The Doha Debates: Is Education Worthless without Freedom of Speech?

The very latest topic discussed on the popular television series The Doha Debates: this house believes education is worthless without freedom of speech. I urge those who haven’t watched the debate to observe and analyse the debate for themselves before reading this writing. The link for the debate is given at the bottom of article[1].

The debate consisted many good arguments both for and against, and as a result had made me think more critically of the title given to the debate. It made me wonder that can education truly ever be worthless? Can education be devalued so much to a point where it wouldn’t be needed anymore? Because this is what worthless means: to lose complete value. But on the other hand I thought: would education be such a useful tool without the freedom of speech? There are many more questions and thoughts that this debate made me ponder over. What made it difficult was both sides had valid arguments, it wasn’t as one sided. So after watching the debate a number of times, I had decided that it makes sense to share my thoughts on this topic and provide what I have concluded as a result of listening what everyone had said on the show.

As I mentioned, that some very convincing arguments in the debate made me think more critically of the title at hand. Kevin Watkins who was speaking against the motion started off his opening speech by saying, “the proposition that we’re discussing is that education is worthless without the freedom of speech. Bear that word in mind, ‘worthless’. It means no value, worth nothing. If something is worthless, you can just give it up; somebody can take it away from you”. And this is true if something is worthless then it isn’t needed, if it’s taken away from you then you wouldn’t miss it. And so is it the same with education? I would say no, education without freedom of speech still has value but maybe very little. The many unfortunate families who live in the most poorest places in the world, where education is rare and freedom of speech is not practiced enough, would still prefer their young ones to get the education that is available at hand than no education. In such circumstances people see education as an opportunity to better the position that they and their loved ones are in, even if it means lacking the freedom of speech. They see education as an opportunity to increase the family income so to have security. And to say to such people in such situations that their education is worthless for the reason that freedom of speech is not exercised is insulting. Kevin Watkins carries on: “now, I say to all of you in this audience who are studying, maybe in countries that don’t have freedom of speech: is your education worthless? Would you give it up? Does it mean nothing to you?”. The title given to the debate I would say is going too far. I wouldn’t agree that education can ever be worthless.

But we need to ask, what do we really want by education? By education do we want more creative and spirited people? Do we want those who can make a difference and change society for the good? If we want this then it demands the practice of freedom of speech. This freedom allows us to explore different questions and views and it expands our understanding of things. By thinking and speaking freely we can think outside the box and this is what we want in society. We need new ideas and new suggestions so we have a greater chance of bettering our community and the environment around us. And if students are given the chance think and speak freely then this is possible, wouldn’t everyone agree?

Dennis Hayes who spoke for the motion mentioned in his opening speech: “when education begins it begins by trying to get people to be critical from the first moment. If that doesn’t happen, then it’s not education you have, it’s training”. And I would confirm what Dennis had said here, without freedom of speech education just becomes information which the student repeats, because then students are taught only to believe and speak what they are taught. Not to think for themselves. With this being a consistency it becomes a problem where this method carries on to be used on the next generation and there is no change in thought or understanding. Such an education would lead to arrogance and closed mindedness, and we do not need this. Freedom of speech is the very thing that makes education so effective and without it education just becomes a tool to earn a salary, not to change the society around us. Tariq Ramadan (who spoke for the motion) said in his opening speech, “…why don’t we have change in the Muslim authority countries; because very often we repeat, it’s an education about repeating what is said – no critical thinking, no creativity. So this is the problem”. I would agree with Tariq Ramadan here, that in a lot of Muslim authority countries there is a lack critical thinking and creativity, and also there is lack courage and spirit, and this is because of the very little (or none) practice of freedom of speech.

Near enough half way into the show, Nagla Rizk (who debated against the motion) implied that without the practice of freedom of speech, we can still have faith in people to think critically and effectively. She said: “Tariq, where is your belief in the innate capacity of the human intellect? You yourself spoke about the capacity of the human intellect. Are they sheep, you’re going to teach students and they’re not going to think for themselves on their own? Do they await an exogenous freedom of speech from their teacher? There is faith in the human intellect; I question, I learnt wrong facts in History – I went and read and looked for sources to see how true this is”. I would ask Nagla (if I could) how much does she really believe in this statement. When a student is in education without the freedom of speech for several years, it becomes a habit to take on what is taught without any questioning. The idea that every student who receives education lacking freedom of speech will always question what they learnt and check up sources is outright ridiculous. Critical thinking and creativity doesn’t come so naturally when there is a system of education which oppresses the minds of students by feeding one dimensional information with no space for them to speak, reply or think freely. Dennis Hayes quite rightly said in the debate: “Behind your view is a clear view that somehow you pack information into students and one day they’ll pop, and burst into freedom of speech and criticality and change the world”.

Freedom of speech and education are two basic fundamental human rights and everyone has the right to demand them both. We cannot agree that it’s okay to only have education and not freedom of speech. And in the educational system, if the freedom of speech is not practiced, then there is a false impression given that freedom of speech is not right, which is wrong. To show that freedom of speech is fundamental and a basic right, it would need to be practiced. If we simply have education with no emphasis of freedom of speech then the only thing we can expect is the same, the same system which may lack freedom of speech in some countries, the same system which oppresses the mind of the student to think and repeat information like a machine. And we do not want this. Once the students are encouraged to speak their own mind, have their own opinions and to contest what they do not like and what is wrong in society and the political system, only then can change be expected.

Watching the debate, one may wonder that is the title for the debate ideal? A lot of the time the debate stuck around this word ‘worthless’. The word ‘worthless’ is not the right term to use I would say. Because I understand that education can never be worthless, even without freedom of speech. Because to say worthless means to say: useless, insignificant, don’t need it etc. By looking past this word we come across many arguments and problems that need to be discussed. And an answer maybe that there needs to be more struggles and striving to promote freedom of speech in places which lack this freedom. This is how education can improve for the better and be effective. I conclude with this, that education is not worthless without freedom of speech, but extremely counter-productive and so for education to be as effective as it should be; freedom of speech desperately needs to be practiced within the educational system.

References 

[1] http://www.thedohadebates.com/debates/player.asp?d=88

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