So many people I know crap on education. Not that they necessarily say that education is a bad thing, but rather they highly doubt that campaigning for wider access to information does much good, nor do they think that problems such as fundamentalism or anti-vaccination can be battled through education. These people I know seem to think that the “education is the solution” approach is elitist, arrogant and naive.
I would like to introduce those people to William Kamkwamba, whose existence I just discovered through this meme I came across on facebook.
This man is clearly extremely intelligent. He now has a website and gave a TED talk, and I have managed to discover a bit more about him.
Apparently, Mr. Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of high school in his freshman year, because a famine in his area meant his family could not pay his annual school fees. Despite this, he was able to learn how to build one, then several windmills from books he borrowed from the library, powering first his home and then his village. After much dedication, hard work and fundraising, he was finally able to re-enroll in school and eventually even go to college.
Without access to a library, where would William Kamkwamba be now? Without access to information, would he have been able to do so much for his community? Probably not. He would not have been able to take full advantage of his potential and the world, and especially his community, would have been a little worse off because of it. How many William Kamkwambas are there out there who did not have that library, or the internet, or some way to educate themselves and realize their full potential? How many more solutions to local or global problems would we have right now, if all 7 billion of us were literate, and had access to the knowledge that we have accumulated over the centuries?
Call me elitist, arrogant and naive if you wish, but I think that education is a gem that should not be underestimated. I think it should be a right, not a privilege, to educate oneself. That does not mean that the entire world needs to aspire to be doctors, lawyers or bankers. It does not mean that high-paying, white collar jobs are the only ones that matter and the only ones to value. It means that I challenge this idea that people who work in construction, or as road workers, or as farmers are by default, or by definition, uneducated and unintelligent. I hate this societal divide, in which some fear to pursue higher education because a farmer without a high school degree is to be expected, but a farmer with a college education is a failure in life. We should do what we’re good at, and never mind the societal judgement that comes with it. Maybe that farmer, through his education, comes up with a novel and far more efficient method of irrigation, or of disease prevention for his crops. Maybe that educated construction worker realizes that the materials he wastes everyday can be re-appropriated for something else.
College is not for everyone, and that is OK too. I am also not saying that everyone on the planet should be required to hold a PhD. All I am saying is that, no matter what job you have or what path you’re on in life, no one should be discouraged or prevented from educating themselves to the degree and level that they wish. No one should have to choose between having literate children, or having fed ones. No one should worry that pursuing higher education might, paradoxically, restrict their job opportunities.
In my ideal world, William Kamkwamba would be exceptional because of his intelligence and ingenuity, and not because he had to overcome insurmountable odds to learn enough to demonstrate those capabilities.