomorrow will measure the
economic success of all countries by the level of excellence which
they achieve in the areas of science and technology.
This is a challenge
that faces the entire Caribbean region. How do we motivate the
potential Laras in science and technology to contribute the effort
and dedication that will lead to excellence in those fields? There
is no question that the creativity, intelligence and talent are
available - in many respects, they exist in an abundance not usually
associated with small nations.
How can these
resources be mobilised and harnessed as we strive after perfection?
outweigh the attractions. The electronic media - TV, the Internet,
and the other tools of telecommunication - are double-edged swords.
Many of our young people want to be like Mike who strove for
perfection in basketball, but very few wish to be like Einstein or
Gates, and may not be able to identify a single Nobel prizewinner or
any of the leading international engineers or scientists, even
though their names are easily available on the Internet.
What is the
solution to this dilemma?
First, we must put
the word excellence where it belongs - at the top. The bar must be
raised several notches above mediocrity. Attempts to pass off
mediocrity or one-off performance as excellence must be resisted.
Second, we need a
mechanism through which truly excellent performance receives maximum
and continued recognition.
Many years ago,
when the only access to top-class university education was the
Island Scholarships, as they were called then (in Trinidad and
Tobago they were limited to four per year), winners from the
secondary schools became models of excellent performance. They were
correctly glamourised, and most of them went on to perform
excellently throughout their professional careers. Lai Fook, Ince,
Butler, Poon King, Suite, Capildeo, Williams, Martin, Laurence -
these are a few of the many names that may be forgotten now but who
in their day received the same sort of adulation as leading
The advent of
national scholarships correctly opened the doors to university
education much wider, but may also have diluted the kind of
recognition those scholarship winners earned.
now have a responsibility to set standards of excellence and to
highlight excellent performance, both prior to university entrance
and during university careers, to show how high the bar can be
In this connection,
as a third factor, university activity beyond the first bachelor's
degree must become the norm. Postgraduate and research work,
producing a steady flow of PhDs, patents and publications, must
become an important element of the professional and academic
We must also be
able to look to private and public sector leadership for the models
to be followed as we strive after perfection and thus achieve
sustainable performance in all fields of human endeavour establishes
the reputations of countries, regardless of size. The Caribbean has
the opportunity to enhance its reputation in several areas. We must
turn our backs on mediocrity, not glamourise it. The quest for
perfection should be one of the nation's goals and a major
motivation for our young people.
Kenneth S. Julien
TC (Professor Emeritus) is one of the most important names in the
Caribbean energy sector, and for decades has played a leading role
in guiding Trinidad and Tobago's energy policy. A former engineering
professor at the University of the West Indies, he chairs the new
University of Trinidad and Tobago.