Monday, November 9, 2015

Liberation in the Age of the Selfie


Maryam Sakeenah

I like the word ‘selfie’- It is an honest word characterized by the ‘self’ ringing through it. The selfie is a phenomenon that defines our age.

As I browse through the abyss of self photographed profile pictures on social media, I am struck by the remarkable similarity of their plastic perfection. Yet beneath the painted pouts and smiles is a hollowness that consumes, a dearth of self-assurance and contentment with and within oneself, hence the obsessive need for self appraisal by presenting oneself thus and awaiting the ego-boosting ‘like’. The faces are also incredibly one dimensional in how they signify an inordinate preoccupation with the physical and outward- as if human beings were mere faces; as if a done up face defines who we really are.

The Age of the Selfie and the naïve enthusiasm with which we have embraced the selfie engenders a culture of narcissism in which one’s appearance is one’s defining trait overshadowing all human virtues. The ease of communication makes these images be shared for appraisal. Then come the flattering comments so indiscriminate in their appreciation of what is truly beautiful. The ego bloats up as the words of praise fall like a sedative that one cannot function without, the need for which keeps increasing.

To get that abundantly ‘liked’ selfie, we go to great lengths; we struggle to somehow fit into the terribly limiting mould of contemporary beauty. And often, if the look is not quite like the tabloids, we are oppressed by low self esteem, self-deprecation and unhappiness. All this is utterly avoidable if only we recognize that beauty is a relative concept and cannot be defined; and that we are more than what is on our skins.

The Greeks had known that self obsession with appearances was ruinous when they came up with the myth of Narcissus- the vain god who stared at his own image and met a disastrous end.

My prophet (PBUH), on standing before the mirror, prayed, ‘O Allah! Make my character beautiful just as you have made me beautiful.’ It reflects a contentment with how Allah created us, and more importantly, a vital realization that physical appearance is not our be-all and end-all. The Prophet (PBUH) asked Allah for a more meaningful and enduring beauty that springs from the spirit and manifests itself in our values, thoughts, actions, manners, choices.

The little prayer holds the key to resisting the maddening tide of the Selfie and its connotations: to be at peace with the way God created us, for we come from Him- one unique shade in the spectrum of His masterful creation. This understanding is immensely peace-giving and liberating in how it frees us from the endless tortuous mimicry of tabloid images of cosmetic beauty. The other aspect is the vital understanding that it is our values and our character that defines us, and that true beauty lies within, radiating from the soul that is at peace, while what is on the skin wears off and ought not to define who we are and how we perceive ourselves. True inner beauty and purity is from how capable one can be of altruism and selflessness, how much one can transcend above base selfish instincts and be liberated thereby. This is what endures about the human being: what touches other lives, makes all the difference and is remembered in the end. The 'epitaph' virtues are what endure- like a fragrance that effuses long after.

The Selfie is emblematic of a culture of narcissism, self love and obsession with the material, temporal and physical. A liberation from it is possible by attaching worth to the spiritual which endures, in toning down our narrow, self destructive self-obsession and in refusing to find self-worth in how others perceive how we appear to be. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How Standardized Education Kills Diversity of Skills


Maryam Sakeenah

It did not take me a long time as a school teacher to observe that the way we educate is fundamentally flawed. In my very first year as a teacher I was asked to take extra classes for a badly performing group of students. I was told that the objective was just to help them somehow secure a passing grade. The lessons left me drained out at the end of the day with a sense of frustration over the extremely slow progress, if at all, of the students. However, there was something else I figured out- each of these students classified as poor performers and persistent failures, had a gift of his own- one of them who had partial cerebral palsy was a brilliant calligrapher; others could draw extraordinary well, or do wonders in the sports field, while one other loved caring for animals. I realized the pointlessness of compelling these gifted children to do Math or English or History when academic pursuits were not their forte. But the tragedy was that the education system did not value what they possessed, and hence labeled them as failures for what they were not meant to do in the first place. I asked to meet the parents of these children, convincing each one of them that their children were gifted and talented in diverse skills which the parents must allow them to pursue. All of the parents scoffed at the notion, saying that whatever talent they had ‘will not get them anywhere in life’, and that they must, by any means, be forced to do well in the disciplines acknowledged by the education system.

Although I didn’t have much luck with helping these students recognize and explore their true talent owing to stiff resistance from school administrations and families, I learnt how the way we educate refuses to recognize natural human diversity and narrows down ability exclusively to academic disciplines. This is not only unjust and uninsightful, it is fundamentally perverse and limiting. It classifies human talents and abilities on a scale inconsistent with human nature,  that places academic intelligence, literacy and numeracy at the top. It is built on the fallacy that all human beings are meant to excel at reading, writing, calculating, memorizing and reproducing and those who do not, are of less ability and value.
Such a system oppresses those countless human beings that God has constructed more creatively- those who are more artistic or sporty or possess unconventional intelligence. The system discards them as worthless. There are so many real life horror stories of students giving up on themselves and developing low self esteem or other psychological problems because the school forced them to perform academically while what nature had intended for them was different. Their lack of academic interest and ability led to them being labeled as failures which in turn became a self-fulfilling prophecy as these individuals were consigned to the fringes of a system which mainstreams only a certain kind of intelligence. A simple analogy invoked in this context is quite striking… How would a fish feel about itself if it was judged for its ability to climb trees, when it was meant to swim? When we put the ability to climb trees as the only ability of worth, the birds that fly and the fish that swim and the plants that bear fruit are all trashed in one fell sweep. That is what we have been doing to millions of human beings for hundreds of years.

