“Education takes you from A-Z. Imagination takes you everywhere.” Einstein.
In 1952, a young prison convict was released on parole. As he walked out of the gates of the State Prison in Charlestown, he “never looked back.” He had his eyes fixed to the future and would come to play one of the most prominent roles in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. His sentencing to jail in 1946 at the tender age of 20 for burglary became his redemption.
Malcolm’s tale is captivating in more ways than one. He is mostly notable as a character of “black manhood,” a tag the actor Ossie Davies gave him in his tribute to the civil rights leader following his assassination in 1965. However, this does not reveal the real struggle behind his true life story. It does not tell us the depths to which he sunk in his life before prison and reading picked him from the mud and put him on a pedestal to international salvation.
True that he has died long since in 1965, but even in death, Malcolm continues to speak to us from his grave and is still poignantly quoted by freedom movements all over the world. Yet looking at his early life, no one would have thought that Malcolm would grow to be one of the sturdiest intellectual forces of the past century.
As an intelligent student, Malcolm was top of his class. He had big dreams. This vision was shattered at an early age when his white teacher asked him which career he wanted to hunt. With self-assurance, he answered that he wanted to become a lawyer. His dream was killed when his teacher told him that his best shot in life was to be a carpenter and not lawyer because he was a Black man.
That advice was like a dagger through Malcolm’s heart. He became disinterested in school. Following that, he left school and became a street hustler. He was convicted of robbery in 1946 and ended up spending 7 years in jail. He read extensively while there and started debating. As he writes in his autobiography published in 1965:
“It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad.”
He further confessed that “many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words.”
The story of Malcolm X is undoubtedly the best way to start this article about education, school and how it really transmits to our lives in this generation. I know some of us might be wondering whether this title is disingenuous or not, but it is deliberate. By taking Malcolm as a starting point, I am bringing to our attention the fact that not everything you have been told about school is true. Many of us have been made to believe that just because we have not sat in the four corners of classroom, we are ruined and our probabilities of living decorous lives are vanished for good.
Have you ever taken time to look at the most celebrated names in world history both in the present and past? And if you did, were you able to see any burly connection between them and the so-called formal education? Have you ever wondered what names like Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him), Jesus Christ, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, George Weah, Richard Branson, Malcolm X, Henry Ford, Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckenberg, Socrates, Muhammed Ali, Pele, Mother Theresa, Michael Jordan have in common?
If you ever have, you may see many similarities among them, but the most apparent being that they never completed any formal college/ university education. More interestingly, even though names like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckenberg have some level of what we call schooling and education, many of the other names never entered the doors of any education. This portrayal flawlessly fits Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ amongst others.
But these are the people who daily define our global agenda in their various facets of endeavor. Their life experiences bring to the fore the common saying that “education is the key” to the door of life. This expression has become one of the most commonly accepted mantras in our modern world. From a very tender age, this quote is imbibed in our minds to the point that it has become virtually unchallenged.
Due to this, some parents go to the extreme mile of choosing subjects for their kids. Many other parents rebuke their children for contradicting their wishes and would even reprove them ruthlessly for “failing” their studies.
These kinds of parents may mean well, but they like the rest of the social order have been pigeonholed into believing that without education, particularly a college degree in law, accounting and engineering, their children will make no headway in life. Personally, the more I have scrutinized this statement the more I have found it fictitious.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am quite sentient to the fact that education is good. I am aware that many people around the world including me have only been successful in life because we passed through the invaluable doors of school. School and hard work provided the salvation that has uplifted millions of people around the world.
But what about if school is not meant for you? And even if school is for you, how should you be prepared to be able to reap the sweet fruits it produces?
One of my issues with the saying that education is the key to life comes from the mammoth pressure it places on the school system. It makes many of us to subscribe to the concocted believe that a six lettered word has the magic wand to create a bright future for tomorrow’s leaders. Unfortunately, it does not tell us that education as the key can only open the door of life if it has a suited key hole in the door.
William Haley once said, “Education would be much more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they do not know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.” I have seen many young people who were given keys not suited to the doors of their lives by a school system which was suppose to ensure that they were prepared for the adventures of life.
The keys of education they were given were not able to open their life doors, condemning them to the harsh realities of destitution and poverty. Imagine how many millions of people have been disappointed by this notion. Visualize the thousands and millions of people who graduate from higher education institutions annually yet can’t get decent jobs?
I am a believer in the fact that education should be determined by one’s ability to learn and not a person’s financial status. Part of the hitch with our contemporary idea of teaching and learning is that even though compared to the past, education has become more trendy and accessible; this is outweighed by the “commoditization” of education in a way in much of our world, good education depends on the depth of a person’s pockets.
To speak in Marxist phraseology, education has now been turned into a “bourgeoisie enterprise.” If you are poor you have to go to a ghetto school and be educated by teachers who in most instances are not even better than the students they teach. And with “bad education” the poor stay at the bottom of society whilst the rich children who are education in the best schools continue to stay at the top.
I am a devout reggae listener and one of my most favorite artists is Richie Spice. He ounce asked: “If education is the key, why do they make it so expensive for youths.” And then someone would probably respond by saying that: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” But such an answer has many shortcomings. It does not take into account the colossal levels of poverty around the world, particularly in our part of the world.
Many people around the globe predominantly in Africa subsist in dire poverty, living on less than a dollar a day. They struggle to have three square meals a day. This level of poverty makes it virtually impossible to go to the best schools due to the astronomical sums of money they are required to pay as fees.
I have often been compelled to ask myself that if education is the key to the doors of life, why it has become a killing field for the dreams of countless young people? The example of Malcolm X quoted above rightly gives a clear example. But Malcolm is not the only person whose dream was nipped in the bud by his supposed education. Many of our teachers have become self-appointed-paragons of the future of their students. They feel too good predicting the future of their students they can’t see. In such escapades, they end up assassinating the dreams of many good students who would have probably ended-up changing a world in anxious need of change makers.
