So then, which of us is an educated man?


Keralite fisherman launching their boat for another night at sea. A dangerous occupation requiring skills, knowledge and understanding beyond mere "educated men".

Keralite fisherman launching their boat for another night at sea. A dangerous occupation requiring skills, knowledge and understanding beyond mere “educated men”.

“Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

G.K. Chesterton

Evening on a beach in Kerala. A dome of stars in an ebony sky and the roaring of waves as the sea rushes back and forth on the shore line. As the light fades the coconut trees above the beach form a gently swaying silhouette on the skyline. Sitting with Johnson, his brothers and his father in the shelter of one of the flimsy fishing  vessels pulled high up on the strand we were just one of several groups of men enjoying the close of day. There is something revealing in that last sentence, for we were indeed a male crowd – lounging on an evening beach is manly business in the fishing communities of Kerala.

The conversation was a hesitant staccato of English and Malayalam as Johnson acted as interpreter and intermediary between myself and his family. This is a community built upon fish and struggling to come to terms with declining stocks. Johnson’s father is a fisherman as was his father and grandfather before him and probably every male family member going back over generations and possibly centuries. But I find myself wondering for how much longer this way of life will survive. Times are changing fast in India, and the old ways of living have become devalued. Life in this community is hard and every year fisherman are lost at sea whilst searching for an ever diminishing quarry. This state of affairs appears to be accepted as an inevitable aspect of being a Keralite fisherman. Why would the young men of the village not wish for a different way to earn a living?

Inevitably it was my curiosity that dominated early exchanges in the conversation. When we are in the presence of people whose life experiences differ so greatly from our own we are likely to seek for some kind of understanding.  “How far out to sea”, I asked, “did the fishermen go?” After a brief thought the answer came back from Johnson’s father via his son – “a long way”. “Did he ever meet fishermen from other coastal areas?” – “sometimes”. “Did he ever have to avoid some of the big ships plying the local waters?” – “sometimes”.

The conversation, certainly on the part of Johnson’s father was somewhat mono-syllabic. But then things changed. “How did he know where he was when he was far out at sea, and how did he find his way back? Did he navigate by the stars?” I suppose as an experienced researcher I should have known better than to ask a multi-part question, but I must admit I was somewhat taken aback by what followed. An animated interchange between Johnson’s father and his sons, with much head shaking and waving of hands left me a confused bystander for several minutes. When the conversation lulled, I tried to gain an impression of what had been discussed. Why had my questions led to such a lively exchange?

Johnson smiled and said, “my father says they are stupid questions. He can find his way at sea because he is a fisherman. He has always been able to do this. All the fishermen can find their way at sea and he doesn’t have time to look at the stars.” Johnson’s father nodded at me and smiled. He could see that I had got the message, and that I was out of my depth in this unfamiliar environment. “My father says he is not an educated man like you, he is just a fisherman” Johnson explained.

So, I thought, Johnson’s father is just a fisherman. He can go to sea in a boat that is little more than a dugout canoe and travel far from the sight of land. He can then locate the best places in which to cast his nets in order to catch fish. He  then heads for home, finding his way back to the exact beach from which he had originally launched. All this in the dark and often on a rolling and hostile sea. Johnson’s father can feed his family and on good days have extra fish to sell. He can manage and repair his nets and is a judge of when the conditions are not conducive to going to sea. And now he tells me that he is not an educated man.

Part of today's frugal catch. Every day it is a question of whether there will be sufficient to feed the village population

Part of today’s frugal catch. Every day it is a question of whether there will be sufficient to feed the village population

If I needed to acquire even a small portion of the knowledge that Johnson’s father has gained over his lifetime I would not know where to start. If suddenly I was given the responsibilities that he carries, I fear my family would starve. He may not have the formal learning that I have been privileged to gain through school and university, but he demonstrates the application of learning gained through experience and necessity.

Questions come to mind every time that I am in company with Johnson’s family, who have afforded me generous hospitality on numerous occasions. What does it mean to be an educated man (or woman)? Have we developed formal education systems that value learning of a particular and narrow kind? What value do we place upon knowledge that is handed down through the generations and seldom set down in books?

Johnson took the picture at the foot of this posting. He told me it was a picture of “two wise men together”. I think he flatters me – in the environment of the fishing community I am a dunce.

Maybe it is time to reappraise what we value in learning.

Johnson tells me that this is a picture of "two wise men together". I have no doubt about which of us has the learning that is of most value in a South Indian fishing community.

Johnson tells me that this is a picture of “two wise men together”. I have no doubt about which of us has the learning that is of most value in a South Indian fishing community.

15 thoughts on “So then, which of us is an educated man?

  1. Brilliant ( Richard, Loved the way you have described the evening at the beach at Johnson’s.)

    The term ‘educated man’ can be different for different individual. I feel an educated man is not just who holds a degree. People should be educated in their morals too to bring about a change in the society and gradually in the whole nation. What its like to try to measure your skills by the way you got your skills instead of skills itself? A degree is a necessary way of proving your skills for a particular job but on the other hand it can also say you are capable of something you forgot years ago.

