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