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The second (and final) of two parts of a paper written for a class on Creative Nonfiction. The first part can be found here.
A year ago, I met someone who was around twenty-two years old, and was just starting his intermediate education. He wasn’t unable to study further because of any constraints, but because he chose to do so. And no, I don’t mean he chose to slack off. What he chose to do was experiment. He told me that he didn’t believe in there being only a specific path to follow for his education, and so he was expanding his horizons by getting involved in different activities to assess his strengths. He ended up putting off studies to volunteer his time to NGOs and children’s charities that were in dire need of manpower. Time constraints did not allow me to get more details, but it did leave me thinking for days. Would anyone in a Pakistani society allow their children to put off their education, even if temporarily? This guy was one example of very faint hope, and it was incredible to see him be bold enough to take that risk. I concur with his actions though; education doesn’t have to be followed as religiously as our society expects us to. It is a good idea to try something different; it might actually end up being worthwhile.
In his Presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England, Alfred North Whitehead said that “in scientific training, the first thing to do with an idea is to prove it.” By using the word ‘prove’, he does not mean that scientific methods need to prove an idea by experimentation, but simply to prove an idea’s worth. The same applies to an education. Regardless of the subjects of study, it is a good idea to prove the worth of one’s education. This is fairly easy, because education itself has an intrinsic worth. Why, then, do we in Pakistan classify some education as ‘good’ and others as simply ‘useless’? What is interesting to note about Whitehead’s lecture is that he delivers it to a Mathematical Association, and yet he talks about the basic nature of education before moving on to its practical uses.
‘Practical uses’ is something that we Humanities majors often see as being used as a weapon against. “So you can write and understand History and can quote so many Philosophers. That’s good. But what is its practical use?” is a question that I have come across one too many times. The truth is, it has no practical use (unless I choose to become a teacher), or at least none that I can tangibly point at. My practical use of my education lies in the kind of person it is helping me become. Its practical use lies in making me capable of thinking out of the box. Its practical use lies in getting me acquainted with many intellectual topics that are easy to have a conversation on with anybody (such as, say, a person interviewing me for a job). Its practical use lies in teaching me how to work in groups for projects and how to write better papers. But of course, why would a Pakistani society consider any of these skills worthy if they don’t end in the words, “and will help me get a job”?
In one of my Philosophy classes, we were asked a question about who we would give a car ride to out of the three people: an old woman, an old friend who once saved your life, and the man/woman of your dreams? It was quite the unusual question, but the variety of answers heard from the class was quite interesting. Some of us actually put in a lot of thought in answering this question, analyzing it from all angles. However, more interesting than the different answers themselves was the instructor telling us that a year after she gave this question in an exam, one of her ex-students came back to tell her that a similar question was used in a job interview at an MNC. Guess who got the job? The guy who answered the questioned by analyzing it from a deontological and human nature ethics perspective, two branches of moral philosophy that a stereotypical Pakistani society will never let its offspring study about. How, then, can we say that Humanities is useless?
Existentialism is a topic in Philosophy that deals with the ‘I’. Existentialists believe that there is no right or wrong, good or bad. An act becomes good only after I choose to do it; an act gets value because someone chooses to perform a particular act. Perhaps if the Pakistani society gave up its clichés and embraced the existentialist viewpoint, it would react a lot differently towards people choosing to diversify their scope of education. Perhaps I chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in Humanities as opposed to an MBBS because this holds greater value for me. Why, then, should my society judge or berate me for it, when from an existentialist standpoint, I am not wrong in choosing something that holds greater worth for me? All the existentialists ask for is to not infringe upon anyone’s rights, and if a person is willing to break the norms and study something else, who is he hurting by doing so? Maybe my society is just looking out for me, but the way I see it, they are overstepping their boundaries. We talk about grand notions of freedom; why then should I not be free to choose my own path? I have a right to my own choice, and if my choice conflicts with the opinions of the masses, I’ll call it an experiment and go through with it. In fact, if the experiment doesn’t work out, then the only person I will have to blame will be myself; why, then, is it so hard for society to accept it? I spent many years of my life convinced that I would fade away into an abyss of rote learned texts and an avalanche of numbers – perhaps it is time now to get out before it’s too late.
Pakistanis teach their children to read a lot, but never to write. When we grow up, we read books written by Mohammed Hanif and Mohsin Hamid, but nobody around us would support us when we float the idea of becoming a writer. We watch movies such as Bol and debate over the many critical issues it touches upon, but people would be appalled if we ever expressed a desire to become a filmmaker. It is considered acceptable to study something that has been the model for Pakistani societies since ages, and stay jobless after that. But it is unacceptable to follow your own wishes and study something different, because Humanities then becomes synonymous with ‘useless’. My question is: why view everything in black and white? It’s not either a Doctor or an Engineer. As noble and renowned professions as they may be, they’re not the only ones. Why not let someone explore the grey area in between? Who knows, we may have an aspiring Gates or Zuckerberg amidst us, someone with the talent and the potential but being repressed by the standards that the Pakistani society has set for itself.
