The unmaking of paradise: Literacy as Trojan Horse – Part III

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The valley, now dark, continues to change. The dark clouds change with the wind. In one image, we see smoke take the shape of the factories and blowing more smoke. In another, some of the smoke looks like a landscape shot of a modern city, with dark looming towers rising. And, with slums of black tar covering any part not constructed.

Then, we see some movement, something moving under the tar. We see it again. And again. And again. Across many different locations. And then we see the tar being pushed off from below. As it rises, it turns back into smoke. And this smoke, unlike the rest, moves fast towards the end of our frame. This happens faster and faster and across more and more locations.

And, then, as if by magic. The tar mostly disappears. A little smoke and a few patches remain. We see them being cleaned out by people.

As we zoom out and end this animation, we see a new beauty arising. Not what it was before. But, equally beautiful: full of new colours, aromas, and life.

Slide 3: The third, and final, part of the animation, بولی (boli).

If we  can learn to identify how our paradise is being kept hostage by a dependence on colonial approaches to literacy and education, then, it is possible for us to gain independence from colonial powers by developing and using alternative approaches: ones that are designed to empower us, our communities, and our environment. However, given the almost total obliteration of our local histories and knowledge – and their replacement by colonial and colonial-influenced narratives and histories (see Part 1 and Part 2 of the essay), this is not an easy task. In many ways, in order to do what we need to do, we will have to:

  1. rethink almost everything that we know, assume, and/or believe about ourselves and our histories; and,
  2. realign our material and socio-semiotic worlds.

What are material and socio-semiotic worlds?

Everything around us is either material or non-material, i.e., it exists in the material world or it does not. If something doesn’t exist in the material world, it doesn’t mean that the ‘thing’ cannot exist at all. There a number of things that don’t have material existence, but they may exist for individuals and/or groups of people. Ideas, beliefs, and thoughts are examples of socio-semiotic systems that exist essentially in our heads (some of which may be shared with others). These ideas can and sometimes do impact the material world through engagement and action, e.g. I thought of having ice cream and then walked to the ice cream shop to get one; or, differences between peoples’ beliefs can lead to conflict, which may have an impact on the material world.

We engage with the material world through our five material senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. In Part 2 of the essay, we differentiated between the visual and the auditory systems to understand how writing systems and boli (oral language) do not necessarily have to be dependent on each other. The visual and the auditory systems are two amongst five material senses that humans have access to. All other senses are socio-semiotic, i.e., they are non-material. Material senses allow us to interact with the material/physical/biological world around us. Non-material senses provide us with the interpretive frameworks that are used to understand material stimuli; non-material systems also play a part in how we respond to particular stimuli (this response can be material and/or socio-semiotic).

It needs to be noted that not all humans have access to or use the five material senses in the same way. Which material senses a person has access to, to what degree, and how they use them does NOT imply superiority or inferiority of any one person over another; however, they do help us in understanding how different people and groups of people interact with the world and each other. For example, a person may or may not have sight: this does not mean that a person who has sight is better than one who doesn’t. Similarly, people may use sight for reading or not: people who do not use sight for reading may engage with the world in different ways than those who do; this does not make them better or worse, just different. People who may not have access to (or full access to) sight use other senses in compensation to making sense of material stimuli not available to their sight (e.g. using touch/ smell/ sound to navigate a space).

The five material senses can be distinguished by considering two factors: proximity (distance from us) and ingestion (whether we take something inside our body or not). Of these two factors, proximity allows us to organise the five material senses in a hierarchal order (see Table 1 below). [An explanation of this hierarchy can be found here.]

Sensory system Proximity Ingestion
Sight +++
Sound ++
Smell + +
Touch 0 / – – / +
Taste +

Table 1: The hierarchy of the five material senses based on proximity

Table 1 shows how we use sight and sound to engage with things that are more distant. Notice here that touch requires no distance (0 proximity) and, in some instance, it can, e.g. a cut, penetrate through our skin (- proximity, + ingestion). Table 1 can also help us to see that the five material senses can be grouped into two groups. Group A, which includes sight and sound, can sense things that have a long range: they can be close or far from us; however, in either case, we don’t ingest through sight or sound. Group B, which include smell, touch, and taste require things to be close to us and ingestion is possible (and, in some cases essential).

The job of our material senses is to receive material stimuli which are then interpreted through our socio-semiotics systems (which act as our interpretive frameworks). Socio-semiotic systems, or the non-material world, is essentially everything that is not material. This includes, but is not limited to, religion, beliefs, economic systems, culture, and language.

