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Education myths

June 11, 2014


IT is budget time in Pakistan and one issue of special concern to the people is the attention that the education sector will receive from those who hold the purse strings. In the federal budget for 2014-15 Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announced an allocation of Rs63bn for higher education. The true picture will emerge only when the provincial budgets are presented, as they address the bulk of the education sector.

There are, however, a number of myths that surround this vital area of national life. One that has been perpetuated for long is that the more funds poured into education the more the latter will improve. For long the size of the education budget has been used as a yardstick to measure the government’s commitment to this sector. Hence the boast generally in budget speeches about the size of the education expenditure.

But the fact is that unplanned boosts in education budgets can actually backfire. If the funds have to be utilised sensibly, there is a need to plan how the money will be spent and also increase the capacity accordingly. When this is not done, the chances are that funds are underutilised or misappropriated. And this is happening in Pakistan. Education is the largest employer in the public sector — and is also the most corrupt. Jobs go to political favourites who do little work yet collect their salaries. Hence demands for more funds for education should be made conditional on better planning and integrity.

Another myth that misleads people is that the spread of education will counter many of the evils that plague society, especially the explosion of religiosity and obscurantism in the country. Thus recently Farook Tariq, the general secretary of the Awami Workers Party, writing against the growth of fundamentalism, suggested that that the best antidote would be to make “education the state’s top priority”. He demanded that the federal education budget be immediately increased to 10pc of GDP and all major madressahs be nationalised. Many of these institutions are seen as a source of extremism.

Unplanned boosts in education budgets can actually backfire.

Again it is important to dispel some false notions. We know that many madressahs have played havoc with their students’ psyche and a lot of violence emanates from them. But these institutions account for only 2pc of children of school-going age. To focus on them alone causes us to turn a blind eye to the grave threat our society faces from the mainstream education system which spawns much of the obscurantism and extremism around us. It promotes a curriculum of hatred in spite of the fact that a massive exercise of revision of the textbooks is claimed to have been undertaken.

If we do not secularise our education, it is inevitable that hatred of other faiths will be drilled into the impressionable mind of the child. We see it happening all the time. The desecration of temples, gurdwaras and churches that has been unleashed recently is testimony to our failure to infuse interfaith harmony among the people. True, the pulpit is also responsible for the religious extremism in our society, but good education could have neutralised a lot of that.

There is another problem — the content of our education which children are discouraged from questioning. This approach is applied not just to the teaching of Islamiat but also all other subjects, including the basic sciences. Students are expected to conform. As a result, we have a nation of unthinking citizens who do not challenge what is believed to be conventional wisdom.

Only two examples suffice to show how policymakers have catered to the demands of the extremist religious sentiment. One was the case of Zobeida Jalal, who was the education minister in president Musharraf’s government. She was forced out of office by the fundamentalist lobby when she suggested that an ayat on jihad included in the biology textbook be moved to the Islamiat book.

The second was the case of our ill-fated education policy of 2009. A draft was released in February which recognised that the cultural values of a majority of the people were derived from Islam, and all interventions undertaken under the education policy would be within the parameters of the chapter on state policy laid down in the Constitution. It provided for instructions in Islamiat for Muslim children whereas the minorities were to be taught their own religion. This won universal approval of the stakeholders.

But in August a new draft was announced and adopted by the cabinet in which a chapter titled ‘Islamic Education: Duty of the Society and the State’ was inserted. It added indoctrinated instructions and specifically stated that it would be “ensured that textual and other learning materials” would not negate religious injunctions. Many see this as the entire curriculum being given a faith-based orientation. Is it then surprising that extremism is on the rise?

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2014