LAST week there was something to celebrate — rare in these troubled times. One of our eminent scholars, Dr Tariq Rahman, dean of the School of Education at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, was awarded a DLitt degree by the University of Sheffield, UK, for his work on language, art, culture and social developments that was assessed to qualify him on merit for this honour. In Europe less than 1pc of faculty gets a DLitt in the social sciences.

This achievement should do Pakistan proud. Given the state of our education, any academic whose work wins recognition, especially internationally, deserves to be acknowledged. This should be treated as an occasion for us to revisit his work and scholarship.

It is also important for our policymakers and educationists to read some of Dr Rahman’s 18 books embodying his knowledge and research. They will realise where they have gone wrong. Dr Rahman is a prolific writer and his works are eye-openers especially regarding language in the educational, social, cultural and political context in Pakistan.

Even a quick reading of Tariq Rahman’s Denizens of Alien Worlds: A Study of Education, Inequality and Polarisation in Pakistan is enough to help one understand how our education system and language in education policies are polarising society.

The ill-conceived language policies adopted in this country have divided society into the haves and have-nots. Instead of education being an equaliser, it has split people into highly educated elites who study in English and poorly educated ones who study in their local language that is badly taught.

Then come the new batch of education policymakers and we have a typical case of hell being paved with good (and ill-informed) intentions. They realise that our failure to have uniformity in our education system is at the root of all evil. It is this disparity that creates alienation. True. But they go off the mark when they look for solutions.

To introduce uniformity, they believe that English as the medium of instruction in schools will bring everyone at par. Punjab took that route till it learnt the hard way that this approach was creating new problems. Hence the government reverted to the old system. English would not be the medium of instruction and will be taught from Class 3 onwards.

Now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wants to opt for English as the medium of instruction. It has not learnt from Punjab. No one looks closely at the matter. Education can only be good so long as the teachers, pedagogy, textbooks, curricula, examination systems and governance are good. It is better still that children begin schooling in a language they understand, ie their home language. In this way, their cognitive development is facilitated and they also learn how to think.

What is happening instead is that a huge majority of children who are not familiar with English, a foreign language for them, are required to learn it which places them at a severe disadvantage. In the absence of teachers with proficiency in English, students cannot really learn the language, let alone understand other subjects taught in a language in which they have no proficiency. This lowers the standard of education further.

One would not disagree with the objective of removing disparities which have a profound impact on society and the economy. There are other ways of doing it. Do what the Chinese do. China-Shanghai topped the list in the OECD’s PISA, an international student assessment programme, of 2012 in which 510,000 15-year-old students from 65 countries participated.

Their method is to require every student to study in their own language for nine years and qualify for the local school-leaving examination. Thus they are thoroughly grounded in the local culture, history and knowledge. English is taught as a second language. Thereafter those who wish can join institutions to pass the school-leaving exams — ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels — conducted by foreign examination boards.

One is not very clear what the KP government had in mind when it decided to switch over to English as the medium of instruction. If the idea is to introduce uniformity the move will deepen the divide. Non-English speakers will be robbed of their faculty of critical thinking as they cannot articulate original and abstract thoughts in a language they are not familiar with.

English speakers who gain a head start on account of their family background will continue to have the upper hand. So how is equality being enforced by having English as the medium of instruction? However, uniform high grade curricula bridge the chasm between the haves and have-nots and that is where the focus should be.

The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution.



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