Some readers might be surprised that language is a socio-semiotic system, and not a material system. This is because sound waves, which are material, don’t carry any meanings in themselves. It is people who parse sounds and give meanings (or not) to them: while, one language may use one set of sounds, another might use a different one to refer to the same meaning (e.g. ‘apple’, English, and ‘seib’, boli, are two sets of sounds that refer to the same object); or, in some cases, languages might use the same sound or a set of sounds, but for different purposes and different meanings (e.g., /bɪn/: refers to ‘something we throw trash into’ in English; refers to ‘being without’ in Urdu). Similarly, while we can all smell the same things, our interpretations of what the smell is or how it makes us feel might differ (e.g. things we might have found OK in the past may become unpleasant: observe how people find cigarette smoke very unpleasant once they have given up smoking).

One way to grasp the difference between material and non-material things is to ask the question: Can I halve it? While material things can typically be halved (e.g., one can cut a potato into two equal halves); one cannot halve non-material things (e.g., one cannot cut an idea into two equal halves).

An understanding of what material and socio-semiotic systems are and how they operate can help us understand how the colonisers have maintained and continue to strengthen their hold over the colonised peoples. In this, education and literacy are the secret weapons hidden in the Trojan Horse given to the colonised people as gifts. A Trojan Horse, while it may appear to be a gift, carries hidden weapons that can destroy the recipients of the ‘gift’. We looked at examples of how literacy and education have negatively impacted South Asia in Parts 1 and 2 of this essay. Here, we will focus on how we can use our understandings of material and non-material systems to set-up alternative ways of education – ones that are designed to empower people and communities, rather than making them dependent on colonial powers.

Decolonising education

Indigenous education in South Asia, not unlike many other places worldwide, was based on an apprenticeship approach. People learnt skills that were needed in the community from the elders and experts. People who focussed on different things developed specialised language for their needs, which is how languages naturally evolve. These specialised skills and associated knowledge and language was transferred across generations through diverse practices. Literacy, while it existed across South Asia, was not the goal or tool of education.

In other words, education in South Asia was embedded in practice (not literacy) and practice was learnt from experts in community through observation and engagement. This implied that people spent time together as they did and learnt things. The practices learnt by people in community were those that were deemed necessary by the community and had emerged and evolved over time. This learning did not depend on literacy; it depended on observing, listening, and practicing. While, literacy evolved and was used in certain contexts in South Asia – mostly in urban and trading centres, it was not a wide-spread practice across the region. This was because education was not grounded in literacy and literacy was not considered an essential tool for human survival. So, for example, there were no modern economists, doctors or engineers around, yet the health, prosperity, and infrastructure was sustainable and much better than today – consider the millions living in slums or slum-like conditions across South Asia today. What is needed to address these concerns is an education of action; not paper-and-pen tests that encourage rote-learning and memorisation.

The local apprentice-type approach to education changed with colonisation. Colonial education draws primarily on two sensory systems: sight and sound. Through an emphasis on literacy (which is dependent on sight and therefore allows us to engage with things in a distance), it includes and often focusses on things and abstractions that may not directly be present or relevant to the lives of the people in the colonial world. However, these non-local (and often non-verifiable) knowledge is turned into a requirement in colonial schools and becomes, in the absence of any counterevidence/narrative, the ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ that people believe in. This use of literacy as a key tool in colonial education serves to alienate the students from their own immediate contexts and link their socio-semiotics to non-present systems and practices, which are projected through educational texts and resources.

A large number of schools across South Asia focus on literacy (sight) and oral teaching (sound); little attention, if any, is paid to other sensory systems or the interrelationship between the various sensory systems. For example, schools in South Asia can be over-crowded, dirty, smelly, and noisy: this impacts all aspects of the students’ material being and their socio-semiotic learning – but is disregarded by educational authorities, who focus on the curricula and tests/examinations. An over-emphasis on reading and a neglect of the local context and needs of the learners enables an educational system which situates students outside of their own contexts and does help people address their own concerns and needs.

This removing of humans from their immediate contexts is a strategy used by colonial powers to influence individuals into acting in the interest of the colonials (and often against the interests of their own communities and environment). As people become more engaged in activities that are dependent on Group A of our material senses, i.e., senses that allow us to focus on things that are not in our present (or directly verifiable), we pay less attention on things that are closer to us and that we are surrounded by. By doing so, we can lose our connection with our material being and instead rally around things that only have a socio-semiotic (non-material) existence for most of us. We see evidence of this in how our educational system trains graduates who want to find jobs overseas to make some cash, instead of thinking about how they can improve the material situation in which they and their communities live. Similarly, we find that our educational systems across South Asia teach and promote colonial and colonial-influenced histories that further divide the people and lead to conflict, violence, and poverty.

