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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 Britain often have very rigid ideas about what constitutes a respectable career path for their sons and daughters, according to Nesrine Malik in her article for Cif a few days ago. As a result, she says, students of Asian origin tend to opt for science subjects rather than the arts in the belief that this will lead them to "a proper job" - and sacrifice a broadening of their horizons in the process.


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 Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India) are studying for arts degrees. Yes, we are from a fairly affluent and liberal background, but I think this illustrates that generalising solely along cultural lines is inaccurate and misleading. Views of education are more likely to be determined by social background than race or religion: surely in every culture, enlarging the mind by education for its own sake is a luxury traditionally enjoyed only by the privileged few or not, since they have the freedom to decide.


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 Douglas found in 1965, an immediate professional qualification provides a fusion of the social mobility afforded by education and the gratification of a definite income at the end of it.


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 UK, those who pursue literary, religious, or political study are not morally suspect. In fact, in some families such study, particularly in fields relating to their own culture, such as Arabic or Urdu literature, are a source of great pride as integration is fused with a connection to one's own culture. My extended family, who are all practising Muslims, have expressed nothing but pride at my English degree, and far from being suspicious about my morality, have encouraged my interest in the arts, forcing family friends to read every article I've written.


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 on Saturday September 06 2008. It was last updated at 09:47 on September 08 2008.

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