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The mess in the attic

  • Published at 12:02 am October 15th, 2016
  • Last updated at 02:32 pm October 15th, 2016
The mess in the attic

For a long, long time, we had been collectively convinced that education -- mass, secular, quality public education -- would go a long way towards curing many of our social ills. Over the years, as our public institutions crumbled under the weight of political violence, we managed to stay convinced that the problem wasn’t education in itself, we just had to get it “right.”

Then came July 2016, and the attack on Holey Artisan. Overnight, whatever faith in our books and classrooms we had still held on to got ripped apart, as if the machetes had gone to work on more than human flesh.

This, I believe, is a mistake.

I remember having a conversation with a friend last winter (I think; all I can actually say for sure is that it was wedding season) about religion. Dhaka was still Dhaka, and Kakoli to Gulshan-1 did not yet mean a two-rickshaw trip.

He was trying to convince me, I believe, that ancient scripture was still (and would always be) valid, and to make his point he said something to the effect of “sure, we have better technology now, but besides that, society hasn’t changed much -- people are still the same.”

If a statement like that were out of the ordinary, it would be easy enough to be dismissive. But it’s not, is it? It’s something we’ve all heard, many times over. It’s something many of us might even have said once or twice, frustrated with and desensitised by a world that seems to be doing everything it can to not get fixed.

It is also a statement that is almost blatantly wrong: The average human being born in the 21st century will have a life unimaginably better, in every material sense, than one born only a few centuries ago.

And yet, a statement like that is jarring to far too few. It is perfectly acceptable to laugh at astrology -- the worst charge you will hear is that of insensitivity. I can laugh shamelessly at the man who tried to convince me once, for example, that “acupressure” therapy (like acupuncture but without the punctures) has been known to cure both cancer and AIDS.

When it comes to the physical world at least, we seem to have a working conception of causality that seems to be quite serviceable under most circumstances (and I think I should note here that I am speaking very “lightly.”  I am not talking metaphysics, and certainly should not be mistaken for a positivist; I am only talking about our very general “feel” for physical reality that gets us through the day, and serves us perfectly well for almost everything we ever do in our time on this Earth).

The social world

When it comes to the human, social world, however, our ability to understand things seems to break down completely, and requires almost painful, vigilant construction and maintenance.

Let’s try a simple test: A woman is walking down the street at night. She gets mugged, resists, and gets shot. She dies. How many people do you know who will say that the woman “deserved” to die? Not many, I would think (and hope).

No matter what we are taught about being careful on the streets and at night, and not openly displaying our possessions, nobody would actually say that she deserved to get murdered.

But what if, this had been a case of rape? How many people do you know who, even if they would not admit it openly any more, believe, even to some extent, that a woman who is sexually harassed or even assaulted often “deserves” it? Far too many. But why exactly do we see these two cases differently? Why does bringing sexuality into the picture shift our focus from the violator to what it is that is being violated? Why are we so damn confused?

Our intuitions about the human world, especially when it comes to other human beings, have nowhere near the same “solidity” that our intuitions about the natural world do. And where, once upon a time, our perceptions of social reality at least “felt” certain, we know now that we were wrong.

Even the most conservative of souls think twice about saying quite a number of things, and while the children of post-modernity may not all articulate their unease in the same way (or at all), they do not feel it any less.

They can feel the old truths slipping away, the strength of custom, tradition, family, community, religion -- all fading into the background. Old hierarchies toppling, new ones emerging. The supply chain taking the place of kinship ties, scientific marvels and monstrosities, the crushing weight of global capital.

A new world without a centre, and yet a world with new wars, new hungers, new poverty, new suffering, new evils. What an ungodly mess.

While the children of post-modernity may not all articulate their unease in the same way (or at all), they do not feel it any less. They can feel the old truths slipping away, the strength of custom, tradition, family, community, religion -- all fading into the background

Into this wild abyss, to echo Milton, enters the son of an upper-middle to upper class Dhaka family, “moderately” religious, educated, with a dash of toxic, unquestioned masculinity, and a hint of ambition and concern for the world. He starts his undergraduate education at a private university in the capital. He has decent grades, has a relatively enjoyable college life, dates college-going women -- nothing really out of the ordinary. But he craves meaning. Substance.

Unlike his public university counterparts, politics as a path towards becoming part of something greater is not an option for him. He has thought of, or might have even worked for, charities, voluntary organisations, or NGOs, and yet, something seems missing.

These things are too slow, too small, too frustrating. He craves a simple, large truth, a single diagnosis and cure -- and he gets it. A new Final Solution of a different kind, but just as destructive and violent as every Final Solution always is. The rest, as they say, is history.

This young man’s actions shock the world, but no one as much as another private university student. This young man (and there is a reason I’m sticking to men in this narrative) could have been described in almost exactly the same way. The only difference is his disgust and disbelief at the actions of one so like himself.

He does not understand why the world suddenly looks like this, and how he can stop these things from happening.

What these two men have in common, I propose, is more than just class positions. What they both lack is a relatively stable, encompassing, coherent way of interpreting the human world. All cognition is schematic and metaphorical. We think in terms of metaphor, and organise our thoughts in terms of a multitude of perceptual schemata.

We are genetically programmed with a set of primitive schemata to understand the physical world, but our “default” schemata for understanding the social world have not evolved much beyond wilderness survival tools. When these inadequately prepared perceptual lenses meet a world without a stable centre, without meaning, without purpose, without truth, they shatter; and must be pieced back together every time. And what pieces them back may not be the most desirable of glues.

