Can a Language Be Irrational?

By Anjum Altaf

Khaled Ahmed has made a perfectly rational critique of the Single National Curriculum (Obsession with Uniformity, Newsweek Pakistan, September 9, 2020) but then taken a surprising stance on the varying rationality of different languages. I have great respect for the erudition of Khaled Ahmed so I wish to engage him by pushing back in order to come to a better understanding of his position.

But first, let me reiterate Khalid Ahmed’s critique of the SNC with which I agree completely. The entire premise of the SNC is flawed: “perceptual differences” are the cause of “conflict in society” and these perceptual differences are outcomes of the different types of schools in the country. The SNC will lead to “uniformity of thinking” and this would yield a “stable society.”

This confuses the symptoms with the disease. The different types of schools were not created by God but by various elites to serve their political purposes — the contributions of Ayub Khan, Bhutto, Zia ul Haq and Musharraf are particularly salient.  The products of the elite schools aided and abetted the growth of madrassas to further their jihadist dreams whose blowback ignited the enhanced social conflicts in society. Pakistan has become progressively more violent — just compare the sixties to the nineties.

Add to that the byzantine political conflicts among the products of the elite schools, those who compete as in a jungle for the seats of power. What happened to the “uniformity of thinking” among those who all went to the same schools? It is convenient to pass off the blame for the resulting mess onto the long-suffering people and to propose a remedy that will take at least a generation to mature. Meanwhile the misrule of a predatory class will continue without challenge with the further dumbing down of the population herded onto the path of memorizing pious thoughts.

When it comes to explaining the SNC, Khaled Ahmed believes that “the crux of this uniformity-producing utopia is to minimize the use of English.” I find this claim puzzling. How has the use of English over 70 years harmed the ruling classes in any way? What might have convinced them that its continued use poses a threat to their survival? In my view, this switch away from English in early education is the only sensible thing in the SNC that finally brings Pakistan, after many wasted decades, in conformity with overwhelming global evidence accumulated over more than half a century. But the language that is used to teach cannot yield much by itself if the content of what is being taught is designed to serve an ulterior purpose. That is really where the SNC is culpable and will create the “dystopia” of which Khaled Ahmed rightly warns.

The motivation for the SNC is more complicated and needs to be unraveled. Khaled Ahmed attributes it to language because of a seeming belief that “rational thought” is only possible in the English language. This is a very strong claim especially when extended to assert there are some languages, including Urdu, that are intrinsically “irrational” in the sense that they are incapable of sustaining a “logical-sequential discourse.”

Even if one accepts this argument of the superiority of English, it is not clear if it yields the benefits attributed to it. Khaled Ahmed claims that unlike Urdu, which is a vehicle for “emotive walwala,” English discourse promotes “rational thinking” as a result of which “reason has suppressed such collectively emotive concepts as nationalism” in the West. How then would one explain the two World Wars? Was the Holocaust an example of the supremacy of reason? What about the nationalism of the English so recently displayed with Brexit and the bitter nationalism of the Irish? What about the vicious nationalism of Donald Trump based on White supremacy? These counter-examples dent the claim that English or its cognate languages guarantee the reign of reason.

Be that as it may, it still remains to take up the claim that Urdu is only good for “emotive walwala” which is a more difficult challenge. Here too, Khaled Ahmed has staked out an extreme position by dismissing the entire “folk and national poetry” of a civilization as detrimental to “logical-sequential discourse.”  Shibli and Azad had expressed similar views in the early 19th century without quite advocating a rejection of the language.

I am not dismissing Khalid Ahmed’s conjecture out of hand. I have also reflected on aspects of it in my capacity as an educationist experiencing the difficulties faced by faculty members educated in English in getting across to audiences unfamiliar with the language. My conclusion, which has some support in linguistic theory, was that speakers of different languages have subtle differences in how they see and understand the world to which one needs to be sensitive. For example, the way one would try and convince an English-speaking audience and an Urdu-speaking one in Pakistan are quite different — the former responds more to deductive logic, the latter more to appeal to precedence.

But that acknowledgement of difference is a far cry from claiming that a language itself can be incapable of argumentation based on reason. Can one seriously claim that Ghalib and Bulleh Shah do not epitomize the discourse of reason and is it a failing of the language that they are excluded from the school curriculum? The madrassah education that Khaled Ahmed holds responsible for irrational thinking in Pakistan is in Arabic. Does that make Arabic a language incapable of “logical-sequential discourse”? If so, how come it were the discourses in Arabic that pulled Europe out of its dark ages? And it was the speakers of the same language that later went into a steep scientific decline from which they have yet to recover. One cannot blame a language for the underlying politics that determines the uses for which the language is employed.

Reading Khaled Ahmed, one can’t help thinking back to Charles Grant who arrived in India as a soldier in 1767, became a trader in the East India Company and rose to the position of a Director in 1796. In 1797, he published his thoughts on the education of Indians which were an input into the official policy of 1813. Grant wrote that if only Indians were educated in English “Men would be restored to the use of their reason… the cultivation of the mind, and rational intercourse would be valued; … and as the people found their character, their state, and their comforts improved, they would prize more highly, the security and happiness of a well ordered society.” Was Grant aware that the numerals he was using to balance the Company’s accounts, including the zero, were the inventions of Indians. That Kautilya had written on the art of politics well before Machiavelli. That Panini had come up with an incredible grammar. That Indians had come up with chess, the ultimate game of reason, and elucidated exponential growth by observing what happened if grains of rice were doubled on successive squares of the chessboard. All this without the benefit of an English education to unlock their ability for logical-sequential reasoning.

One can’t also help think back to the “emotive irrationality” of the Partition, the doing of English-educated nationalists, that left over a million dead and ten million homeless. The rational voices drowned in that discourse were of people like Maulanas Madani and Azad who were not educated in English although Azad, at least, could write it better than many of the others.

Some resolution to these conundrums might emerge from ascertaining the place of language in society. In my view language is a reflection of the underlying culture — think back to the Urdu of 19th century Lucknow. It would be much harder to prove a reverse causality, i.e., that language influences culture in any significant way. This leads me to the rather pessimistic conclusion that the language we speak today is a measure of the steady deterioration of our cultural values — take tolerance and respect for intellect as two of many possible examples. It follows that even if we all learn English, we would continue to communicate in the same way as is often witnessed on TV talk shows. We would just be slapping and abusing each other in English instead of in Urdu.

I would like to go back to the SNC by way of conclusion. I have repeatedly come across well-meaning people who advocate English simply because it is the “global language” and they fear we would be “left behind” if we don’t learn it from the first day of our lives. They are amazingly oblivious to the fact that we have already been left very far behind by countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea, among many others, that don’t teach in English from day one. Those who want or need to learn English, and not everyone does, do so at a later age. Such advocates of English cannot make the elementary distinction between learning a language and learning in a language and are consequently unaware of the immense cognitive damage caused by conflating the two.

I hope Khaled Ahmed will reconsider his views on language and rely on the huge amount of evidence, endorsed by agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the EU, that has accumulated in support of early childhood education in the mother tongue. This does not in any way obviate the teaching of English as a subject at an appropriate age as in the case of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. What Khaled Ahmed must insist on is that early childhood education should inculcate and promote rational thinking which the SNC has no intention of doing. That is why it is a catastrophe that will cripple the future of our children and of the country as well.

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on September 27, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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