These bleary thoughts are by no means a meaningful formulation of one of the most knotty problems describing the crisis of modernity. Its just that my good friend thabet’s enquiry on his blog stuck with me a little longer and prompted me to ponder consistently on related and a wider range of subjects.
A telling conversation in starting pages of Solitaire Mystery reaches its pinnacle when the father replies to his son who is in love with philosophy that he cannot teach him philosophy purposefully but if he is observant enough of his father’s thinking patterns, he might learn how to think philosophically. The example crudely highlights the difference between learning and gathering information and how each of these specifies the context of an experience we loosely call ‘education’.
Learning about something means much more than garnering facts about the subject of our learning. It is an identification of the particular way how the thought behind that subject or object proceeded, sometimes by a deliberate effort to relive that thought process and at times an awareness when one happens to be a part of that process. This failure to differentiate between these fine experiences, all relating to that larger experience education at some level, is the major reason why we incessantly harp on the philosophies that shaped up the modern world without ever posing questions with the same unflagging resolve regarding the products of the same modernity.
This striking inability to ‘experience’ is closely related to commodification of knowledge in modern times. Many thinkers associate this commodification to Theodore Shultz’s seemingly maiden views about economics of education. According to other opinions including mine, this understanding is only a logical extension of laws of market economy to the production, processing, acquiring and sharing of knowledge. Moreover in our times, education can be theorized more easily if it is described as one of the means to invest in human capital rather than other epistemological reasons to ‘know’.
The current education system fits perfectly in place if modern economic theories are kept at the backdrop of any such enquiry. For instance, semester system is nothing but breaking down a process into manageable sizes in order to achieve more efficiency. Student will be able to process more information as a result, similar to any productive industry which produces more if process is efficient. The underlying aim is not to ‘learn more’ about how a particular thought proceeds but to ‘acquire more’ in terms of information.
Moving along same lines of thinking, a valid question may arise regarding what kind of knowledge one should acquire. We are apt to face this question frequently in modern times because knowledge is not understood as a personal configuration of meaning which facilitates one’s faculties to pass judgements anymore. Everything related to education is now an industry and the outcome of this demand-supply phenomena can easily be seen in university where faculty of engineering is paid handsomely as compared to that of philosophy. Moreover when we are in the process of celebrating exponential growth of information which can be safely alluded to its inherent quality ‘to move’, the means to find justifications for this act of production itself are quickly being put into the dustbin of history.
We need to remind ourselves, while being actively creative in doing wonders with knowledge as it is inferred in modern times, that education is an intimate relationship between ‘a being and being’ or ‘a being and the Being’. To get educated about something means effectively to possess a personalised configuration of meaning in order to evaluate its importance. This configuration is basically an understanding which one learns to acquire through developing a relationship with one’s object of learning. Without being equipped with the zeal and intention to experience this relationship, its like learning a football game through a coaching book with graphics. One may become completely ‘informed’ about the complexities of the game but can’t claim that he has ‘learnt football’. The analogy of the game could be extended to all fields of learning though dynamics of each would be considerably different than the other.
This brief enquiry is not primarily an epsitemological one but just a pseudo-ontological drive to find a compass with the shift in nature and existence of our being in modern times. Keeping this motive in perspective, knowledge in Islam in pre-modern times was strictly situated at a personalised level. A teacher is not merely a ‘facilitator’ as we have come to understand in modern times, who merely teaches abstract skills to access, process and retain information but a being who used to teach his life. He used to teach a text depicting a particular thought and mastering that text actually meant to learn the complete thought process behind that text.
To put it simply, it was a way to embody knowledge, and all the participants in that learning relationship were completely aware of this ultimate goal. Besides the intent to live what one learns, it was completely a moral and spiritual quest. Every indulgence to educate self ultimately led to make one wise regarding another sign of Allah. The emphasis of that understanding was more on the world here then the world hereafter because knowledge acquired here can only be embodied while we are here. The manifestations of this knowledge were not understood in isolation with the process that ultimately led to it. It was not some disposable experience but once acquired became part of the self.
In modern times there are efforts to retrace the ‘traditional’ pathways leading to an ideal destination without replacing the old signposts. However the language of signs that spirit relates to is changed and crisis of modernity is not the contemporaneousness of the experience itself but the inability of the self to create new guideposts. The terminus, the path and the spirit still share the same origin but the mobility of intellect is hindered and needs new tools to navigate. Perhaps the most important enterprise that Muslims should indulge into is the effort to understand the requirement of a fresh compass in the light of modern philosophies. But this undertaking would only be valid if Muslims become aware of the fact that they are the keepers of an eternal epistemology which is capable of encompassing and validating all the contemporary trends. Moreover the claim of this awareness should not be mere lip service but a spontaneous and ad-lib manifestation. Identification of ways that can bring about such a sentient being may take us to the heart of our forgotten tradition and make our conversations with history current.