Most learning/teaching in colonial schools is based on textbooks and curricula that are controlled by governments. Often, as in the case of the development of the recent draft National Education Curriculum in Pakistan, there is no wider public consultation or engagement in the development of educational policies and material. The educational policies developed by various ‘countries’ are designed to aid in the economic progress of the country. In order to do this, the country prioritises content and goals that will lead to higher employment rates. As such, the educational policies of the colonised countries are ones that aim to aid economic development, which is managed by the colonial powers (through publication houses, international conferences, etc.).

Currently, education in the colonised communities is geared to serve the needs of colonial masters, not our own people. In other words, the current educational system is designed to keep us colonised and subjugated rather than become independent and prosperous. This can be observed in how so many of our educational institutions pride themselves on having graduated students who have found jobs overseas, i.e., they have trained people who left their homes and communities in order to earn wages overseas (I accept that I am one of those people who was expected to leave Pakistan, instead of staying there); and, hence, not trained people who stayed home and contributed to the betterment of local communities.

To decolonise, we need an educational system that enables decolonisation, instead of colonisation. An education that decolonises is an education that:

  1. is not consumed by the goal of spreading universal literacy;
  2. is not designed to only prepare people to work for others for (petty) wages;
  3. considers the needs of the community and then trains the citizens to learn to address those needs;
  4. values all form of knowledge and skills, not just ones included in colonial textbooks/languages;
  5. is designed to make people independent and able to manage their own needs and resources; and,
  6. involves all stakeholders in its development and management.

If we are interested in creating such a decolonising education, we need to support our own people, instead of constantly criticising them for not meeting colonial ‘standards’. We also need to realise that wisdom and expertise comes through experience, engagement, and reflection, not by simply reading or being a critical thinker. Nor is knowledge restricted to English: language is science, and this language is not restricted to English. A decolonised education values expertise and knowledge, not the language it is in.

If we are interested in supporting our own people through education, we need to reset the goals of education and focus on skills and practice rather than literacy. Skills, which require knowledge that can be orally (or visually, e.g. through drawing/animation) communicated and do NOT require literacy, can be used to make and do things: e.g., build systems and processes to manage air, water and land pollution in our regions. These ‘doings’ can, in turn, help generate local economies and break the dependence on colonial knowledge and economy.

Giving skills, rather than focussing on literacy, requires an engagement with multiple material senses. Education practices that engage multiple material and non-material systems tend to be much more embedded within a community than those that engage with just a few. For example, an educational system that is mostly dependent on written text may not be reflective of or relevant to people in different contexts. Since writing, a visual system, uses stimuli that are most distant from a person, it can also be difficult to ascertain the reliability and validity of the visual stimuli (e.g., most of the fake news on social media exploits our visual and auditory systems). While in some cases we can check to see if what we saw was right or wrong, e.g., if we see a fire in the distance, we can move closer to inspect it; in other cases, e.g. in case of written texts, the referents are not necessarily accessible to us and cannot be verified. In such cases, if we believe the information we receive, then, we are putting our trust in the source of the text.

And, this is where potential problems lie. If texts that students are exposed to in their education include lies and fake news, then students’ socio-semiotics and their actions can be directed to achieve destructive goals. Unfortunately, at present, across South Asia, educational texts are designed to engender socio-semiotics of divisions and conflict and violence. That we find violence and poverty across South Asia should not come as a surprise – what we are seeing are the outcomes of the colonial education and literacy practices that we have now consumed for scores of generations and have internalised as ‘facts’.

However, if we consider the non-material basis of these ‘facts’ and ask for material evidence to support them, we can start to unravel the threads that have kept us bound to colonial chains.

Identifying and breaking the chains of socio-semiotic dependency is one key strategy to decolonise education. In doing so, our goal is not to take our people/communities back-in-time, but rather to move forward with a shared vision of what we need to achieve. And, in order to achieve these goals, we will need to develop tools, strategies, and resources – using a range of material and non-material systems. In doing this, literacy can continue to play a role – but, this use of literacy will be based on need: it will not be set as the goal of education. Instead, we can develop tools that can be used to engage all people – regardless of their literacy, English language skills, and/or access to particular (aspects of) material and non-material systems.

And, as we shift our educational goals and practices, we will start to observe that the dark clouds that kept the sunlight away from us and our lands slowly starts to disperse. And, as these clouds disperse, a new landscape emerges. Not the same as before. But, just as colourful and diverse and pluralistic.

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