Take pride in your learning, no matter what form it may take

The learning of this lady spinning on the charka that and her husband the weaver produced cotton cloth of high quality used to make a kurta which I wore whilst teaching MA students in Bangalore. An interesting link between different kinds of learning.

The learning of this lady spinning on the charka and that of her husband the weaver, produced cotton cloth of high quality used to make a kurta which I wore whilst teaching MA students in Bangalore. An interesting link between different kinds of learning.

Once again I am inspired to write on the basis of  comments posted in response to this blog. Having written a brief piece titled “So then, which of us is an educated man?” Posted on February 9th,  I was delighted to receive comments from individuals who come from the very fishing village featured in my writing. Clement Lopez, an activist for fishermen’s rights and the protection of the coastal area expressed his own views on the need to establish respect between individuals of differing experiences and education and Jenet the daughter of a fisherman from Kerala sent a reply that stated:-

“I never found our fishermen’s knowledge and skill in their traditional occupation as appreciable since I used to develop a feeling that anyone’s informal learning through experience and necessity will make them a skilled worker. But later on , when I was aspiring in getting more degrees in my particular field I realized the fact that to become a master in that field we must be able to apply the learned knowledge “.

I have never, to my knowledge met  either Clement or Jenet and was pleased to receive their comments and to know that my words had encouraged them to think about learning within their own community. I was particularly interested in the juxtaposition that Jenet makes between the learning associated with occupation and her own more formal education. Jenet is clearly taking the opportunity to gain qualifications and to develop her own skills and knowledge as a means of moving forward in her career. I get the impression that she is a thoughtful young woman who is likely to succeed in her chosen area. Reading her comments encouraged me to reflect further upon this balance between formal academic education and that associated with occupational practice and experience.

On Sunday in Northampton I attended a graduation ceremony. This long established rite of passage sees many, largely young, scholars who have studied hard over an intensive period of time, reap the rewards of their endeavours. As they walk across the stage to be shaken by the hand of the Chancellor of the University and receive their degrees as a mark of their earnest endeavours, their families and friends demonstrate their pride with generous applause.  I too felt a warm glow of satisfaction as two of my PhD students, wearing the formal gowns and Tudor bonnets of their newly acquired status were awarded certificates of recognition for the completion of their research and defence of a thesis. This long established and highly traditional ritual is a time for celebration, and for many the commencement of a new journey into employment or further study.

After the formal ceremony the flashing of cameras, warm embrace and handshakes of congratulation and occasional tears of joy (or possibly relief!) are a feature of the milling crowds before they disperse to various parties or make their journeys home. This is a joyous event and one in which I always find immense pleasure.

For those who demonstrate their learning in less regulated circumstances I suspect that celebration comes in other guises. For the craftsman the pride gained through the production of a beautiful artefact, possibly a piece of furniture or a well turned pot and likewise for the cook who prepares a dish for her customers or family, the farmer who brings his crops to harvest, or indeed the fisherman who sees his family feasting on his catch, their reward may be equally satisfying as the award of a degree or diploma. Learning should be celebrated no matter how it is manifest.

Graduation is a day of pride. Quite rightly we celebrate the learning of our students and hope that they will embark upon careers that are fulfilling and of benefit to society.  But it was the final words of Jenet’s posting that led me to reflect upon the nature of such pride and the need to ensure that we celebrate and appreciate learning in all its many forms. Jenet wrote:-

“Yes, our fishermen are masters of [the] 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”.

Master of the Sea – now there’s an idea for an interesting degree course!

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.