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The People We Perceive As ‘Jaahil’ Are Actually Well-Educated

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People may be unlettered, non-literate, but they are never ‘jaahil’ (uneducated). Life and living is the greatest education. It is never about quantitatively how much (more or less) education, but about the qualitative, what education? argues Daanish Mustafa

One of the first things I say to my incoming students is: “to never let academia get in the way of their education.” By academia I mean lectures, exams, papers readings, etc., the very foundations of my livelihood. Why indulge in such seditious rhetoric? Truth be told, it is partially out of nostalgic respect for da Boss’ (Bruce Sprinstein’s) immortal start to his song ‘No Surrender’:

We busted out of class had to get away from those fools.

We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.

It is also partially out of realisation of the truth of my own life experiences reflected in those lyrics. As a writer and a researcher, I have had the privilege of having a vast range of experiences with a cross section of humanity. In all of those interactions I have almost invariably been bowled out by the words and wisdom of seemingly ‘unlettered’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘jaahil’ people–much more so than most so called enlightened/educated people. I should know, I deal with the crème-de la crème of the ‘educated’ elites of the world. This is not some naïve or arrogant romanticising of folk wisdom. It is more anger at the sanctimonious cruelty, stupidity and vapidness of the ‘educated’. Allow me to elaborate.

In public and private discourse most people of the politically Right wing persuasion, are typically very keen to award certifications of more or less educated, parhe-likhe jaahil (educated-ignoramuses), mis-educated etc. to others. In doing so, such people, as is the norm with the political Right, are appropriating a hallowed Olympian vantage point for themselves where they can pronounce judgment on the intellectual, and moral merits of others. Naturally, being at that Olympian point makes their own social positionality; absolute, unmediated and beyond reproach.

Most people tend to equate education with the academic enterprise. Anyone who knows anything about education, will tell you that academia, with its formal class room learning and degree qualifications is a very small sub-set of the much larger and nobler enterprise of education.

People may be unlettered, non-literate, but they are never uneducated. Life and living is the greatest education. It is never about quantitatively how much (more or less) education, but about the qualitative, what education?

Your scribe looking back at his life can barely identify any singular educational moments of his life, that happened in a class room or in an academic context. In school I learned more from running, fighting, befriending and hiding with friends and frenemies than I learned in any class. My most effective class rooms had always been streets of Abbottabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore in school. Walking miles in sizzling heat, bumming lifts and keeping tabs on which venues the girls I fancied frequented were pedagogically more rewarding than any applied mathematics lectures. Equally, through higher education; paying bills, finding accommodations, cooking, loving, having my heart broken, and mended, taught me more than any theory or thesis could have.

Field work with farmers in Jordan and Punjab, gardeners in Florida and Karachi, day laborers in Belize and Balochistan, activists in the Navajo Nation and Nepal have been the curricular heart of my education.

To any sanctimonious elitist who declares ignorant and unlettered people the cause of all the societal trouble, I ask: when was the last time an illiterate person hurt Pakistan? Through their brains and brawn they sustain the economy and the society upon which, the arrogant elites lord over with their decadent lifestyles. In fact, the Pakistani graduates of the colonial/western system are as scary, if not more, than the much maligned religious seminary ‘educated’ in the country.

Chaudry Nathanial (may God bless his soul) in Darkhana Union Council Tehsil Kabirwala, District Khanewal, Punjab, knew more about soil types than any soil scientist. He was completely non-literate. But educated he was. More than anyone in the Pakistani agricultural establishment. The Musahar fishermen in my experience in the Tarai of Nepal know more about Gharial habitat than any international consultant or game warden, yet they are completely illiterate.

Hence, I ask my students to enjoy and learn from the great classroom, called London. They will carry more memories and lessons from their lives, lived, loved and enriched through its streets, pubs, parks and others in London than anything that I could offer in my weekly lectures.

Today, as Pakistan along with the rest of the world grapples with the question of whether to leave the mosques or public amenities open, how to enforce COVID-19 induced lockdowns, what is proper social distancing behaviour, the accusations of ‘ignorant’, ‘uneducated’, ‘jaahil’ are being liberally thrown around. That too, paradoxically by, who else? The liberals. If one were to acknowledge that people who want to still go to the mosques, or don’t or can’t practice social distancing are not ignorant, but rather quite educated—just differently, would open up the conversation in a political register. That insight, many will not countenance.

Perhaps, people who want to attend mosques during a pandemic are not jaahil (ignorant), but have instead been educated in an idiom where personal salvation is the ultimate end of human existence. That is no different from most MBAs or contemporary consumerists for whom personal success is the goal of life.

If the uneducated privilege the ritual over the spirit of an action, do the educated believe any different when they privilege the ritual of attending temples of education? And too, over the spirit of learning through acts of living? Recognising such uncomfortable parallels in one’s own behaviour and social practices and those of the ‘less educated’ could be the end of the privilege that the many educated have come to claim by virtue of pieces of paper they hold from the colonial/western educational system.

A big pillar of the edifice that holds elite privilege in place will come crashing down. Instead of labelling, the debate about what is the best course of action will have to be politicised. The question, then will not be, why are people so stupid? But it might be, how did we get to a place where I have come to live and see such a different reality than so many others?

How did I/we become so alienated? Where did we lose that empathy, to talk to and protect each other? Now those questions would be more dangerous than any Corona virus or crashing oil prices to the ‘educated’ people’s beloved reality.


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Naya Daur