Not only does this stark reality we have lived with for so long need to be recognized, there needs to be a radical reformation of the way we educate. Human intelligence needs to be redefined to recognize innate diversity. It needs to accommodate and acknowledge and appreciate the many colours and shades that make up the spectrum of our humanity. Ken Robinson has done some great work to highlight the phenomenon of how schools kill creativity. In Europe and the United States, some work on revamping the system along these lines has begun, but in our part of the world we still have to recognize the problem. Our education should stop stifling human individuality and awarding success only to those who fulfill its narrow definition of ability. Education must recognize that academic ability is not the standard human trait we must pursue and develop in all human beings indiscriminately, and that success is attainable in ways other than academic achievement. The creative arts, physical education and manual labour all need to be given their due place and value not only as recognized fields of learning but also as well respected career paths. Vocational education must be given to those who are not academically oriented, and such an education should have as much prestige as a college education. We need to identify diverse talents in individuals and allow them to excel in those by not only providing opportunity but also recognition and value to non academic pursuits. Only this will help end the silent oppression that stifled natural human diversity since human beings invented standardized education.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Marketization of Education in Pakistan


Maryam Sakeenah

The sleek car that zoomed past sported a sticker telling passers-by that the owner was a ‘proud parent’ of a child at a certain institution. The pride of course was for the fact that this institution was exclusive to the privileged elite on account of its appallingly high tuition fee. My initial reaction was openmouthed disbelief. Eventually it sank in… the reason for the parent’s pride was not the child’s achievement or act of merit, but the fact that they could pay that outrageously high fee for a select, exclusive education. The distasteful sticker was issued, of course, by the school itself. The particular school happens to be top-notch within a system that metes out education according to buying power. It consists of schools varying in standards of education and resources according to the tuition fee rates. Such a system helps to perpetuate a rigid social stratification based on class, utterly ruining any semblance of meritocracy within which an education system truly delivers, making social mobility possible.

This is marketized education at its worst; education reduced to a commodity. It defies the idea that education is a universal birthright to better the lives of all human beings, and is an affront to egalitarian social ideals. And yet this marketization of education in urban Pakistan has been subtly under way since years, and no one batted an eyelid. Its consequences which are only beginning to show up, are nightmarish, privileging the financial elite by education, enabling them to be at the helm of positions of power and influence in the bureaucracy and industry, media and education. Those denied the privilege for their financial inability are forever condemned to menial working class positions demanding clerical servility to perpetuate the system made by and for the financial elite.

This has largely been made possible through the rise of the business executive as educator and policymaker. Graduates in business, marketing and management run administrations of educational institutions, equipped with all the clever arts of moneymaking, profiteering, competing and selling. They have never stood on the giving end of a classroom, are completely ignorant of human psychology and educational philosophy, unaware of the nuances of the complex process of learning. Trained in the art of selling for profit, they lack the vision to educate for the sake of education. They educate for business, and so function as indispensable, core elements of the commercialized private schooling system.

The great irony is when this system places the average business graduate as educational administrator over the academic, making and dictating educational policy. Such policy then is driven primarily by the profit motive. In this commercialized milieu, the educator, teacher and giver of knowledge is a worker in the system serving a clientele that generates the money. Hence the client is cosseted to perfect satisfaction for his money, and the educator slavedriven to provide that to impossible perfection. Teachers in Pakistan’s private schools continue to be heavily overworked and perpetually underpaid.    

The subjugation of the academic to the professional businessman is at the core of the marketization of education. Business graduates trained to keep up the utilitarian-capitalist economy administer the system, making policy that utterly lacks any understanding of the functions and nature of education as well as any genuine concern for social uplift, human empowerment and liberation through education. In my experience as a teacher, I have come across among most urban English-medium private schools a systematic and deliberate trend discouraging value education and traditional disciplines like oriental languages or religious studies because they have little material worth in a cutthroat economy. Students graduate with the ruinous notion that a spattering of accented English gives them the right to social superiority and is enough to sweep anyone off their feet; or that a skill at gadgetry is of highest value in landing oneself a high paying job. Their years of education often fail to humanize, enlighten and enrich them with wisdom, compassion or humility even as they sport all the paraphernalia of wealth and good taste. They are perfectly finished products of the system- cogs in the machine, and yet unable to truly live the enervating yet edifying epic struggles of human life.

In the private education system, the business graduate not only takes the fattest cheque home, he helps to keep in place the system that created him and put him over the educator, visionary and academic. The human products of marketized education are a tawdry triumph of this system that privileges a particular social class over the rest.