Presidential humour and the irony of education
The President of the Republic went public with his academic records, while addressing the 50th convocation of Dhaka University on March 4. It was quiet disbelief laced with subliminal bragging when he blurted out that he was the chancellor of the same university which had once rejected his application for admission. The President also made a clean breast of it when he revealed that he had passed the Matriculation examination in the third division and got referred in Logic in his Intermediate examination. The audience almost split their sides with laughter as the head of the state narrated how his academic luck was in a tailspin.
It's an altogether different story today. This man has risen to an enviable position in life, occupying the highest office in the country. God works in mysterious ways, often giving much to those who desire and often taking much from those who deserve. Late US president John F Kennedy said a long time ago that life isn't fair, but the government absolutely must be. In case of our honourable President, the government has more than compensated for the glory that education denied him in his early days.
While the President indulged in humour, some of the graduates who gathered must have been crestfallen. The chief guest of the event in his penchant for irony signified the insignificance of what they had come to celebrate. It was as if the principal of a driving school was downplaying the importance of having a license before an assembly of graduating students.
Not to say that the President meant it in that exact sense. We know he is a light-hearted man who likes to sprinkle his speeches with amusing anecdotes from his own life. In 2015, he even sang a snatch of a popular song during his speech at the convocation of a private university. He was well-liked for his sense of humour that animated many Parliament sessions when he was the Speaker.
By all means, the president of a country is entitled to a few jokes, but everything in life has its place and its reason. The connection between one's poor grades and a milestone academic occasion for others doesn't make any sense. French playwright and actor Molière said that life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think. May be, deep down inside, our president is a thinking man, who is titillated by the quirkiness of life as much as a tickle makes us giggle.
Eleven US presidents never went to college, including such stalwarts as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. British Prime Minister John Major joined Standard Chartered Bank after he finished high school, and his annual evaluation said "improvement needed." After completing his studies at Harrow, Winston Churchill failed the entrance test for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst three times before finally passing and being allowed to attend the school.
Our very own Rabindranath Tagore never went to school. Rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam studied up to the tenth grade. American Poet Laureate Robert Frost, the richest man of the world Bill Gates, Apple founder Steve Jobs and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college.
The connection between education and success in life has never been guaranteed. Many highly educated people flopped in real life, while the unschooled ones flourished. If we count the number of schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and mosques in this country, a large number, if not most of them, have been established by moneyed men and women with little or no schooling.
Education was once themed by highly exhortatory nature of recruitment posters. It was assured that those who sought education were going to "ride" cars, which has now proved to be a hoax. A neighbourhood goon can buy a car faster than a university professor, because purchasing power is a function of cash flow not of knowledge. The pen may be mightier than the sword, and the ink of the scholar may be holier than the blood of a martyr. But those who have power or guns are laughing all the way to the bank.
The President's zingers only reinforced that disconnect. Education has been reduced to a mere formality, something everyone likes to wear like a badge. It has the futility of divers excited to get down knee-deep in the muddy stream instead of exploring deep waters. The road to enlightenment has turned into a thoroughfare to despair.
An academic degree is no longer a measure of qualification awarded. A piece of paper, it hides ignorance more than it shows knowledge. This instrument of illusion marks every educated individual as a certified suspect.
The writer is Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org