Give me bread, and I’m off to China

On the inadequacy of modern education 


I was supposed to write a book review this week, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to read the book I had in mind. In fact, I’ve been stranded in the middle of three books for several months now – Muhmmad Asad’s autobiographical “Road to Mecca”, Ursula Le Guin’s “Tehanu” (fourth in the Earthsea series), and Martin Ling’s brilliant beautiful “Muhammad”. Irony of the situation: I read everyday!

Let me explain. I’m a Social Sciences major at a university called LUMS. LUMS invests in creating pokerfaced nocturnal caffeine-addicts who use library books for pillows, taking the term parhaakoo (nerd) to an entirely new dimension. At LUMS, they are fond of expropriating your time, hobbies and social life by cramming four courses in a 10-week term, each with a reading pack about 6 inches thick – not accounting, of course, for the itsy size 8 font, and the dozen 30-page journal articles you’re expected to read for every research paper. I had to write about half a dozen of those this quarter – quite an indulgence, really, considering I wrote 10 papers the quarter before.

I’m not complaining though – LUMS is a great institution, and I’m lucky to be studying there. During these past three years as an undergrad, I’ve learnt some wonderful new things, and met some extraordinary people – Ghazali, Castro, Gandhi, Descartes, Fanon, to name a few.

But you can’t learn everything from journal articles and reading packages. You can’t learn everything from books. The modern, ‘Western’ higher education system is just too one-dimensional for my liking. It’s all about competition – how ‘good’ you are compared to other students – and it’s all about making sure you get the ‘right kind of job’ (i.e. earn lots of money) after you graduate. This system may have its virtues in today’s globalized capitalistic world, but I wish we could bring back that time when education wasn’t about how many degrees you possessed. It wasn’t about GPAs and letter grades and English, or sitting in sound-proof air-conditioned lecture halls scribbling notes like a maniac about something that doesn’t remotely interest you.

In my mind, the only truly ‘educated’ person is the traveler. They were the dervishes and the monks, the sailors and philosophers of yesteryear who’d actually go “as far as China” in their quest for knowledge. They spoke several languages – they lived amongst different peoples for many years of their lives – they were the real citizens of the world. And in spite of all the prattle we hear today about how the world has become a “global village” and what not, I do not think that we – the so-called ‘educated elites’ – have ever been so detached from humanity as we are now. We’re almost as bad as the French royalty before the Revolution. I can read all the books I want, about history, about Pakistan, about Islam, about development and poverty, about democracy and revolution, but I will never really ‘know’ or understand or benefit from any of it unless I live it, unless I experience it for myself. I will never know what bread tastes like if all I ever have is cake.

I’m not saying that we should all get up and start living on the streets to ‘know’ poverty – of course we can’t experience everything we read about, and that’s not the point either. The point is that education is supposed to make you a bigger human being – not bigger money, status or job, but bigger heart, soul and mind. And the only way to become that bigger human being is to engage yourself with the world, with fellow human beings, with every living thing, in whatever capacity you can. Sometimes, books alone can be dangerous – it’s so easy to get lost within them that then you just don’t want to come out, because it’s not comfortable. It’s not comfortable to face beggars, homeless children, rape victims and refugees in ‘real life’. We’d prefer to leave them behind the closed doors of a classroom or between the leaves of a book. And the credit largely goes to our educational system – for making us foreigners in our own land.

I’m not usually this cynical – but I feel this personally, every day of my life, and it hurts. You may agree with me. You may not. In any case, I’ll leave you with an interesting little tidbit from history: if you thought it was Columbus who ‘discovered’ America in 1493, think again! The Vikings had already happened upon it almost 500 years before. Moral of the story: don’t believe everything you read, and there’s a world of learning outside classroom walls!

 Till next week, bon voyage.


2 thoughts on “Give me bread, and I’m off to China

    aiesh said:
    August 28, 2010 at 2:50 am

    I agree about the purpose of education which has sickly become how much you earn. no matter how much you dislike the subjects. that is why we end up following someone else’s passion and our insecurities that come from the lack of MONEY. like the parents wanting their kids to be something they- the parents like, and not the poor kid.

    Fahim K said:
    August 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Reading your writing piece, i guess you want each of our school subjects to have an exam of Practical just like we have in our science subjects in which one’s practical experience should be gauged!
    Sounds interesting!

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