Not philistine, just practical
Nesrine Malik is mistaken.
British Asians study practical subjects for the same reason immigrants always have to
By Samira Shackle
Saturday September 06 2008 15:00 BST
Immigrant families in
As a young woman from a Pakistani background who took a
degree in English literature with the full support of my parents and extended
family, I think Nesrine has missed several points. My mother and uncle are both
writers, and most of my cousins (who hail from
Nesrine describes teenagers on a Muslim mentoring scheme who immediately ask her how much she earns, and argues that this is indicative of a materialistic attitude to education. It certainly is, but I'd be willing to bet that white teenagers from the same disadvantaged area would share this emphasis upon earnings as a marker of success, and education as a means to attain it. A recent episode of The Secret Millionaire showed an unsuspecting teen tearaway telling the disguised millionaire that he had no authority as a youth adviser because "you're not earning lots of money – I've seen your car".
In fact, among some white working class people, education is seen as a luxury. A schoolfriend of my brother, for example, was told by his family in no uncertain terms that staying on at school for A-levels was not an option because he had to start paying rent. This is by no means uncommon. As far back as 1965, Douglas and Kahl, in Some Measures of Academic Orientation, argued that white working-class children were less interested in education than their middle-class peers as they were encouraged to leave school as soon as possible to begin earning. This was termed "immediate gratification". Middle-class parents tended to offset the delay in income with the social standing that comes with a degree.
This is not to say that we haven't moved on since the 1960s. It's certainly true that the expansion of the higher education system since the 1950s has resulted in wider access to a university education. One could even argue that the government's emphasis on "education, education, education" as an end in itself is starting to filter down as, increasingly, it is being a graduate that matters, regardless of the discipline. But it's important to remember that no such change has taken place in the developing world, where access to any kind of higher education remains very limited.
The emphasis on an education that leads to a universally respected career is, for immigrant families, a gateway to cultural integration: finance, medicine, the law. Recent immigrants, unlikely to be highly educated themselves, will in general want three things: for their children to take advantage of the opportunities which they did not have, to use this for social mobility, and to erode their sense of otherness by becoming part of western society (while retaining a sense of their own heritage).
The focus on the practical facets of education, then, is not
evidence of inherent cultural narrow-mindedness, as Nesrine seems to have it,
but is largely born of necessity and pragmatism. Across different cultures,
education is a tool for success, and gaining a qualification in accountancy or
medicine is a much clearer path to that success than an arts degree. While it's
true that it's possible to gain a degree in the arts and go on to do a
subsequent qualification in law or finance, the extra years of fees, debt, and
no income are simply not feasible or appealing to those from a family without
spare cash, regardless of their religion or culture. Just as
I find the article's suggestion that Asians and Arabs
consider the study of the arts or literature evidence of "perturbingly
unique thought that breeds moral suspicion" profoundly worrying. This
implies religious undertones in Asian attitudes to education, perpetrating a
dangerous conception that Islamic countries oppress freedom of thought in every
way. I dispute this. While culturally it might not be so much the norm to study
say, literature or history as it is in the
The pursuit of purely academic study has a lot more to do with social positioning, family background, and income than with religion or skin colour. So, yes, those from a South Asian background will often gravitate towards solid professional qualifications. However, this decision-making process tends to be influenced by socio-economic factors rather than moral ones, just as the lower proportion of white working-class teenagers studying to degree level has little to do with a repressive morality. Asians or Arabs of a certain class who choose to pursue purely academic study are not condemned as outcasts: they would simply be viewed with the same confusion as a young white man from a Peckham estate who decided to dedicate three years to the study of Renaissance verse.
About this article Samira Shackle: Not philistine, just practical
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Saturday September 06 2008. It was last updated at 09:47 on September 08 2008.
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