ON Jan 12-13, Lahore hosted the third edition of the ThinkFest, the ‘Afkar-i-Taaza’, that brought together a galaxy of Pakistani and international intellectuals. The man behind the show was one of Pakistan’s leading young historians, Dr Yaqoob Bangash. And a fine show it was — combining literature, art and analysis on a wide array of historical and contemporary topics.
To me though, these events are about far more than just their content. In fact, they often provide invaluable data points about the pluses and minuses of our intelligentsia, and indeed, our society.
I was seized foremost by the inaugural address by the Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood. The theme of his talk: injustice in our education system. Mahmood implored the participants not to forget the elephant in the room — the all-too-apparent elitist undertones of gatherings such as the ThinkFest.
I know that Dr Bangash and others tried hard to attract a diverse crowd. And yet, they were only partially successful. The fault was not theirs.
Public schools produced the crème of Pakistan. What happened?
The fault is in our education system. By creating a playing field in the education sector that is biased towards the elite, the state has ensured that an overwhelming majority of kids in the country either never go to school or receive such poor-quality education that they remain misfits for such gatherings — in fact, for virtually everything in the modern world.
Not for a second should one absolve the state for the mess the education system has become. Successive governments (civilian and military) made conscious choices to deprioritise education. Funding for the sector has been so abnormally low that even if every penny allocated to it was spent efficiently, we would still be left with millions languishing with extremely poor or zero education.
While Mahmood focused on the absence of a national curriculum as a major reason for the lack of a common frame of reference for kids to unite around, there is a deeper issue that may be responsible for this outcome: the silos that kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds and schooling systems operate within. Broadly, there are four parallel education systems: public, non-elite private, elite private, and madrasahs. The private elite schools, represented by the majority of participants at the ThinkFest, are the only ones able to prepare their students for modern economies. But they are also responsible for maintaining an apartheid between the haves and have-nots. Their admissions tests are as much an exercise in socioeconomic screening as they are about judging prospective students. By doing so, they uphold the unsaid elite consensus on keeping the non-elite out of these privileged surroundings.
The elite’s exclusive focus on private education is also responsible for the breakdown of public-sector schooling. Just a generation and a half ago, public schools produced the crème of Pakistan. What happened? Simple: the elite gave up. Once the elite had found a private sector alternative for their kids, public sector education was doomed. This is how it works in every sector in the country — from police stations to hospitals to public toilets. If the elite do not use a service, interest wanes, investment dips, and the enterprise ultimately collapses. A problem fairly common to countries of the elite, by the elite, for the elite — Pakistan being a quintessential example.
The ill effects of the siloed education system do not stop here. For years, data has been pointing to a correlation between educational silos and deepening societal fissures. My own work from over a decade ago shows how kids from private, public and madrasah schools not only lack common framing of national issues, but also carry jaundiced views of each other. Class is a big divider; the madrasah and public-school kids often hold their elite counterparts responsible for their relative deprivation in society. Conversely, the elite maintain such strong negative stereotypes about these less privileged kids that it is impossible to see them engaging constructively across these divides. Indeed, the only commonality I found across education systems was that all kids were deeply intolerant of diversity of opinion, especially from a cohort other than their own.
I found Mahmood’s willingness to introspect refreshing. While congratulating the organisers of the ThinkFest, he crystallised his, and indeed the nation’s, challenge: how does one get to the point where we begin to find Pakistanis from across the education spectrum engaging in such forums?
His focus on formulating a uniform curriculum may be a start, but its impact will be marginal unless the silos within the education system are broken and every child gets a level playing field. The onus to make this happen lies primarily on the state. But the elite must also own up to the distortions selfishly introduced in the system and do right by the millions of underprivileged Pakistani children by undoing them.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2019