Thursday, January 31, 2008

Education, knowledge and a lot of hot air...

A while back I had mentioned something about knowledge versus belief and how I wanted to write a post about it. To be honest, since then I sincerely haven't had a clue how to go start, yet I've been thinking about it almost every day. There is something about our modern world which I cannot put my finger on, something about it is insane, wrong and bewildering. This does not mean I'm planning to go live in a commune or start a guerrilla movement, rather, it is just my protest against what passes for news, headlines and 'causes' in my immediate environment. "What the hell is he talking about?" I can hear you ask. That's a good question, what am I talking about?

The other day, I was reading up a little on Ibn Sina (called Avicenna in the West) and I was amazed by his love of learning. Here was a polymath (someone who has deep knowledge of many different subjects) who had written numerous treatises on Islam, philosophy, politics, logic, mathematics, poetry and God knows what else. Early in his life, Ibn Sina had virtually memorised Aristotles metaphysics, yet had trouble understanding it until he managed to find a commentary by al Farabi on it a few years later. Puzzled with some of the problems presented by Aristotle, he would perform ablutions and pray late at night. A devout Muslim, he had memorised the entire Koran by the time he was six. al Ghazali, another thinker I respect deeply, responded to Avicenna and al Farabi (dubbed the second teacher, the first being Aristotle) with his famous book, the Incoherence of Philosophers. This is mistakenly taken as the starting point for closing the doors of Ijtihad and philosophy but it was nothing of the sort. al Ghazali in turn was also criticised by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) with his book, the Incoherence of Incoherence almost 100 years later and Ibn Rushd's thought is said to have had an influence on many a Renaissance figure in Western Europe. These pre-Renaissance men wrote and thought in Arabic, they were Muslims and they lived in no less turbulent times than we do today. Yet why do we know so little about them apart from their names which we boldly emblazon on our capitals streets and public places?

Anyhow, to be very frank I got depressed reading about these people. I simply haven't the time or energy to pursue knowledge with the same vigour that they did as much as I would like to. In fact, what Arab youth anywhere have the opportunity to do this, and not just Arab but all youth? In a previous post, I discussed with a few fellow bloggers the change in focus of Arab youth from Palestine to Dubai as their prime destination. In it, I had quoted an article by As'ad Abu Khalil about the late George Habash. Today when we talk about someone we say they have been "educated", coming back from abroad or wherever with degrees in computing, business administration or aromatherapy and celestial psychology (the last one is made up!). Yet what have they been educated with? After much deliberation, I honestly cannot call these degrees as anything but vocational. Not only in the Arab world but also here in the United Kingdom where I live, this obsession with targets, job specific skills and "employability" are churning out a generation of drones. Universities have moved from producing well rounded individuals who are educated and independent, into vocational workshops churning out what are in effect draft animals for a country suffering heavily in an increasingly global economy. Syria is not the only country with this crisis, though other problems we have there are exacerbating this problem. The problem is that many of them actually come back thinking then know something and so are qualified to make all sorts of judgements on society, politics, religion and anything else. They have been educated "bara" or outside. This seems to carry with it an automatic stamp of approval that this person is open minded and enlightened. The fact of the matter is, an enlightened person does not necessarily have a formal education. Also, it is not the number of languages you speak but what you have to say in one of them which matters. Sadly, these facts are missed by many people. A similar scenario occurs in many places in the world. In the UK, Prince Charles once made a private comment to one of his staff which was used against him as a condemnation but which I actually found myself nodding in agreement with. One of his staff had sent him a memo, bypassing her manager, recommending herself for one of the higher positions that she believed herself qualified for. His response to the manager:

"Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their actual capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools – the child-centered learning emphasis which admits of no failure and tells people they can ALL be pop stars or high court judges or brilliant TV personalities-heads of states!"

I don't think he was being elitist at all when he said this, but factual. We seem to be living in a time when you can get whatever you want, whenever you want. Mediocrity has had her face painted and been given a new dress by the fawning masses. She is now the 'new' excellence, since the old excellence needed so much effort to reach - something so few people have the time for nowadays. The more luxuries we seem to have, the less time we get to enjoy them. As a result a persons time in school and university is a whirlwind of deadlines and examination pressure, provided that is, they are interested in knowledge in the first place. Should they start finding the time, the old demon, "bills" rears it's ugly head and by the time a student graduates they already have a headstart on the rat race and are worrying about how to earn a living for themselves. Thus the cycle continues.

I once had a discussion with my youngest brother who had accumulated an extremely high result for his baccalaureate examination in Syria. I don't remember how high it was, but he could have gotten into medicine if he wanted to. I had told him to choose something he enjoyed and felt passionate about, but he refused, saying he needed something 'practical' to start making money for the family. I don't blame him, but one thing struck me as odd. When he heard I wished to study philosophy, he said "Oh yeah, I did a bit of that whilst studying, boring as hell!". I was very surprised so I asked him some more questions, to which I got a flat answer, " I don't remember anything, I just memorised everything and wrote it down for my exam. That's how I got such a high score." I don't remember what my reply was. How many more are like him? The problem with this production line mentality that has gripped the world and not just Syria is that it is exceedingly difficult to stop and reverse, but not impossible. I'm not sure how one could go about it, but I have a dream.
Call me naive but one day I hope to help build an Arab educational system along very different lines than today. There would be an emphasis on Arabic as a language and it's fundamentals would be presented in a way that would empower and enrich students. Proper articulation of thought would lay the foundation for a students future education in history, mathematics, sports, philosophy and religion. The only thing is I don't think you can apply something like this nationally. In fact I hope to do something quite the opposite. I hate elitism, but I'm a firm believer that part of the decline in the Arab world is that the countries educated elite from many of the big families turned their back on their tradition, culture and religion - mistakenly thinking these had to be sacrificed for technical skills and industrialisation. Where the head turns, the body would follow unfortunately. I think to reverse this ridiculous look westward which has decapitated many of our countries, we need to offer our own outstanding educational institutions for future generations, as was done before. Whose with me??!?!
I'll shut up now. Good night.


Arima said...

Unfortunately this is a huge problem in the Arab education system. I find it funny how only a years ago I was top of my class for Maths and now can't even do simple arithmetic! It's quite telling.
But the reson is the amoundt of pressure students are under and the economic problems which means that the fight for a good job is made all the more competitive. In egypt, for instance, most MA students are left unemployed for at least 2 years before they can get a job and even then the salaries are miserable. You can't solve the education crisis without doing something about economics and unemployment first.

nadia n said...

Man I don't know, aLOT of my favourite thinkers and artists had professional or working class- basically non "intellectual" backgrounds. So did the revolutionaries from the time mentioned in your previous post.

That not to say education and the arts aren't important, they're very important to me, but life and hard knocks experience really are not to be underestimated.