A Brief note on Malala, her father, and the War on Education

23 Nov

One of the most striking moments for me in the new documentary film, He Named Me Malala, comes in the words of her father, Ziauddin Yusufzai, who is credited with having, at the very least, a strong intellectual influence on his daughter. He says at one point, “Education gives you the power to question things. Education gives you the power to challenge things. To be independent.” (Apologies if the syntax is not 100% accurate. I went reaching for my notebook in the dark theater at the DOC NYC Film Festival, but since then, I have seen this quote transcribed in various ways on different websites.) I kept thinking of my college students with whom I was seeing the film. Are they getting this message from their college careers? (I’m sure this group did not get that in their high schools, although some do.) For those who read my earlier post on Senator Rubio, who has since gone on to repeat the message I wrote about back in August into the most recent debate performance in November, that’s not what “education” is for – it’s for getting a job and increasing earnings. At least that’s the case for low-income and working-class students, not necessarily the elite who will go on to become the decisionmakers. Ziauddin’s ideas have come to be radical in the vacuum of education-for-the-economy mentality that pervades pretty much most of the world.

As for Malala herself, a friend posted a quotation of hers, which dates back at least as early as October 2013, in which she said, “The only thing that can fight terrorism is education.” While much has been made of the criticism that she is a media darling, and perhaps even a creation, of the West’s need for a “safe Muslim,” she has stood up to that by admonishing President Obama about the use of drones. And in the wake of this months bombings and shootings in Lebanon, Paris, and Bamako, she emerges as the sole voice for an approach to terrorism that calls for more education, less ignorance, and greater understanding as a way to bring people together. Have any of our Presidential candidates in the U.S. called for more education as a response to terrorism? Those who turn to terrorism do so out of the false belief that violence, especially against innocents, is the path to social change (a social change that makes claims to justice, that is). This, of course, has never worked in human history.

On my office door, I have put up a bumper sticker that reads, “In a war on education, no one wins.” The reaction worldwide against Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris and Lebanon attacks shows just that. Public opinion is whipped up against the millions of innocents fleeing the same violence and the same perpetrators who carried out the attacks in Paris and Lebanon. But the fallacy of public opinion polls is that they rest on the false assumption that all opinions are based on equivalent foundations of knowledge. Most people who are against allowing in refugees have no idea about refugee resettlement processes and screenings, about who refugees are and what they have been through, about the history of the region from which they are fleeing, and so on. Differences of opinion are fine, and welcome in a democracy. But they have to be based on some kind of empirical knowledge, evidence, or understanding of history, not just hot air and smoke. How can you have a valid opinion about something about which you know nothing? Otherwise you are susceptible to every prejudice and every hatemonger out there. Which, of course, is what we see, as war spreads.

Only education gives you the power to question things, to be independent, and to truly fight terrorism. It must be our first response to any crisis.

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