Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where the wise ones fear to tread

By Risana Nahreen Malik

The certainty looms on the horizon, drawing nearer with every passing revision and mock test. It's what has molded the past two years of your existence and now that you've finally turned the waiting bend, it's time to fill out the registration form. Checking your subjects, you glance over the rest of the list. The usual, which everyone picks, plus the oddities that no conscientious student would risk choosing but which are there anyways.

When the timetable arrives, though, you find yourself and those very oddities side by side. ONE geography candidate. TWO history candidates. Seriously? Up go the eyebrows, out blurts the skeptical snort. Oh well. Your life, not mine.

Except, of course, it is someone's life.

It is the sad irony of our preconceptions regarding education that they curb the very dynamism and original thought that knowledge is meant to cultivate.

Sure, the parents, students and schools agree on churning out perfect grades and nice, status quo approved positions in society. But the general idea that there are only so many subjects worth studying and so many ways to think inhibits a different sort of potential that is just as relevant to development.

It is all very well to give the sciences and commerce their due importance but what of other standpoints?

Shall auld acquaintance be forgot?
History is not merely dates and names of wars, monarchs, Bills and Acts, things that happened and stopped happening a long time ago. It's the study of the present from another perspective. Decisions, mistakes and consequences spanning eras have given us Now and the best way to fix the mess Now is would naturally be to know just how the mess came about. So if you think that Henry VIII's obsession with having a son, which made him kill 2 women and divorce 2 more, or that Emperor Shahjahan's choice to build his wife a marble tomb while the Mughal dynasty crumbled have nothing to do with you, know that those are only two of the reasons you exist as you do.

The way the world goes round
I'm sorry, but it's hard to see just why geography would be considered a pointless subject. It's easy enough to understand the immediate interconnectedness of things but sometimes that can be the most dangerous point of view.

Seeing the larger picture, appreciating how every being, living or otherwise, really affects the others over space and time that's the perspective you truly need, because, in the end, deforestation and China's industrial policies don't matter because people sitting around conference tables in Copenhagen say so; they matter because, otherwise, it's your survival that will end up long and painful.

To read or…you've heard this enough
Granted, literature isn't as unpopular here as the other 'weird' subjects (which really isn't saying much). Nevertheless, its value still goes unacknowledged because who wants to read Shakespeare anymore? But honestly, if history as a subject isn't your cup of tea, then what better way to learn of the past that to see it through the eyes of those who lived it?

And it goes deeper than that; allowing one to have multiple perspectives, which could be applied to other fields too. Good literature, of course; not bilge about glittery, bloodsucking parasites. Then again, that would prove to be an interesting factor if one were to investigate the declining spatial and temporal trends in adolescent psychology. See? Whoever said this stuff was irrelevant?

La lingua terra
Yet another field of study whose irrelevance is lost on me. If it is an increasingly global world that we live in, wouldn't it make sense to be multilingual? Not the rudimentary words and phrases for holidaymakers' purposes but a basic understanding of the language and structure.

Moreover, wouldn't it be grand if one could converse in fluent Chinese with one's chums while the inquisitive little sibling looked on in bafflement? It's difficult, true, but then, isn't everything at first?

…And the 'extras'
Art and music are conventionally classified as 'extra-curricular' and, though their cultural importance is preached enough, when it comes to studying the technicalities behind them, one tends to shy away.

They may be temperamental fields of study and applicable to the rare few with a flair for them but that hardly warrants that they be neglected entirely. After all, would those sought-after Ivy Leagues offer courses in Greek drama and ballroom dancing had they no value? It's because they a rare few that they are deserve to exercise their talents as much as any medical student or aspiring economist.

So, you see, any reason to regard these as 'ornamental' branches of learning with no real place in practical existence is rendered void.

One achieves the same ends as with the more 'conventional' fields of study: success, saving the world, seeking greater truths. All it requires is thinking along different lines. Unfortunately, the general consensus seems to be the opposite, which is why these are discouraged, making it harder for the fools who dare try, which in turn discourages the masses further. Et cetera. And this cycle is what encloses the society within its archaic norms, suppressing potential, arresting progress. One of the numerous ironies of us.

What it comes down to in the end, one supposes, is fear. The fear of untested, uncertain territory, of public disapproval, of the difficulties involved, of failure and regret. Not that these fears are unjustified; which school would want its good name tarnished by the grades of a foolish young student who insisted on studying something so subjective as literature that she'd perform terribly either way?

Which parent would risk the future of their naïve, impressionable child on the dubious career of a pianist? In a country where pianists have no place, no less? Hence the logical solution: nip all such dangerous sentiments in the bud and spare everyone the inevitable disappointment.

It is a tedious road, admittedly, all doubt and trial and error. The frustration over having to improvise because the right resources aren't available. The uncertainty as to whether you've studied just enough.

The occasional nostalgia over the times when you could compare notes and groan over horrendous mocks with classmates. The perpetual worry of parents who you know will tire of this soon, and say that you'll regret your rash choices. And, on the really bad days, the doubt that drains you of your will (or is it obstinacy?) when you see how easy it's been made for everyone else.

And you are almost sure that your ideas are wrong, you should've stuck with the sciences that could get you the grades to escape this oppressive system to where you'd get the appreciation you deserve. All of this supported by the two Cs you brought home from the previous exams, which still say, “and what are you trying to prove, again?”

Of course it's difficult; the beginnings always are. And of course it's easier, and wiser, to just listen to everyone else. But the voice of your psyche will keep insisting that there are different ways of being right. If there's logic in disregarding the 'alternative' subjects, there's logic in learning of them. And it's the voice that the fools listen to, rather than have society blame the system's restrictions and the system blame society's apathy.

To quote that exceptional little chef from 'Ratatouille', “It starts where we decide.”

So here's to the ones foolish enough and brilliant enough to walk the road less traveled by. May your will be with you always.



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