    We have our farm at my native (in Gujrat) where my grandfather use to grow cotton. He did not gain a degree. But was good at farming, growing the cotton and was able to send his all children (my father) to gain good acedemic education, able to give them good values ,feed his whole family and other families too at our village. So for me he was an educated and knowledgeable man.

    I feel there’s a fine line between education and knowledge. Knowledge is very important aspect of ‘talent’ and a formal academic process in not the only way to achieve the knowledge. I have learnt a lot from my experiences then from the education I have gained.

    A person should have deep understanding about him/herself and how they fit into this world, and learned the –soft skills- ability to manage themselves- ability to be lifelong learner.

  2. Well said Neha,
    One of the things that educated people must do is take responsibility for the support of others. Just as your grandfather clearly did, not only for his family but a wider section of society.

  3. Hi Richard,

    As educators of future generations and of those who influence future generations (i.e. other educators), your reflections speak to me about – what is needed in our education system/curriculum/syllabus to prepare citizens for tomorrow? This is not a new conundrum: we teach today from what we have learnt in the past, in order to build a better tomorrow.

    However, your reflections bring together the need for knowledge, skills and attitude through practical application and personal experience. This is why I value both the strap line of The University of Northampton (Transforming Lives) and their commitment to social enterprise. This is not a plug for the Uni or #socent – you can about read this elsewhere

    But more about us taking time out from our busy lives to look at what it is we value in eductaion and why? Such ponderings also provoke the question – what is true education?

    Quite early on in my career, I spent a lot of time looking at character development as the product of education through the defining of personal values. I still believe this to be valid and transformational educative process across contexts/situations/time eras. Such exposure to inner reflective processes helps to build up personal resilience and a sense of belonging/community. Your anecdote of the heated debate reflects balancing the values Johnson had grown up with, but also the ones he had been exposed to through travelling/studying. Our values become a point of reference upon which to evaluate, develop and refine our perceptions of life.

    Look forward to the on-going dialogue,

    All the best,

    Anita / @Butterflycolour

    • Hi Anita,
      Reflection on personal values is an interesting part of teaching that is often overlooked. I think alongside tghis the need to look at where others obtain their values and the cultural influences upon these needs to be addressed. I sometimes worry when in India I see individuals rushing to obtain a MBA simply because it has become the recognised standard in business rather than questioning how the content of the degree course, or the peripheral opportunities for learning might shape their approach to business as individuals. I do not believe that education should simply be a utilitarian process, or that it should be inany way esoteric. However, if it is not an education that makes us question our beliefs and values and gain an understanding of the needs of others it will be somewhat shallow. “An unexamined life is not worth living”, (attributed to Socrates)

  4. It is how we define knowledge and education. I remember the words of one of my teachers during my first year at university who said, “You have three options – be literate but uneducated, illiterate but educated or literate and educated human being. People might get a dozen degrees to add to their names and yet be uneducated while a village farmer who has never seen a school building in his life be far more educated than the greatest of all scientists”. I am sure Johnson’s father did not acquire his ‘knowledge and education’ from an institute of marine technology or school of fishing, but through appropriate use of his skill, intelligence and ability to learn – learn from experience – not from textbooks. Your account also shows how education and educated can be so narrowly defined and in the process completely sideline if not ignore the true meaning of being educated.In an inclusive society, the concept of being educated should mean facilitating the fullest realisation of one’s potential -in whatever field or trade – ensuring a dignified life where one one is marginalised or exploited but appreciated, valued and included as equals. I think in today’s society, particularly in those which do not have inclusive practices, education and learning have fallen victim to the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ and is often measured in terms of institutions, affiliations and influence. Therefore, although sad and unfortunate, it would not be surprising if within the near future, the ‘knowledge and education’ possessed by people like Johnson’s father is considered worthless and circumstances prevented it from being passed on to the future generation and eventually lost…

  5. Hi Benny,
    I like your comment about education as a source of dignity. This is surely an important aspect of providing a truly inclusive education.

  6. Mr. Richard,
    That was a nice description of your experience in a coastal fishermen community. Being a part of this community I never found our fishermen’s knowledge and skill in their traditional occupation as appreciable since I used to develop a feeling that any one’s informal learning through experience and necessity will make them a skilled worker.But later on , when i was aspiring in getting more degrees on my particular field I realized the fact that to become a master in that field we must be able to apply the learned knowledge .Yes , our fishermen are masters of sea who apply the right knowledge at the right time, with no kind of formal education and limited access to the modern technology in fishing. Now , I feel proud that I’m the daughter of a learned (fisher)man! Thank you that you made us to feel proud .

  7. Dear Jenet,
    Thank you for your kind words. Your comments are greatly appreciated. We need to be proud of all learning, and within the fishing communities of Kerala I have found men and women who have immense skills, knowledge and understanding that it largely unknown and unappreciated by most of the world. People gain dignity and respect when we recognise them for the learning that they do have, rather than criticising them for that which they have had little opportunity to gain. We certainly need well qualified individuals with degrees and diplomas and initials after their names, but we equally need the fisherman, farmers, waiters, auto-rickshaw drivers and others whose learning is of a different but equally valuable kind.