This is exactly what Michael Phelps experienced. “I had a teacher tell me that I would never amount to anything and I would never be successful,” he said. It turns out that the teacher would be proven wrong by the unpredictable hands of destiny. Phelps won an astonishing 23 medals in the Olympics Games making him the most decorated Olympian in history. Where is his teacher one would ask?
One of the reasons I was always considered a dissenter by many of my teachers is that I was never the archetypal “good” student who would gulp down everything given by a professor hook, line and sinker. I often found it hard to obey authority and this didn’t always endear me to some of my teachers. During my law school days, I had a professor who would make us memorize all his notes and during exams, he would ask us to regurgitate it on the exams paper like we were some ruminants.
I felt such a lecturer was depriving us of the fundamentals of critical thinking and turning us into human robots. He would not allow students to challenge him and would occasionally send such students out of class. Students who refused to be molded by him into human robots went through a great ordeal to maintain their sanity.
I am sometimes taken aback by how quickly many of our educated elite happily tell us how many degrees they have accumulated, but can’t show anyone anything substantial they have done with their degrees to solve the monumental problems their societies are faced with. Some of them will even threaten to sue you if you don’t call them by their right academic titles.
What good is it to accumulate all types of paper education when one can’t use their education change their society? People like Malcolm X and Madiba Mandela were not remembered for their degrees and diplomas, but for their positive contributions to the development of their societies. If we are to change the plight of our people, we must walk the talk and stop boasting about superfluous and high sounding academic titles.
Is the ultimate aim of education to accumulate riches? One of the biggest flaws of our modern impression of learning is the view it has imbibed in many of us that the purpose of education is to get wealthy. This conception is both wrong and erroneous. It further feeds into the assumption that money is the most essential thing in life. And as the philosopher once said, education can’t buy the most essential things in life. It can buy a house, but it can’t buy a home. It can buy a partner, but it can’t buy love. It can buy a degree, but it can’t buy wisdom, intelligence and knowledge.
Education can be a perfect tool to free the chained minds from oppression as has been rightly said by Paulo Freire in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In our society, where oppression has been institutionalized in our people for the past few decades, our education system should be placed at the forefront to liberate our people from the chains and shackles of all forms of oppression they face.
The enlightened ones amongst us must build the truth in the minds of our masses that the state is formed to serve the interest of the ordinary person and not the other way round. In essence when leaders are elected into office, the social contract theory demands that they must be held to account for their actions and inactions.
A poet once said, “Education is about inspiring people and not just regurgitating memorized facts and opinion and pouring them on exams paper.” We need teachers who like Mandela and Nkrumah will inspire our next cohort of leaders to believe that their future and that of their country and continent is in their hands and the only obstacle to their hopes and aspirations is their minds.
This is essential at a time many of our young people risk their lives in the seas in pursuit of greener pastures. In the same vein, they must be educated and equipped with the necessary skills to use their ingenuity for the good of their societies. This should also be done by taking into account the various facets of endeavor Allah has blessed our youth with. If the right environment is created for our people, there is no reason why a good chunk of them will risk their lives just to earn a decent living.
To this day, we are still caught up in the vicious cycle of poverty despite the accessibility of education. This is what the great Africanist scholar from Guyana Walter Rodney called “Education for underdevelopment.” A lot of our educational institutions in Africa including the languages we use are direct copycat of what the colonialists used to oppress us.
Such a system of education was never meant to empower our people in a way they will promote our national development. Consequently, our national dreams are killed by this system of education. Not only does it strip us of knowledge of self, but it perpetually ensures that our educated people are more loyal to their degrees and papers than to their societies. Some of them will not even send their children to our African schools, the same schools they build for the children of the poor.
The indefatigable Prof. John Hendrik Clarke once described history as the clock by which a people measure their relationship to the past. Consequently, how do we expect to conquer our future when most of our people have not been taught knowledge of self?
Knowledge of self starts with knowing our own history especially regarding how our continent and The Gambia was once part of the Mail Empire which well before the establishment of Oxford, Harvard and all other renowned western citadels of learning, had established the University of Sankore which produced some of the greatest scholars the ancient world has ever known in hundreds of years of scholarship? There are hundreds of thousands of books in Timbuktu, modern Mali which bear testimony to this indelible historical fact. Until we establish the true link between what our people are taught and their real and true history, our dreams of marching into the future will persist to be a stride to nowhere.
I am of the giant opinion that to gain true education, one must first and foremost understand that the four corners of the classroom are not supposed to be a ground for turning human beings into robots who will only obey and not complain. We need to build a bridge between the educational institutions and students in a way which “harmonizes” the potentials of the learners in different facets of life. If an academically sound student is able to pass through the sturdy ladders of life, surely the footballer and even the carpenter should be able to have the same opportunity to be trained to use their skills to live dignified lives.
More importantly, we need to dismantle the notion that graduation from university or any educational institution is enough to grant any individual life-long knowledge. Education is a never ending process which starts from the “cradle to the grave.”
To those young people out there who have not had the chance to pursue their educational dreams, don’t give up just yet. Everything you need is in a book and books are everywhere now-a-days. Our generation is blessed with the availability of information that could change our lives and turn us into the greatest intellectual forces of our generation regardless of our level of education. Like Malcolm X, it is never too late to pick up the pieces and work towards building our educational dreams. Life and the search for knowledge are bigger than the four corners of a classroom.
Mustapha Kah is a well known Gambian journalist and a social and current affairs commentator. He is the founder and CEO of Banjul Open Debate. He is also a fellow of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.