Bahman Ghobadi, one of the instrumental protagonists of the Iranian New Wave, seeks to foreground the violent destruction stimulated by the country's recurrent internal strives, in his 2000 Cannes Camera D'Or film - “The Time For Drunken Horses”. Portraying the formidable struggles in the treacherous lives of three young Kurdish minds, he takes us through the playground of disheartening childhoods, mocking the “ruthlessness of thwarted joys”. In the film, troubled “politics”, as Groucho Marx famously proclaimed, becomes the “art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying all the wrong remedies”. The youngest of the three children is threatened by a terminal disease, due to which his sister, enrolled in the local public school, is compelled to marry an elder Iraqi. However, as the film gains momentum, the siblings are left stranded on the border, to pertain to their own needs, helpless and desperate.
Indeed, the gratuitous journey in the harsh snow-clad valleys of the Iran-Iraq border displays the inherent madness within which the lamentability of educational pursuits fail miserably to exhibit its importance. Yet, the audience witnesses a somewhat understated fright, synonymous with the intrepid dread of loaded arms. The army personnel decided to snatch away even the children's Exercise Books at a border checkpost, ironically as a ‘precautionary measure’ against Undercover Alliances.
The idea of intimacy with material preoccupations is a distant dream for these Kurdish millennials. The very act of defiance is thus restricted to the protection of their sole possessions, these notebooks. The symbol of opposition collocates the fetters blindly placed on intellectual exercise and the subsequent fear psychosis, normalized by the region's Overlords.
If we risk questioning the significance of such a tyrannical gesture, for indeed notebooks are only thought to have reworked the instructions of institutional pedagogy, then we may be overlooking the potentiality of this tacit concurrence. Despotism can be undertaken in many convoluted forms, one of them being the hazardous prevention of educational pursuits. The fact remains, as Orhan Pamuk propounds in “My Name Is Red” (1998), it is not about desiring “to be a tree”, rather, he claims, “I want to be its meaning”. Education and its associated prospects would be futile if it is not tainted with disturbance, a quest towards self-knowledge, actualization and transformation.
Re-writing (translating) texts often textualizes the surveilled body and transforms it into an evidence of survival. This makes it imminent for the bureaucracy to carefully, either subtly or explicitly, dismantle the seduction of education. It is seemingly absurd to think about justified paradigms of schooling in a rugged locale like Iran. Yet, with the contemporary emphasis on rote learning and memorialization, knowledge leads us to a consecrated disposition. It is especially true for a populace functioning as a mediator between war & malnutrition, inchoate tribulations and a struggle for education, challenged further with a responsibility to lay the groundwork for a happy future of the nation.
Nietzsche, in “Anti-Education: On The Future of Our Educational Institutions” (1872), coagulates the act of philosophizing, with the rejection of the obvious. He carefully disentangles the ‘chivalric code of honor’ and brings forth a realistic claim on education, asserting that the history of religious tyranny had to, as a last resort, be tangible enough, as to necessitate education for the masses as a countermeasure. In other words,
“Whenever the masses sound the war cry of universal popular education, I try to decide whether it arises from a rampant drive to acquire possessions, the stigma of previous religious oppression, or the calculating self-interest of the state.”
The problem is not only paradoxical but double-measured. Violence unfolding from the status quo is the peremptory action which can quickly obfuscate the high-handedness of education. In regions of brutal persecution, education policies can be cleverly neglected, or queued in abeyance, owing to the fact that there seems to be no better resolution to the question of “standard livability”. In this context, C.S Lewis, in “The Abolition Of Man” (1943), rightly asserts :
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil". (my emphasis)
In the movie, we see Ameneh, the only child of her orphaned family to be able to receive formal schooling, dutifully and wholeheartedly superintending the family amidst vestiges of rampant despotism. She is yet to learn the true purpose of her disciplined indoctrination or the expectant social roles, but she manages to essentialise its value through the existence of notebooks. It is within the realms of these pages that her survival instinct lies, her own promise of “hope in darkness”, her raison d’etre.
Is it not that the failure to successfully communicate educational priorities to strangulated populations also points to a collapse of the categorical imperative of educational endeavours? In other words, is it not a liability of the world community to embed in naive minds how impossible it is to live without learning? My answer, echoing the critics of the philological approach, would be no. The needs of education and its range are to be addressed on two fronts - one, the overtly individuated personality should be discouraged from specifying the spectrums of altruistic and dictatorial thought (narrowing) and second, imparting a leeway for all citizens to participate in subterranean politics in order to acknowledge intimate ethnographies across borders (broadening). Education, especially for the stranded community of Iran, is a transgression, a blasphemy, dominated (ominously) by the regional musclemen. Its dissemination is a potential risk to life. Just like indigenous and Dalit authors have relegated a stance against the appropriation of identity, especially the politics of naming and being named by others, similarly, the real motive of education is foreshadowed and obfuscated when its 'evaluation' lies within the discretion of aristocratic and sublunary autocrats.
