Education, Knowledge, Learning

Ever since I was a tiny totty, potty, snotty, little thing, it was always implied that books, more than anything, were like diamonds and pearls. They were the keepers of the mysteries of life, your guardian angels, protectors and best friends. Only through books and the written word, can you digest the lessons of life and be taken seriously in the world. Only an education will save you from the dismality of adulthood. Life experience teach you survival skills and the ability to apply knowledge of various forms. They do not replace technical skills. Wisdom does not require an education. Still, in my experience, I am yet to find anyone who would seek legal representation from someone who is not a qualified lawyer. The same goes for an engineer or school teacher.

As soon as I started working I was told to work smart not hard. To this day I fail to understand what that means. Unless that is, you have to make stodgy old men feel young again, massage fragile egos, dumb yourself down and violate whatever sense of integrity you have; just so you can earn a living, generate experiences and realise your dreams. I believe knowledge and education contribute to a better world for everyone. More than a stepping stone and a means to an end, education broadens the mind, teaches you how to think, and aim at becoming a better person. Luckily, I have always been surrounded by overachievers. Whether friends or family, they all illustrated how far hard work, focus, dedication, discipline, honesty, humility and humbleness can take you.

One day, during my school holidays I was bored out of my mind and there was nothing interesting to watch on the television. It was a bright, sunny, summer day and my best friend was away on holiday with her family. I had no one to play with. During one of my whining session I was going on about how bored I was. My mom told me to keep quiet and stop whining

“…I’m bored, you say? What kind of thing is that to say?! Go out in the garden and find something to do….I’m bored hmph!”

My brother, the quick-witted overachiever said”

“Bored? ….only boring people are bored, so that means you’re boring, otherwise you wouldn’t be bored,”

and walked away to dissect some bumblebee, butterfly, or garden furniture because he wanted to explore its construction.

This left my Dad and sister. My sister just listened. When my dad asked why I was bored, I told him I wanted many friends because when my best friend was away on holiday I had no one to play with. At first my father just smiled and listened to my whining and then he said:

“You want friends? I will introduce you to some friends.”

He gently grabbed me by the shoulder and led me towards our bookshelf and said:

“here, these are your friends.”

I looked at the books and then at him in disbelief and uttered contemptuously:

“books?! What fun can I have with books?! They’re not humans, they are not even my age.”

Swallowing his amusement my dad, with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eyes said:

“yes books… but these are not just words written on paper, these are the best of friends you could ever have. You make books your best friends, you will never need the company of people until your friend returns from holiday. Books can take you to unknown places you never knew existed. You can explore the world through books.”

He then handed me the Pearl by John Steinbeck and told me to read it. Considering Steinbeck’s love for words and intricate descriptions, it is a relatively child friendly story.

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Dictionaries save you from misunderstanding contexts and meanings. I never really bothered with them. I used to have a very lackadaisical attitude to education. I have come to understand that knowledge acquisition is a matter of life and death. In this case, if you snooze, you lose. Hence, during my first year at university, my brother asked:

“what do you do if you don’t understand anything?”

“ask the lecturer to explain?”

“…Well that too, but what else? It’s really easy, just look around and you will know what I’m referring to. It’s in this room, right in front of you.”

When he understood it was unclear to me, he said:

“use the dictionary”

“dictionary? … isn’t that for stupid people?”

“Yes, dictionary, …and no, people who use dictionaries are not stupid. It is stupid not to use a dictionary. Trust me on this, you can’t know the meaning of every word. Sometimes one word comes up all the time and if you don’t know what it means you won’t understand what you’re reading. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, you will most definitely fail.”

In retrospect, I didn’t understand a word of what I studied, but in this case, failure was not an option. Well it never is. Even if nothing materializes, at least you know you tried your best. I never got a 2:1, or a glamorous career in international development. Yet, my undergraduate degree is my most cherished possession. It gave me the skills to think independently, outside the box and enabled me to face the world confidently. Moreover, it forced me to respect myself in an otherwise disrespectful environment. It was an all-inclusive ticket to explore different countries and organisational environments.

Interestingly, whether university educated or not, all previous bosses and supervisors considered university education irrelevant. Coming from people with Masters or M.Phil from good universities is rather twisted. Yet, according to them, irrespective of their educational attainments, what matters is experience. As I lacked the latter I was unsuitable for employment. Which is ironic since they were very happy to take my work and ideas, practically for free, before telling me I was a waste of space.

It is amusing how senior management will hire seemingly insignificant people, take their ideas and strategies and take the credit for the nobodies invaluable contribution, which enable the employers to develop their own “Rockstar” status. This could be one of the reasons for the lack of continuity in projects, and might explain the lack of direction every 5-10 years in planning. Still, this discontinuity is what makes international development such a rewarding field. Particularly, due to the constant need for novel, bigger and better thinking and methods. So, in my case, I take the blame for this exploitation because I needed experience about the ways of the world in a professional context. Thus, according to an old AC/DC song “good riddance to bad luck.”

Luckily, I am not the only one with such encounters. However, on behalf of my community of fellow nobodies in international development, I fail to justify such unethical workplace practices, and believe me, it is not for lack of trying. On a positive note, I will say, thank you for the rubbish experiences, the crappy offers, the insignificant or nonexistent remuneration. Not to mention the amazing people I met. Hence, armed with a solid education, in my case it certainly has been my only means of self-defense. Also, I dare say, adulthood makes you master of your own story.

Adulthood requires you to sacrifice family for career prospects and everything it entails. This is how you develop an independent identity. It also one of the reasons you are born into a family. They are supposed to be there for you even after you mess up everything, throw caution to the wind and transgress values and principles. This is how you come to understand their significance. However, those sacrifices should be for something bigger and better than slander, libel and professional dead-ends. This is because in some cases, even if you make those required sacrifices, you still end up with your face down, smudged in cow-dung.

Finally, no one can take your abilities and skills away from you. It is up to the individual to keep finding something to be passionate about, even after the nuclear grenades explode in your face and you have to close another pipe dream. In this connection, education gives you the technical skills to process, synthesise and work with different kinds of materials. Hence, whenever people ridicule educational achievements my mother always says

“…What did they say? …Education is nothing? …Education is everything! …It is the base, the foundation of everything. Without the base or the foundation you can never build anything. Experiences are important to learn how to use knowledge, but how can you construct anything that lasts if you don’t have knowledge? How stupid they are.”