“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” – Victor Hugo
For any society to record progress, the need to harness the human resources within its fold becomes inevitable. To achieve the end of prosperity, society must uphold the means of education and empowerment of its members. In this wise, Victor Hugo’s maxim is apt. I see “school” as representing knowledge, enlightenment and education and “prison” as representing ignorance, prejudice and incivility. Hugo was therefore saying that whoever opens a channel for knowledge and enlightenment closes the path to ignorance and incivility; and that any society that prioritizes the education of its citizens should have no need to later incarcerate them for belligerence or other strong vices. This is because knowledge and enlightenment increases self-awareness, empowers the individual, and cultivates the individual as a responsible member of the society.
As a young person fortunate to have passed through formal primary, secondary and tertiary education, Hugo’s quote resonates with me. I had perceived education as merely the route to grab some qualifications needed to get a job or practice a profession. After high school, I therefore sought admission into college with a view to obtaining the degree necessary for my qualification as a lawyer. On entering college however, my horizon took a leap and my prior assumptions received monumental intellectual assaults.
My exchanges with colleagues and professors and more significantly, my romance with books – those amazing creations of incisive human intelligence – caused me to challenge my consciousness. I began wondering what the value of a degree was if one has not the knowledge to complement or animate it. Isn’t knowledge after all power? The essential thing then should be the quality and content of my mind. A degree should not be just a mere norm but a crown of knowledge and industry. It should not be all there is to life and learning.
Reoriented, I started applying myself to the acquisition of legal knowledge and lawyering skills that really matter to my goal of becoming an outstanding lawyer. Beyond reading lecture notes and attending classes, I studied statute books and legal treatises, and also participated in mooting, debating, writing and client counseling programs, all of which equipped me with the knowledge and skills relevant to succeed as a legal practitioner. I thus learned to gradually carve my own purpose in life beyond merely obtaining a degree or securing the one, two, ten or seventy marks of lecturers.
Beyond acquiring technical knowledge of the law, I also learned about knowledge and the art of learning itself. My university education made me realize that the scope of knowledge is enormous, so enormous that acquiring the entirety of it is beyond any single human. Even a minute specialty within a broad field often involves overwhelmingly vast information, details and literature. Confronted by my glaring human limitations vis-à-vis the colossal fountain of knowledge, my ignorance (measured by the many things I do not and will not know, no matter how hard I try) stared me visibly in the eye. My daily acquisition of knowledge thus became a concealed endeavor to roll back the frontiers of ignorance for prosperity and posterity. So even though prospects and members of the legal profession are often regarded as ‘learned’, I continue to see myself as a learner, consciously pushing back the barriers of ignorance, consciously opening the doors of my enlightenment, so as to bridge the width of the prison of my ignorance and incivility.
It was also through my education that I first had access to an unprecedented variety of people. For instance, in the university, one barely knows all the students in one’s faculty, not to talk of the entire school. This unlimited access to a wide variety of people provided me with a rare opportunity to learn about diverse people, cultures, religions, perspectives and personalities than I had been exposed to in my home environ. All these marked a huge turning point in my intellectual and general development as the barricades to my horizon were shattered and a broader worldview steadily replaced a parochial outlook. This peoples’ education increased my appreciation of the inherent beauty of our diverse world.
At the university, I also cultivated myself as a responsible and productive member of the society. The university provided me with numerous volunteer opportunities which remain potent means of giving back to the society. Through these volunteer works, I learnt empathy, humanity and true understanding. Like Martin Luther King Jr., I became “…cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states” on realizing that we (humans) are “…caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
And no single person or nation is an island on its own. The group tasks often assigned to us in the university further accentuated our learning. Each member of a group was usually assessed on the presentation of a randomly chosen member of the group. Through this, we were made to deeply understand that as a team, we were as strong as our weakest link. Groups therefore came together on assigned tasks to ensure that together everyone achieves more.
Staying in school hostels with different roommates also enabled me to imbibe positive attitudes such as love, tolerance, cooperation, as well as communication skills like listening and understanding other people’s perspectives. These are all aspects of peace education necessary to achieve a stable and better world.
My own experience has thus demonstrated to me the validity of Hugo’s maxim: schooling is not just about acquiring degrees to practice a profession, it is also about the critical knowledge necessary to succeed in the society but more importantly, it is about developing character and nurturing individuals as responsible members of the society to lead a better life and leave a better world.