Sunday, December 11, 2016


‘Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn’ (Benjamin Franklin: the guy who tried to figure out electricity using a kite and a key…in a thunderstorm)
A couple of years ago, the earth stopped revolving around the sun. It was when Sheikh Bandar Ali Khaibari a Saudi cleric, participated in an event during a visit to Khor Fakkan in the UAE. On that occasion the Sheikh was asked by a student whether the Earth moves or if it is stationery. The Sheikh replied quite categorically that the earth did not move. As reported by a United Arab Emirates newspaper, the cleric even demonstrated his reasoning by means of a cup, saying that if he were to take off into the air from a point on this cup (Earth) to go to China, and in the meantime the cup rotated, China would also rotate with it and his plane would never get there. Really, his reasoning was logical enough except for the small matter of the laws of Physics which were not included in the cleric’s argument. Maybe he did not believe in Physics. It turned out he did not believe in the lunar landings either and dismissed them as fake news. Another of the many conspiracy theorists around the world.
The newspaper reports that Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abdullah bin Baaz, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, now deceased, held similar doubts regarding the Earth being flat. Apparently he changed his views after talking to Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud a Saudi Royal Air Force fighter pilot and the Sheikh’s fellow countryman, who went into space in 1985. The Prince witnessed the fact that the earth was round for himself and related the sight to the Sheikh.
So hold that thought.
It was mentioned before in these columns that many students of government schools in Pakistan, even at the level of Intermediate and BA, have never seen a magnifying glass, and do not know what it is. Recently this was checked again, and true enough of a class of eight none had seen a magnifying glass. When asked to use their imagination and figure out what it was, even after the glass was accidentally on purpose placed on a book so the students could see what it did to the letters the best answer was that it was perhaps an instrument used to wash clothes. One girl shook it to demonstrate how it could be used to beat cloth to clean it. Once they were clearly shown what it was though, they understood and were interested.
There’s something to be learnt from both these cases. The first is that a lot appears to have changed in the way a society that produced the likes of Ibn e Rushd (Averroes), Khwarizmi, and Avicenna, thinks. The towering intellect of these men revolutionised philosophy, mathematics, geography, medicine and many other fields, pushing the horizons of learning beyond anything achieved before. Even Google did not try to change the spelling of their names.
The other thing to be learnt is that the people in both these examples were willing and able to learn from examples of people or events that fell within their limited experience. It took a fellow countryman to break through the conspiracy theorist mindset of the cleric, and the evidence of their eyes to get through to the girls.
And this is what is needed for education here, practical evidence-based teaching with familiar examples that people can relate to. Clerics and the general population of Pakistan would likewise benefit from such teaching, which could also for example (and this is not a facetious suggestion) require students to interact closely with minority groups to experience the lives of people they do not respect, so they may see for themselves what telling them would not achieve, that minorities are neither demonic nor aliens, that they have lives, values and aspirations like anyone else.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, writing in one of the national daily newspapers spoke of a biology textbook published in the KP last year that ridiculed the idea of evolution. And of his next door neighbour, an educated man, who did not really believe in either mathematics or modern medicine. So, clearly, knowledge is not education, nor is it enough. Imagination is also required, something that is as obstructed by our current syllabi as education.
The text book gurus in Pakistan once discarded a children’s book in which the author had included animals talking to each other. Their objection was that the book taught children lies, since animals do not speak. A circumscribed point of view. If education remains on this track our ambit will remain very, very limited. There, and back, and nowhere else.
Albert Einstein said that ‘the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, it is imagination,’ and also that ‘the only source of knowledge is experience’. Better the two together, since there comes a point when knowledge goes beyond experience, and further knowledge can only be acquired by a leap of imagination.

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