The problem starts early. In school, children who do well in math or science are called “bright,” while those who are good at geography or history have good “general knowledge” (note the adjective). And while “general knowledge” is useful and fun when it comes to quiz contests and debate tournaments, and is important to be “well-rounded,” it is certainly not to be taken too seriously.

A child who spends her time studying chemistry is “studious,” one who spends her time studying philosophy or poetry “reads a lot” (which after a certain age turns inevitably into “bookish”), and should eventually grow out of it (she can keep it as a “hobby” though).

All of this creates an environment where the vast majority of those children who might have made wonderful contributions to some field end up studying something they don’t even remotely enjoy.

What is worse, because this is so pervasive, most of us never even know it -- we don’t even realise that we might actually be able to enjoy what we study.

Things don’t really get better -- definitely not for those who decide to study in one of the local private universities (and yes, there are people who choose this, and don’t just end up there because they didn’t get into a public institution or weren’t allowed/couldn’t afford/didn’t want to go abroad).

Higher learning

What is there to study in these places anyway? Until very recently, anyone who wanted to study the humanities or the social sciences (except law) would basically have to choose between English or economics (and the problems with the latter deserves an entire article -- another day).

Today, we can see some journalism, media studies, and in one lone case, anthropology.

You can study a thousand different kinds of engineering, major in anything that can be labelled as a department in a corporation, but if you want to study humanity and society, if you are interested in our species’ history or the wonders of human culture -- these are your only options.

And sure, most universities require all students to take a few social science and humanities courses as “general education” requirements, but these are woefully inadequate -- partly because they are normally treated as just a few more boxes to tick.

Without any meaningful structure to help piece together what can only be called an avalanche of information that attacks us every day, these students are left with an understanding of society with all the nuance of a Transformers movie.

They are assaulted by war, poverty, hunger, disease, murder, rape, abuse, slavery, financial crises, corporations more powerful than nation-states, ecological destruction, the threat of nuclear annihilation or irreversible climate change.

With even the most simplistic and general of introductions to centuries of progressive, radical and emancipatory philosophy, literature, social, economic, political, historical, and cultural theory from all over the world, these students might have ended up as activists, writers, or aspiring academics.

What are the options?

Without even an awareness of such possibilities, however, what are young people disillusioned by modernity supposed to do? How does one frame their critique of modern civilisation without such rich and powerful systems of critique available to them? Isn’t moralising the only other option?

Isn’t it easiest to chalk it all up to human greed and sinfulness? And if someone comes along who can integrate this latent emotive discontent into a broader cosmic narrative of human fallibility and sin, based on a belief system that already dominates in one form or another, why shouldn’t young people gravitate towards this false prophet? Having failed to provide them the means to understand, how dare we despair and rage at what they have had to resort to?

An uncle who lives in New York commented, in the context of the systematic killing spree leading up to the attack on Holey Artisan, that Bangladeshis should stop “making such a fuss” and focus on “building things,” because our country is not “open-minded enough” (how on earth does a country become open-minded? By building better trains?).

We have to take a long, hard, and collective look at what exactly we mean by education, what it is that we hope our schools and universities will achieve, and ask ourselves: Are we content with producing sophisticated calculators and managers, or do we want our calculators and managers to be sophisticated human beings too?

Like the comment I started this article with, this is a regrettably common sentiment under different disguises. This is why STEM subjects are treated the way they are. This is why someone who doesn’t enjoy math is expected to just “suck it up,” at least until their first year in university (if not longer), but it is perfectly acceptable to not enjoy history, not study it at all after school, and complain loudly if made to.

We have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can build and calculate our way out of anything. But if there is anything we can learn from the convergence of catastrophes we have seen this year (and there is a lot), it is that this is simply not true.

There comes a time when a better way to distribute electricity isn’t what we need. There are problems that linear algebra cannot solve. How many must suffer and die before we recognise that whatever we can make, we can easily unmake?

That a single idea can mobilise people into destroying the work of a thousand engineers? That the only way to fight a bad idea is with a better idea?

Ironically, I am writing this at a time when writing about the importance of education has become thoroughly passé -- the post-Gulshan attack narrative has become distinctly a-educational (if not anti-educational); something to the effect of “we used to think that they brainwashed the uneducated -- now we know that education doesn’t matter.”

On the contrary, it seems to me that education matters even more now.

Most importantly, we have to take a long, hard, and collective look at what exactly we mean by education, what it is that we hope our schools and universities will achieve, and ask ourselves: Are we content with producing sophisticated calculators and managers, or do we want our calculators and managers to be sophisticated human beings too?

Understanding human beings

None of this implies, of course, that the knowledge of science, technology, and mathematics is any less important.

What I am merely trying to suggest is that perhaps, if we had devoted a bit more of our time and resources to understanding how human beings work, we would be a little less intent on hurting each other.

We are often told that we need to study so much math and science because they are so “important” for the modern world. And I will freely admit that knowing arithmetic might be more useful, given the choice, than the history of Imperial Japan or the subtleties of post-structuralism. But we don’t stop there.

We seem to think that understanding calculus really is more important than understanding humanity. If this is how highly we think of ourselves, our history, politics, and culture, why are we surprised at how easily we are led to the slaughterhouse?

Shehzad M Arifeen is a lecturer of economics at a leading private university in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This article was first published on ergodotorg.wordpress.com.