The desire to learn

April 29, 2015


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

“EDUCATION Revolution in Punjab is just round the corner.” These words were spoken by the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, at an event held at Aiwan-i-Sadr on March 23, 2015, to inaugurate the enrolment season in the province. It is not all that the esteemed minister had to say; he also made note of the fact that education was crucial in fighting extremism in the country and that “practical efforts were needed instead of hollow slogans”. “Education,” he emphasised, “is the only way to steer the country out of problems and crisis.”

Events such as the one described above, complete with their kowtowing bureaucrats, a few beaming schoolchildren and smarmy politicians, are held with stunning regularity in Pakistan. Everyone, it seems, agrees on the crucial need for children to be educated; no one, however, appears to believe a word of what they say.

Proof of the superficiality of Pakistan’s commitment to education can be seen in the latest report issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on the state of education in the world. Titled Education for All 2000-2015, the report presents the progress (or lack thereof) that has been made in countries around the world in reaching the millennium development goals as they relate to education. In its figures and numbers are the realities that politicians and policymakers never acknowledge in their keynote speeches and their effervescent promises for educational revolution.

Pakistan spends only 2.5pc of its GDP on education, one of the lowest rates in the world.

According to the report, of all the countries in West and South Asia, Pakistan had the largest number of out-of-school children in the year 2012, a whopping 5.4 million. India came in at number two in this category with 1.4m children, a disproportionate and towering difference of several million given the much larger population of the latter. Discussing the figures, the report stated that Pakistan has made less progress, given its GDP, whereas India has shown drastic improvement, having reduced the number of out-of-school children by 16m in the period studied, owing to investment in education. In turn, Pakistan, with its growth rate of 4.1pc, spends only 2.5pc of its GDP on education, one of the lowest rates in the world. Next time anyone mentions an education revolution being just around the corner, take a moment to ponder that. The darkness that envelops Pakistan, flush with promises of new roads and orders for new fleets of fighter jets, is present in this one number: 2.5pc.

Within this number there are tales of further inequities. As Sheema Khan wrote in her analysis of the report, the gap between the rich and the poor is expanding into a greater chasm than ever before. Of those who do go to school, only 33pc of fifth graders in Balochistan could read a story in 2014, while over 60pc of children in the same grade could do so in Punjab. Such stark disparity points to the uneven quality of education offered in the country and further to the low priority accorded to education as a whole.

The curse of discrimination does not end with the fickle luck of being born in one province or another, or in a poor family versus a rich one. Being born female in Pakistan is a further sentence; 57pc of the over 4m out-of-school children in Pakistan are girls, and all the talk about educating them is, given the numbers, largely untrue. According to the report, positive attitudes towards girls’ education have actually fallen during the years between 2001 and 2012.

It is this finding that should trouble Pakistanis the most. The lack of expenditure on education is not a new story; the decades of Pakistan’s existence have had few constants. A dogged and fervid ignorance of the importance of creating an education infrastructure would be one of them. The apparent change in attitudes toward the necessity of educating girls, however, is a new development. A number of reasons can be hypothesised to be behind it. The last decade, the one studied by the report, has seen an organised and resolute onslaught on female education by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and their affiliated groups. Hundreds of girls’ schools have been targeted, blown up or burned down. Young girls have been attacked on their way to school, in school and returning from school.

On the other end, aid packages from foreign nations have come padded with promises to help Pakistan in precisely this category. In the midst of all this giving and taking, however, it was assumed that the people themselves thought that the idea of educating girls was a good one. The book-burning, school-bombing barbarian hordes were believed to be the fringe; everyone else, it was assumed, believed in the cause, in the idea that educating them was a good one, a positive investment in the future.

It is this last assumption that the report now challenges. With an increasing number of Pakistanis losing faith in the value of girls’ education, some analysts suggest that the doubters may no longer be a fringe minority. That somehow, in fighting against the Taliban, many sections may have begun to believe that obscurantism and ignorance — uneducated girls relegated to the darkness of illiteracy — are a good idea.

Pakistan’s education problem cannot be pinned on faith, geography or even poverty. In the regional sections of the report, countries like Iran, as invested in religious zeal as Pakistan, show far better results. Similarly, countries with similar developmental challenges like Bangladesh are also improving, investing in programmes for adult education or informal education to make sure that poor populations are not left illiterate.

All of them have things to teach Pakistan — techniques that have worked, expenditures that have yielded good returns. But before that can be done, Pakistan and Pakistanis must first want to learn, to rekindle somehow the desire for knowledge that galvanises others but which seems, in Pakistan’s corner of South Asia, tragically elusive.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2015

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