Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Essence of Education

I am told that my maternal grandmother was a princess of one of the royal states in the United Provinces (UP) of Northern India. She never had any formal education in the modern sense, yet she was the most wise, honorable and principled women that I can remember from my childhood and my association with her has left me richer with some valuable traits of inherited character. Since then, I have met many people with higher degrees from the best universities in the world that lack basic common sense, social manners and just plain human decency.

If you ask me what has always been the true purpose of education, I would summarize this secret in two words: "contextual living"

An educated person always tries to be fully aware with respect to the context of his existence. He knows the purpose of why he is in this world, what things are of value to him so much so that he can succinctly put all this in a few key ideas or symbols. There is no confusion in his mind and whatever new information that he receives he can with some effort place it in the appropriate position in this framework of knowledge. The basis of this framework must be initiated in childhood by imparting on the child the Islamic philosophy through full immersion into all its elements. The study of the Quran which starts at this stage should not end at the "khatam" ceremony but should continue through all stages of the life making the inspiration from it the greatest source of providing "context" to life. Software engineers continually document best practices in reusable design patterns to write software. Their goal is to capture meta-level knowledge independent of programming language, operating system, etc. for programmers to use in various situations in their projects. One of the aspects of the miraculous Quran is such a repository of design patterns for principles (parables) for different situations of life, independent of place, time, culture, etc. Not only that, it provides a continuous source of inspiration for new principles as new situations take place in personal and human experience. A person who has preserved these patterns in his heart will find it easier to be inspired to the Truth in terms of guidance, throughout his life. To use this guidance, a Muslim must learn to understand a minimum amount of Quranic Arabic as well as its sciences. The study of the Sunnah provides insights into how to properly implement these principles, thus allowing a person to further contextualize his existence. The rituals of Islam, be they salaat, zakaat, sawm & Hajj, if performed with proper spirit and conviction, helps a Muslim to stay focused on this mission in life and that of his community. Time and effort must be spent in establishing this foundation.

All of knowledge is related and should not be compartmentalized as it is the trend (religious Vs secular, arts Vs science, theory Vs practice, social Vs technical, etc). It should be pursued at different phases throughout life. Just one part of this vast knowledge is the knowledge which one pursues to earn a livelihood. The intention in its pursuance should never be for selfish materialistic goals but rather to provide a service, to fulfill a mission or leave a legacy for the whole of humanity. To some this knowledge stops at graduation or once they get their first "good" job, but for a practicing Muslim it is the beginning as he enters the real world and puts into action what he learnt about in the university. In the long run, perhaps the most important skills that today's university education can provide is not the knowledge itself which will grow stale with time, but "learning the process of learning" -- how to read meaningfully, how to present your perspective, how to research a topic, how to write convincingly, how to work with others, how to manage time and priorities, how to discuss issues in a civilized manner, etc. These are lifelong skills and should be used to explore new areas of knowledge as they crop up at work, in the community or in the family. By living a life of learning, a Muslim is always living in context of his existence, ready to make use of the opportunities that come his way.

An educated person does not react emotionally to situations, but has the ability to contemplate on the principles that are at play in various life situations. In his interpersonal relationships he knows what obligations he owns to those around him and his rights, all in context of the situation. He is not swayed by feelings in dealing with others but has the sense to perceive things at a meta level, aiming to solve problems for the common good (pleasure of Allah). He knows how to properly interact with the unlettered and the scholar, kids and elderly, rich and poor, countrymen and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, etc.

An educated person is not one who jumps on the bandwagon and does what the whole world is doing if he knows it is not right for him. Rather, he is not afraid to set out in an untrodden path if he knows it is the right one.

An educated person should be a blessing for the world. His existence should be a source of good as it should be patterned on that of the Prophet (SWAS) and His Companions (RA) -- people for whom the whole journey of life was blessed with perfect context.

People who know this secret do not need a degree to be educated, but those who do not can not convince me that they are despite the number of degrees they happen to have framed on their walls...

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