All for excellence: But why in sports only?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Sports is nothing if not about excellence – and that is the way it should be. But what characterises sports perhaps more than any other activity is the fierce competition that is its DNA

Perfection is an ideal, that is it exists only in the imagination as something desirable but not likely to become a reality. The implication is therefore that it is unattainable, but it has the merit of stimulating us to make an effort to reach that state by successive steps that bring us closer to it. If we are serious and sincere in our pursuit, no sooner have we reached a given level than we want to surpass ourselves by being even more aggressive in our endeavours to climb to the next higher step on the ladder leading to the ideal.

That is the ladder of excellence. Perfection may be unattainable, but we can achieve excellence, which is good not only for us as individuals but also for others. When I was teaching at the SSR Medical College in Belle Rive, for each batch my last lecture (usually before their examination) was about giving these budding doctors general guidance about their future. And I had a constant message: chase excellence, not money – if you are excellent, the money will come. Enough money, that is, to make a decent living, not to make of you millionaires or billionaires!

Who would deny that an excellent doctor would be good for his patients? Many of my former students are today excelling wherever they are, in several countries. Courtesy Facebook, periodically I follow to my great delight one of them who has become a top spine surgeon, and finds time to do voluntary work applying his skills to those in need who would otherwise not have been able to access them.

Similarly, in their respective spheres, every excellent individual spreads the good around, by imparting knowledge, skills, and serving as an inspiration, which itself has a pull effect that eventually benefits both the one(s) inspired as well as others as in the above example. In an article I wrote several years ago about what I called ‘the laureate phenomenon’, I had opined that despite much criticism levelled against the laureate system, the fact is that because of their success gained through healthy competition, laureates symbolized excellence and acted as inspirational models for their fellow students.

We know that exams depend on many factors other than just academic preparedness; nevertheless, the supreme achievements of their peers definitely motivate other students to work harder – and even if they don’t become laureates, they obtain grades which allow them to gain access to further education. Overall, therefore, the laureate system continues to serve us well, though there may be a case to revisit the system of grants so as to rope in and benefit many more deserving and aspiring students.

Polarising attention for some time now has been the inter-island sports Olympic that has been inaugurated today. Sports is nothing if not about excellence – and that is the way it should be. But what characterises sports perhaps more than any other activity is the fierce competition that is its DNA – about which nobody complains, because without it sports would be a very dull affair.

Those who come out of top are, rightly, rewarded, besides the public adulation that the very topmost get and on which they thrive for a good part of their lives. But in those countries where sports is a profession whose practitioners depend on it for their living, those who do not reach the topmost positions eventually do not fare as well monetarily.

In other countries where this is not the case for whatever reason, that is sports as profession, the sportsmen have to find a job along with indulging in their sports activities, which may not last much longer at competition level because of job and family commitments as well as advancing age.

The criterion of excellence based on healthy competition prevails in all sectors of human activity all over the world, and obviously locally too. Don’t we, for example, have business excellence awards, awards for the best hotels or chefs in the tourism sector – and so on and so forth? Globally, at the pinnacle are the Nobel Prize, or the Fields Prize in Mathematics. But there are other forms of recognition of excellence which have no monetary association, rather it is the honour which goes with it that is the supreme reward. An example from surgery in the UK is being invited to deliver the annual Hunterian Lecture of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, named after the famous anatomist and pioneer of British surgery, William Hunter.

Every achievement is the resultant of a process of transmission of knowledge and skills, which at its most fundamental is what we call education and is to bring up or, more precisely, to lead out (Latin: ex ducere) the best in the individual. From time immemorial, man has put the greatest emphasis on education as the means to achievements of all kinds as well as being the enabler of social mobility, since education as the destroyer of boundaries is the ideal leveller – though that also is a struggle, we humans being what we are with our entrenched prejudices! Nevertheless, the highest educational attainment is a goal to which most human beings aspire. And, as in other sectors, competition in education acts as a pull-up factor.

Unfortunately, in Mauritius, prejudice has been engendered about competition in education, and the foregone CPE formula had been the subject of much criticism and acrimony. The system that has replaced it has also not been spared on several counts, and has yet to show its superiority if any over the CPE. While there is no doubt a need to constantly revisit and improve a situation which results in a failure rate of about 30-40%, there cannot be any case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater without first of all devising a much better and more solid alternative – the price to pay would be experimenting on our children to their detriment.

Unfortunately, we have been tinkering at the other end of the scale too, reducing eligibility requirements for entry at HSC down to three credits from five. Is this how we are going to achieve excellence of the level of Singapore that we never cease to cite as the model to emulate? And where students take up to nine subjects at O-level equivalent exams? Almost all applicants to university there or overseas usually have five subjects at principal level, so I was told by a niece of mine who had studied in the UK and had Singaporean colleagues.

Why this nivellement par le bas in education whereas– like the current sports competitions, which provided the starting point for this discussion – we welcome healthy competition in all other domains as a means to excellence?

We definitely need to rethink our system of education and favour excellence without causing prejudice to students, especially those with different intelligences, abilities and potentials. This paper has carried several articles by those with experience in the educational sector that contained valuable ideas along the lines indicated, and there is no reason why these and other suggestions should not be debated at national level in a proper forum for the benefit of the country at large, and future policy decisions be accordingly guided. We owe this to our children.

* Published in print edition on 19 July 2019

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