Yet, for a delicately blossoming mind, it is fruitless to capture the essence of her practice rather than appreciate the symbolic satisfaction she obtains from the corporeal territory of her own notebook. The fact remains that they are all unaware of how to arrange a decent meal for the next day. Nevertheless, the act of possessing a representation of worldly progress is enough to stimulate her euphoria, thus helping her disassociate from the dull, redundant, unforgivable truths that threaten to limit the sanctity of her personal oasis. With this assurance in mind, she asks her elder brother Ayoub, the sole breadwinner of the family, to purchase an extra copy once he crosses the border to Iraq to sell the mule.
It is this belief in illumination that enhances the audience's ability to repeatedly ponder about the importance of aesthetic ideals even while residing under a Fascist Government. Emboldened by the “radical reorientation” of educational mannerisms in a Capitalist superpower, this film acts as a yearning to save our philosophizing ability, to strive for ethical pursuits and to keep the aesthetics of justice intact. The prejudice of education, what Pierre Bourdieu termed “racism of intelligence… of the dominant class”, turns out to be the decadent cry for the disoriented 21st Century.
It is perhaps a failure on our part, more so than less. Being the actors deployed in the continuous process of imparting knowledge (disguising it as an industrial soft skill), we have forgotten to demonstrate an immersive quality to the very basis of public education. The power of cognitive reciprocity is mostly overlooked in a world of “rapid education”, seemingly undermining, according to Hannah Arendt, the very capacity of forming convictions within young minds. Hence, it is needless to emphasize, the post-Pandemic era has triggered the caprices of Anti-Education. The sudden eruption of mortality rates all over the world is being propagated to increase bureaucratic hymns of National duty, almost shamelessly. It is as if ‘learning’ automatically arises from piety and 'education' (per se) is the questioning of the same piety.
The film shows how undulating our lives are, just like the terrains where we are quiet and alive. The primordial act of carrying a huge blackboard to a makeshift classroom in Iranian hinterlands (“Blackboards'', 2000) and the decision to hold classes on landmines (“Turtles Can Fly”, 2004) are epitaphs of potential critical faculties. Every effort at imparting effective education is consequently subjected to its deliberate destruction. It is, undoubtedly, the right time to tear apart this ironic veil of ignorance and further scrutinize the audacity of bourgeois righteousness. The strength for plowing through the dilemma of ethical education only comes at the cost of social censure. The most effective voice in this regard was John Stuart Mill's, who proclaimed that the most offensive idea must be freely expressed. Nietzsche, taking this stance forward, demonstrated the plight of the “convicted falsely accused”.
“When I think of the way I and others in my generation prepared for the same career, the highest position a teacher can have, I realize how often we laughed at precisely the opposite things, and were serious about the most different things as well—”
To this accusation the philosopher replies,
“...you are talking like someone who wants to jump into deep water without knowing how to swim, afraid not so much of drowning as of being laughed at for not drowning.”
This is a remarkable emphasis on the sardonic Universal Truth, marked by a smirk on the part of the reader, for obstacles are made to be taken on sleeves with a laugh. In the film, the troublesome processes are born out of absurd revelations, conditions quite incomprehensible to rational psyches. Like the confused pupils, the educators have also been made to habituate themselves with their teaching patterns, instilling their benevolence in a system that has been standardized for years. It is not a post-colonial or theocratic singularity that is to be blamed, rather, it locates its presence due to a visible absence of secure visions. In lieu of this, we fall headlong into an initiative-based education, argued by John Gatto to be the irrevocable demon of the epoch - "when you take the free will out of education, that turns into schooling.”
It is, thus, the latent bias of “educationism” that one needs to segregate and save the “educated morale” from. It may be a painful truth to envision a goal when it comes to education, an idea that can be “finished” (Asimov) after a relevant period. Watching the children defending their notebooks as if their lives depended on it (it surely does), we are left to caress our humility. When the need arrives to compare a sad edifice of stones (schools) to the “spectacular awe” of career creation (institute), one is confronted by an affirmative difficulty. The education departed by uneducated minds can compellingly hone the perverted skills of power-play. Hereafter, a national conscience is upturned by unpolished skills and the suppressed minds of creativity are crushed unprecedentedly, acting against the narratives of gory impositions and manufactured histories. Only consolations remain: perhaps, under the protection of these robust children, the stories are still being documented, without suspicion, in the notebooks.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, et al. Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. New York Review Books, 2016.
Stapelfeld, Adolf. Locke: On Education. 1878.
Gatto, John Taylor, et al. The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation into the Prison of Modern Schooling. Oxford Scholars Press, 2017.
Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man: Or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. HarperOne, 2021.
Pritha Banerjee is currently pursuing her Masters in English Language and Literature from the University of Delhi. She aims to begin research on Modern Essay and Discourse, Posthumanism and Children’s Literature, with special emphasis on regional and transcultural literary history. Believing in the transformative power of education, she aims to contribute to the field in some measure, encouraging an interface between the aesthetic and the political.