  8. Hats-off Mr Richard for this sharing of experience with your reflections! I personally know Mr Johnson and his wonderful father, as I belong to the same village.

    Let me reproduce here what I shared in the FB group Save Coastal Area in which Mr Johnson shared this link.

    Great! Thanks for the link Mr Johnson. It may be productive, if Mr Johnson initiate a discussion (if possible in Malayalam) on this theme ‘Traditional Knowledge and Formal education: Exclusiveness and Inclusiveness’.
    There is the complementarity and the relative importance of these two. If not identified and recognized that, while honoring the bread-winning efforts of this fathers’ generation with their knowledge, it may lead to another extreme idealism. This may block or constrain the process of social mobility of the coastal community (in which the sons’ generation like Mr Johnson belongs).
    Educational theorists may interpret this in terms of ‘cognitive domain’-dominant (analytical knowledge) contribution of Mr Richard and Mr Johnson, while that of his father, as more of ‘psycho-motor-domain’ (skill) oriented. Yes, there is ‘Affective domain’ (heart and its attitude). All these three have that! That is why Mr Johnson’s father struggles at sea, Mr Richard humbly acknowledges that and Mr Johnson being proud of what he is, so he shared it here! Hats off for these three persons!!

    • Thank you Clement. I am sorry to say that my own learning does not extend to expressing my ideas in Malayalam. I am touched to think that an inhabitant of Poonchera has found something worthwhile in my words. Do keep up your important work for the coastal areas campaign. Such activism is essential for the well being of your village and the others along that stretch of the Kerala coast.

      • Oh, Mr Richard, I m sorry. It was a comment in response to Mr Johnson’s sharing of your blog-article in our group ‘Save Coastal Area’. The group consists of about 2000 members, all with Malayalam mother-tongue and mostly from the same district, Thiruvananthapuram. About 25 % of the same may be comfortable in English for this wonderful topic. So I suggested him for Malayalam, if possible, while we share the same in this blog in English.
        Thank you for your creative and proactive solidarity with the coastal community in Kerala.
        On the understanding of Johnson’s father’s experience on navigation and star’s constellation: let me share my humble understanding. Johnson’s father must be a hook & line fisher, which doesn’t need the stars’ constellations for navigation. While the gill-net fisher team, especially for sharks and such, who do days-long fishing rely on the stars. They cast their miles-long gill-net in the far-away sea (80 – 100 ft depth), locate the spot based on the relative positions of three stars (‘mela-knicham’ ie north-spot, ‘keela-kanicham’ ie south-spot and the ‘nadu-kanicham’ ie central-spot). After 3-4 days, they precisely reach the spot by synchronizing these three spots and lift-up the net with trapped-by-gill sharks and other fishes. Even hook & line fishers rely on stars in the same way to reach and locate the natural and artificial (sunk boats & ships) reefs. Mostly, this ‘location-knowledge’ is the ‘trade secret’ as only these guys land with fish, while other come empty.
        Once again, let me express our warm thanks for your interest in their life and solidarity!

        • Dear Clement,
          Thank you very much for this posting. When I began keeping this blog it was in the hope that we might creatre a respectful community of learners all prepared to share our knowledge and experiences. Your description of the navigation skills of the fishermen of Kerala is a fine example of what I had hoped for. I am grateful to you for this opportunity for learning and really appreciate the way in which you have taught me new knowledge. My experience of living briefly amongst the people of your community taught me that the fishermen and their families live hard lives with dignity and pride. Their skills and learning need to be recognised and shared with a much wider audience. Do keep up your excellent work as an advocate for them. I do hope that you will continue to follow this blog.

          • Dear Mr Richard, I m really happy to learn that I could share some useful information. Your article ignited me to do so. There are similar bits in the FB group posts/comments. I may try to find time to consolidate those scattered posts and comments. Thank you for your encouraging words. I just did a quick look into your other blog-articles. We are all grateful to you for your wonderful efforts and reflections! I assure you my solidarity.

  9. Mr. Richard, I was following your this particular blog and the group where Mr. Johnson shared the link of this blog and I feel very proud and respect for you two people . Your great intention behind the blog is really, really appreciable since we the children of sea lacks an empathy for our coastal brethren. I wonder whether Mr. Johnson mentioned about the high rate of occupational mobility among coastal fishing community since the new generation develops an attitude of hatred to physical labor and they consider fishing a much menial job and even many don’t like to be noticed as the son or daughter of a fisherman, in front of the society ( it’s a matter of prestige to the educated !)
    But these kind of people who don’t have an immediate or legitimate claim to this occupation are enjoying the legal privileges like reservation in Government jobs and seats for admission in higher and professional college education like, M.B.B.S , Engineering ,etc. The deserving ones are pushed to the back bcz of their economic and educational backwardness. Cycle of poverty seems never to be broken unless there is affirmative action !

  10. Hi Jenet,
    Never lack pride in the occupation of others. We should respect learning in all of its forms, whether this comes from our formal study or through the fine traditions passed down through the generations. Do keep reading the blog. Your comments have assisted me in thinking about issues and writing more about this important issue.

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