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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


In any language, excellence is a word that arouses interest and expectation. But what does it really mean?

Perhaps the 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 perfection.

As Caribbean 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.

Our Caribbean 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.

In medicine, 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.

This is 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?

The distractions 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 sportsmen.

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.

The universities 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 raised.

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 landscape.

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 excellence.

Excellent and 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.



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