Academic achievement and human dignity

Most migrants from Asia and Africa attribute the West’s success to their mineral wealth (Australia and Canada), colonial exploitation (England and France) or imperialism (USA).  Some mention “national unity” or “good/sincere leadership”.  Many reject even the notion of western superiority, speaking disapprovingly of its material progress and emphasizing instead the spiritual achievements of the East.

(Author’s note: This article was published in the Daily Times, Lahore, on 27 April 2011, but appearing here for the first time.)

*****

An educated, well-read female family friend living in Sydney recently spoke disparagingly about the Australian prime minister, Ms Julia Gillard, for having a hairdresser as her de facto husband.  It set me thinking.

This matter was reported in a leading Australian newspaper in these words: “As Tim Mathieson stood proudly by Julia Gillard after she was sworn in as prime minister, a former colleague remembered him as ‘a bubbly guy’.  The manager of the hair salon where Ms Gillard met her partner and hairdresser says he was a fantastic person but one who kept to himself.  Ms Grace Romanin said Ms Gillard used to come into the salon once a week but Mr. Mathieson never did her hair.  ‘That’s how they met, in here,’ she said.  The pair started dating in March 2006.”  Ms Romanin added that Mr Mathieson, now the partner of the Australian prime minister, regularly drops in at the salon in Melbourne to say hello to former workmates.

Ms Julia Gillard is a lawyer by profession. She was a high ranking leader of the Australian Labour Party and a shadow minister when she began her relationship with Mr Mathieson.  Ms Gillard became the deputy leader of the Opposition in December 2006, deputy prime minister a year later and prime minister in June 2010.

A few years ago, when Nathan Rees became premier of Australia’s largest state (New South Wales), his biographical sketch published in the newspapers mentioned in a rather complimentary way that he had worked as a garbage collector to support himself at one point early in his career.

I sometimes hear my Pakistani and Indian friends living in the West speak disdainfully of those without university education or holding “blue-collar jobs”.  Chefs, hairdressers, plumbers, mechanics, painters, masons and the like are spoken of with barely concealed contempt.

Westerners, on the other hand, have no qualms on these matters.  A professor will tell you that her husband is a plumber or a high official will reveal that he is married to a cook, a hairdresser or a nurse.  A doctor has no shame in letting everyone know that his son-in-law is a painter, a handyman or a chef.  My first introduction to this enlightened world of the West was when I found that a truck driver and a baker were the next-door neighbours of my American friend, himself a university professor in Kentucky.

The dignity of labour and the need to earn one’s keep and place for oneself is taught from an early age.  The teenage son of another American professor in Ohio distributed the local weekly papers in his neighbourhood to earn his pocket money.  On some days when the boy was sick, the professor did the rounds on behalf of his son.  His wife was also a university professor, they had money to spare and the young boy was their only child.  He was much loved but not spoiled.  Thus educated in the dignity of labour, he was the better for it.

Most migrants from Asia and Africa attribute the West’s success to their mineral wealth (Australia and Canada), colonial exploitation (England and France) or imperialism (USA).  Some mention “national unity” or “good/sincere leadership”.  Many reject even the notion of western superiority, speaking disapprovingly of its material progress and emphasizing instead the spiritual achievements of the East (Indians and Chinese) or the afterlife and the hereafter (Muslims). It is common to hear them berate Westerners for sexual promiscuity, lax morals, broken families, street crime and teenage delinquency.

I have rarely heard anyone mention the West’s core values as the cause of its astounding progress in the last couple of centuries, particularly in the last half century or so.  One of these values I have alluded to at the beginning of this article, namely, the dignity of man and the dignity of labour.  From this follows another: equality before the law.  And another: supremacy of the law and the constitution.  These, I think, are the foundation stones of western society.

Anyone who has spent time in any western country cannot fail to be impressed that, as a rule, every individual is respected as a person and his or her rights are preserved and protected.  Education, profession, wealth or pedigree do not confer on anyone any special rights before the law.  On the contrary, the higher one’s station in life the higher the expectations of honesty, integrity and probity.

A senior Australian judge recently went to jail for lying under oath in order to evade a $77 driving fine.  On 20th March, Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld was released from a Sydney jail on parole after serving a two-year sentence.  For one more year he will have to routinely report to his parole officer to complete his three-year sentence.  The former highly-respected Human Rights Commissioner was also stripped of his professional title of Queen’s Counsel and his membership of the Order of Australia.

It is universally true that not everyone aspires to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant even if they were capable of becoming one. In the West, children are allowed to choose their fields of study or profession as they please and mostly people do what they want to do and what they enjoy doing.  Teenagers are not pushed to achieve academic excellence at any cost.  Forcing young people to choose careers against their will destroys creativity and initiative.

The fact is that not everyone is geared for academic excellence.  Besides, it is not the only – nor even the best – measure of human worth. There is not much virtue in converting academic excellence towards a degree in medicine or law merely in order to get rich.

In any case, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity regardless of their academic excellence or professional attainment or lack of them.  The western system values every citizen, rewards work, encourages compassion and allows people to choose and change their vocation and profession without fear of censure or scorn from family, peers or society at large.

As for the partnership between the prime minister of Australia and a hairdresser from Melbourne, it reveals another commendable aspect of Western society – marriage for love, not family ties, status or profit.  For as long as it lasts, it should be a relationship based solely in mutual love and reciprocal respect.

By Razi Azmi

 

This entry was posted in Thinking Aloud. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *