A FRIEND showed me a class four Pakistani textbook from the 1960s. It was on famous personalities. In the first section there were four chapters, including one on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Others included Gautam Buddha, Hazrat Issa and Baba Guru Nanak. In the second part of the book were chapters on a number of political/temporal leaders from various parts of India. Apart from many Muslim kings and leaders, it included chapters on Ashoka as well as Raja Ranjeet Singh.

Recently, I visited a school in Lahore. A group of students presented a power-point presentation, as part of an exhibition of the school’s extra curricular/co-curricular activities, on outstanding human beings from across the world. The presentation had some of the same names given above. But, one of the patrons of the school mentioned that there had been other guests at the school who, after seeing the presentation, had said that it should not be chronological and that the Prophet should come first. One eminent jurist, it seems, even suggested that there was no need to cover any other personality.

Later I interacted briefly with the students. When I asked them about some of the more recent personalities that had impressed them, they could only come up with the names of Jinnah and Iqbal. They had not even heard of Dr Martin Luther King. And Gandhi was not a hero to them or even a notable enough personality.

It is not only the content that is changing, the way we educate ourselves and our children is changing as well. The ‘O’-Level course starts in pre-‘O’-Level classes, just to buy more time. Examinations are taken in two to three subjects a year to get better grades. Rote learning, irrespective of one’s level, is more common than it was 15 years ago, even in elite schools.

Reliance on guides, notes, help-aids and summaries is higher. Engagement with the classics and original thoughts of the great writers and thinkers of the past is more limited. Reading is narrower. And this is true at both school and university level. I often ask my students how many read newspapers regularly: very few do. For many, Facebook updates from friends are the only outside information that they get regularly.

At one point Pakistan Television, the only channel around at the time, showed English-language movies and serials regularly. I still remember that there used to be a cartoon in the early evening and a serial/comedy programme at prime time almost every day. A late night movie was telecast three to four times a week. A lot of those movies and serials were very good and had been carefully selected for a Pakistani audience.

I learnt a lot about the world, how people lived, their beliefs and moral systems from these programmes. My love for English language and literature also owes something to these programmes.

PTV does not do this anymore. One can argue that there are a lot more channels available that show movies and programmes from around the world. DVDs too have made access to such content easier. All of this is true. But at the same time since PTV does not do this anymore, and a lot of people still watch PTV, it is a loss.

More importantly, the issue of choice becomes crucial. Who chooses content for children now? Are children doing it themselves? But the choices children make need not be the most optimal. They might choose entertainment over education, and easy listening/watching over effort and engagement. They might even choose content that, in terms of language, pictorial depictions or even the values that it exhibits, is not appropriate for their age. More freedom of choice for children when much content of poor quality is available is not necessarily a good thing.

The way we acquire information is also changing fast. From reading we are moving to listening and watching. Reading allows deeper engagement. You can read, re-read and come back later to what was read. Reading requires attention. We listen while other activities also go on and we multi-task. Watching has similar dynamics.

We get our news more from the television and radio now than from newspapers. Our engagement with the thoughts and actions of others is more through the computer, television and radio than personal interaction or even reading. All of this narrows our interaction and makes it shallow.

Our attention spans are getting shorter. Even when we read, it seems that books and longer articles are getting rare; we want the gist of the argument given in as brief a manner as possible. Television and radio are ideally suited for shorter attention spans. And they encourage the tendency towards shorter spans. We surf the channels, and even on the same channel we only need to focus attention between advertising breaks. News is mostly a ticker running at the bottom of the screen.

Much of what has been written here are clearly global issues. But they are affecting us locally. It is our students, our children and our citizens that we need to worry about. All this is narrowing the mindset of the people and making them poor thinkers and citizens. And we are seeing the results. The counter strategy needs to be at the micro level as well.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

fbari@osipak.org

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