Why education does not always work by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam (AUGUST 11, 2011)

Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam muses on what is wrong with our education system and what could be done to set things right.

As a person who grew up in a Muslim environment sustained by the noble Islamic tradition, I have always seen people praying: “God, give us useful knowledge.” This, in fact, is a standard prayer said, often in Arabic, from the earliest days of Islam.

That made me conscious of the fact that knowledge has got to be useful to be worthy of its name. But, how do we define usefulness? The best way to articulate usefulness here, for the purposes of this piece, is to define by contrast, that is, by knowing what knowledge is not.

Epistemologically, something that looks like knowledge, but is not, is false consciousness. But what is useful (nafey, in Arabic)? The understanding is that anything that benefits a person himself/herself, or benefits others, is useful. The opposite of useful is not always useless, but irrelevant (layaani in Arabic), something that makes no sense.

Much of the education system today makes no sense, except technical and vocational education, which is less education and more training, in any case. If education had really been useful we would not today have such a monumental scale of bribery and corruption around us, all of it being the handiwork of educated men and women.

Our upper classes (which also means upper castes) pride themselves on “meritocracy”, a system of hierarchy that is built on merit. One of the basic assumptions behind meritocracy is that merit is a quality of the superior races (the upper castes) and the middle and lower castes have none of it, or have very little. The same holds for Muslims. Quite obviously, this is a racist argument that has frequently been rejected by others.

What is regarded as the innate merit and capability to benefit fully from education is, in fact, the result of denial of opportunity to the less privileged classes to get educated as well as denial of access to quality education. The result is that the classes (upper castes) that have benefited from access to quality education delude themselves into believing that they are by virtue of their birth endowed with merit while those denied the opportunity to get good education are inferior aces with low I Q. That’s not the case at all.

Equality of opportunity to have good education must be made available to all, high-born, low-born, intermediate-born. Then only it would make sense. After all, it is the self-anointed meritorious classes that have brought all the corruption, mismanagement and theft of national resources and bitterness among people. Education must benefit all, not just a small elite.

The purpose of education has to be remembered, which is that education is for acquisition of knowledge and technical skills and for training in morally correct and socially acceptable conduct. We are deficient in both aspects. The quality of our acquired knowledge is not always good or marketable, and our moral training is not appropriate. Otherwise, how can we explain our highly-educated people being involved in so much of bribery and official corruption?

Universal moral categories like truth, peace, brotherhood and honesty come from religion, not from physics, technology and management books. A good grounding in such values has to be part of the beginning stages of school as well as home training. That is an important way of coping with the present moral chaos.


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