Rich people have many myths to defend their privileged position in life. The ancient Hindus believed in rigid castes. It was one’s destiny to be born in a privileged caste and only by accepting one’s lot in life one could hope to be born in a more privileged social position in another life. Plato actually spoke of teaching people to believe that they had gold, silver or baser metals in their souls. Thus, the argument was that one need not do anything to change the status quo because that was one’s essential nature. European medieval society believed in aristocrats having blue blood which, of course, gave them innate moral and intellectual superiority over those whose blood was red. The Indian Muslims, in order to protect their privileged position in Hindu-dominated India, claimed ashraf status. Being gentlemen (ashraf) they were superior to the ajlaf (plebeians) whether Muslim or Hindu. At one time, at least some of the U.P. ashraf, even asked for a vote of the ashraf alone so as to counter Hindu domination.

These kind of claims are now considered bogus. Nobody believes in blue blood or some innate ‘gentility’ (in the sense of moral and intellectual superiority) or qualities in one’s nature etc. The philosophy of democracy has demolished the more crude forms of such discriminatory ideas. However, they continue to function as prejudices and they are justified in other ways. Performing well in formal educational systems is one legitimate way of discrimination. Saying that so-and-so is not ‘intelligent’ shuts the door of  earthly paradises upon him.

The concept of the intelligence quotient  (IQ) is used for discriminating against racial groups, socio-economic class groups etc. The IQ is calculated by counting how many questions one answers correctly in a certain  period of time. The average IQ score is around 100 while scores below are those of less intelligent people while those above are of more intelligent people. However, what is often ignored is that the questions are biased. They are more about the kind of information which modern, urban people in industrialized societies possess. A.R. Jensen’s book Bias in Mental Testing (1980) tells us a lot about the way IQ tests can be biased. Other studies conclude that blacks and working class children do not do well for a number of reasons. Bernstein, for one, concluded that working-class children are not exposed to logical, connected speech in their families. One thing which social scientists deny is that poor people may actually lack cognitive abilities. Even to suggest this is branded as being a fascist. However, this may be true and, if it is, it is the fault of the society; it is a crime against the poor; it is absolutely unjust. If the cognitive abilities of the brain are dependent on what a person gets to eat and how much one’s mind is stimulated then societies which deprive people of good nutrition and keep them in dull conditions are criminal societies. We shall take up this argument in more detail later.

Let me begin by saying that while I.Q tests as developed in Western societies may be biased, it is foolish to deny that peoples’ cognitive abilities are not different. My point is that these may be different but human beings should not be discriminated against because of this reason. This means that our attitude towards the nature of people’s jobs should change. We respect power which makes us defer to people who command other human beings; dispose of goods and services and influence people’s lives. We also respect whatever is dominating: great learning, good looks, great talent in something, wealth etc. These qualities overawe us ordinary beings. They oppress us simply by the fact that they exist in other people. And yet we abase ourselves at their altar. We revere them and we look up to them. Dr Paul Maclean, a researcher on the brain, has given the theory that the brain developed according to an archaeological model. The most primitive part, which MacLean calls the R-complex, is responsible for: ‘such human characteristics as ritualism, awe for authority, social pecking orders’--etc-etc. (In The Brain (1979) by Richard M. Restak). If this is true we cannot hope, as a species taken as a whole, to cease to be impressed by power and what it creates (goods, services, deference, fame, obedience among others, the capacity for doing good, the capacity to harm etc.etc.). This being so we can balance our deference to power by distributing it among individuals and not concentrating it among the few.

This radical distribution begins by shattering the myths which justify inequality. And among these myths is that of cognitive abilities and education. While not denying that some people have more cognitive abilities than others; while not denying that education confers skills needed in the modern world; while not denying that society does need intelligent and educated people---one should vehemently deny that human worth, human dignity, human significance is to be measured by education and intelligence. This worth is to be measured by the capacity for compassion and for spreading unselfish happiness. We need not give the professorship of mathematics in a prestigious university to someone who does not have the knowledge and the cognitive abilities needed for the position. But we need not prevent the person who lacks both to interact with us as an equal human being. Western countries, at least ostensibly, agree with this egalitarian principle. In Pakistan, since education is indirectly connected with state jobs and, hence, with power, the policeman disgraces the illiterate tonga-wallah while deferring to the educated (Parha likha) smart Alec (especially if the Alec in question sports a green number plate or a uniform).

Another thing which we can do is not to romanticize poverty. The Islamic mystics did preach the virtues of poverty but they exist only if you can command the deference of people for your piety or, being genuinely saintly, you live in a different world altogether. Those if us who live in this world of power and money should not romanticize poverty. The stories of some great man having studied books under the street lamp does not mean that all children will succeed under such dire conditions. Most will fail and so, instead of saying that studious people can study under any circumstances, we should say that the state should create conditions conducive for study for all children. Poor people live in crowded conditions where there is too much noise and poor lighting. They have to work in the house or outside it to help their parents. Their schools are ill-equipped, squalid and bare. Their teachers are often cruel and believe in beating them. Their self-confidence is shattered by the unjust social order they live in. This makes them intellectually timid. Is it any wonder, then, that they cannot do as well in studies as affluent children can?

 And now I come to my major point---that poverty may kill off cognitive abilities. Above all, one’s cognitive abilities depend to a great degree on nutrition. According to scientists brain development is adversely affected by malnutrition. Even if an adequate diet is introduced later, the effects of deficiencies in diet in childhood are not reversed. Richard M. Restak gives a statement which could have come straight out of a socialist tract. Here it is:

A civilized society cannot tolerate a world situation where the majority are doomed never to reach their genetic potential because some refuse to surrender even a small part of a material legacy so huge they can never live long enough to deplete it.

I should add that those of us in the non-Western world who point to the mountains of butter and cheese in the West should also pause to note that the elite of our own country (in our case, Pakistan) is much less egalitarian than Western elites are vis a vis their own people. We do not give fruit, meat, poultry, nuts and wholesome food products to our working class. In other words we probably cause the lack of cognitive abilities in them of which we are so contemptuous later. We create congenital defects and then we make them worse by terrible living conditions and an environment of indifference to studies etc.

Another thing poor homes and schools lack is stimulation. All psychobiological studies on the development of the brain tell us that stimulation plays a very crucial role. But the poorer our people the less stimulating their environment. The parents do not answer their questions except in cliches; the school teachers actually punish them for questioning anything; the books have to be memorized and there are no toys or projects or things to do. Such stimulation-deficient environment cannot but dull the mind. Moreover, such is the hold of tradition and narrow interpretation of religion, that poor children cannot ask any really probing kind of question if they want to. In such drab, strict, humourless homes and schools the cognitive abilities of children must definitely be suffering. Is it justified then to ask poor children to perform as well in tests as rich children? No, it is not. We assume that if people are allowed to compete in an examination and no cheating of any kind is allowed then we have the right to reject those who do not perform well. We have no such right. Even if we did feed people well; even if we did give them adequate stimulation; even if we did provide them comfortable homes and schools; and even if we did provide them stimulating bocks etc---even then we would not have the right to hold people in contempt or starve them if they lack cognitive abilities of a certain kind and, hence, do not do well in formal educational systems. Crimes in the name of education are as reprehensible as crimes in the name of blue blood.