It is good to stick to a set of principles, but where the Pakistani society fails is that it goes deaf at the talk of a world other than those principles, blind at the mention of seeing anything that does not adhere to their set of rules. Anyone choosing to follow their own career path may be as good as ostracized. But like the albatross, those who follow their own ways are not something to be executed, because they may just be showing people the right path to follow. In the end it comes down to a question of happiness. Would we rather choose to follow a life of grind and make a decent living but live our lives like machines? Or would we want to give up these undue pressures and expectations and succeed at something we like? Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To laugh often and much…This is to have succeeded.” How many laughs can we give ourselves if we turn our lives into a fixed routine, something along the lines of ‘Punch, type, click, enter’?
I am a writer. It is what I do best; it is the only thing I know how to do well. And I say it with such conviction after a long process of experimenting with various things, trying to find out where my strengths lie. I’m the happiest when I’m constructing a story; give me a writing assignment and I’m in my niche. My goals and dreams center heavily on my writing skills. I don’t see myself as the next Dickens or Hemmingway, but I definitely see myself trying to come up to those impeccable standards if given a little push. It is true that authors don’t earn so much, but the satisfaction I get from writing is something that I cannot place a price on. No amount of monthly stipend from a job will ever measure up to the pleasures of writing for an audience. It is where my creative juices flow, and in this moment of self-praise, I see myself improving with time. If I can ever gather even a small bunch of Pakistanis supportive to my cause, I will consider it a sign of good things to come. I will see it as a hopeful sign of freedom of choices for the next generations, finally free from the shackles of societal pressures and conventions. If I ever felt like I was fading away, then writing provides the perfect means to immortalize myself. What we say and do can be forgotten, what we put down on paper can be passed from person to person, read and respected duly.
Globalization may just be the solution to Pakistan’s educational woes. While it will be wrong to say that everyone is part of this bandwagon, it will also be wrong to say that only some are on it. Many are still opposed to the idea of a freedom of choice when it comes to careers, but people are finally starting to accept the need for change. An integrated global village is making us realize how far behind we’re lacking, and since we can’t beat the world, we can join it.
It makes me happy to interact with fellow Humanities majors, knowing that they, too, chose to do something new, something different. If I convince a person to opt for this major, I consider it a personal victory, not just for myself but for this underrepresented field of education in Pakistan. I am by no means here to bring about a revolution – I am not even close to it – but a person converted is a small step towards brighter prospects. Pakistan is trending under the banners of political revolutions this year, but the biggest hope we need for our country is in the field of education only. Start at the grassroots, and then move up. Let a student study Political Sciences to understand these political manifestos. We can produce a country of Mathematicians and Doctors and Economists, but what we can’t give them is the ability to think. And that is where I will always advocate for my major, which will, initially, force you to think but will eventually end up refining your cognitive skills to the highest degree.
It often makes me wonder whether I’m being harsh on conformist areas of study or am glorifying my choices beyond their worth in a self-obsessed move. Society, of course, presumes the latter and is equally harsh for that, but this isn’t a game of retribution. When snowflakes reach the ground, they integrate to form layers upon layers of ice. However, every snowflake is different from the other one, coming together to form a whole phenomenon, which we call snowfall. I like to think of an ideal society as snowfall – assimilated together, yet every person is an individual crystal; they mix to form a beautiful image, like a photographer’s best shot or an exquisite Christmas card. We retain our uniqueness, yet know how to live in harmony. But my perception of a Pakistani society will be a different snowy picture. Beautiful to look at, snow is a cold and slippery slope once you step on it. Indeed, we might also appear as a unified community from the outside, but there are layers upon layers of this union that one would not wish to navigate; layers that will fall upon the individual crystals and crush them in the process, reducing them to nothing but mere water in the end. Such seems to be the revulsion of this unadventurous Pakistani society to these new means of education. Am I being judgmental in my claims? I guess so. Is society really that harsh? Pretty much. Is it wrong of me to choose to be the snowflake that wants to stay on top of these layers? No.
I will admit that despite certain changes, looking for a massive nationwide change is something quite premature. Maybe by the time I have children, they will also be locked in this endless battle of angst against society. But in the year 2030, when the world will have moved forward and we would still be cemented to the same place by clinging to our precious ideologies, at least my children will have the option of choosing their own path for education. Perhaps they might be able to do then what I would’ve been unable to do now – just make people see that we aren’t useless. Just like things disappear in the black hole, so do Pakistani individuals. Our society engulfs us into this unending chasm of darkness without any hope for return to the light. Eras later, I do not wish for Pakistani students to still be stuck amidst thoughts of “Get me out of here!”
What better way to start than by giving the future generations the autonomy over their own education? One family at a time, and the cycle of stereotypes may finally end up getting broken. Humanities majors may still be the smallest and lightest stroke of paint on this canvas that our society is, but at least they will have their own place in the end.