Through a series of recent writings on the education sector in Pakistan, a tricky narrative seems to be emerging around the utility of going to school or university in this country.
Even though the great potential of education is pointed out, the more forceful argument seems to lean towards the diminishing utility of schooling because of the particular manner in which it happens in our context or, more likely, the lack of economic gain from it.
Before we go any further, let’s set the record very straight and very clear: it is always better to be in school than out. It takes a certain level of privilege to be commenting on life — education quality in particular — all of which is engendered by the fact that those of us commenting went to school.
Of course, you could ask me whether we should also let children do obnoxious amounts of drugs and eat sticks of butter to find out neither are good for them, but we know school is about a lot more than intoxication and fat.
So what exactly does going to school do for children that can be gleaned from even our dilapidated version of an education system?
For starters, try being your current self as you are reading this, but spending time only with people six years younger or about 25 years older than you (likely your parents) — would it wear you out?
The number one reason we must commit to giving children a school experience is because it offers them the chance to participate in a peer community, and this informs a necessary part of their mental, emotional, cognitive and social growth.
This couldn’t be truer in the Pakistani context, where even in the most rundown schools, provided there is a boundary wall, a group of children comes together for hours at a stretch.
Whilst we can debate what they do during those hours, there is enough ethnographic evidence on the classroom to suggest that even in the most disruptive environments, children successfully identify important elements of the real world: patterns, some routines, social cues, memories and, above all, human relationships.
In fact, the quality of an education experience is inevitably mediated by how well many of these factors are curated by adults for the modulated, sometimes regimented, development of children. I am not arguing a binary here: schools cannot be straitjackets, just as they cannot be Run Wild zones.
But they must exist to enable young minds and bodies to learn to co-exist beyond the general familiarity of their own homes.
In other words, schools offer an important democratic function by compelling students to deal with both those external to them, and how they feel when they are in a public environment.
There’s a counter to this as well: these aren’t the schools in Pakistan. The schools in Pakistan, we commonly complain, have insular notions of pedagogy, bigoted perspectives in our social studies textbooks and not enough space (physical and mental) to let children socialise effectively.
None of these are incorrect accusations, but they also do not represent a much more sophisticated picture of the varying efforts being made across our country to salvage our most important asset — the future of our children.
Consider a modest whitewashed education building that stands firmly in the midst of what used to be a Muttahida Qaumi Movement territory in Karachi. At the country’s only privately-run exam board, a group of dedicated, middle-class Pakistanis who were born and raised in this country are slowly changing the way we think about 21st century learning in some of our most disadvantaged schooling spaces.
The experiments they try in pedagogy, curricular add-ons and how to assess all of this so that students and teachers learn continuously are simple, but revolutionary for how seamlessly they get education actors to think critically within the government’s education process. This is what has attracted policymakers from Balochistan, Washington DC and now the Punjab towards their model.
In a different part of the same city, another experiment is being conducted and carefully monitored by Pakistan’s largest not-for-profit education system. Started with the mission to reverse the abysmal level of opportunity available to some of Pakistan’s poorest children, The Citizens’ Foundation (TCF) tries to place the child at the heart of everything it does.
In some instances, this has generated significant critique, which has challenged Pakistanis to think more holistically about learning: a beautiful building is the right of a Pakistani child because aesthetics and good experiential design are fundamental to becoming a well-rounded human being.
But in its latest experiment, the TCF represents the real possibility of embodying at the level of the average individual, what is often priced for the children of the upper economic classes: the ability to think conceptually from a young age, develop spatial skills through play and take shared pride in real, not imagined, identities.
There is something fundamentally empowering about these kinds of learning processes, irrespective of how they translate across multiple forms of assessment or household surveys.
At best, good learning teaches young minds to explore the world around themselves; at worst, an uninspiring learning process compels students to toe a line, which is bound to be broken by one or another incident in real life.
The questions such encounters raise in the human mind are both unavoidable, and a constant feature of how human beings develop the mettle to keep growing. Sometimes, this may come at considerable risk to the stability of their immediate present, but on other occasions, this may be the trigger to changing the assumptions we hold about the sanctity of long-established values.
In 2015, when I was working with female farmers in communities across Thatta, many parents would comment that the reason they wanted their children — boys and girls — to go to some kind of school, even if it wasn’t the best, was because they could then read to their parents. Personal letters, medical prescriptions, bills and above all, a newspaper or book could all be accessible in a way they just weren’t at the time.
I was once also told they wanted their girls to have an education so they could replace somebody like me — the problem-solver, yes, but from a different context.
This realisation that even a small amount of schooling can yield significant marginal benefits in the lives of our poorest citizens contests assumptions made in colloquial narratives about the singularly economic motivations behind seeking an education.
Evidence on gender parity from the Annual School Census 2018 for Punjab, for instance, demonstrates that there are just about as many girls in primary school now as there are boys (0.96) even if this ratio is not mirrored in our labour market or its signals.
Whilst boys do begin to outnumber girls at the secondary level, first-level analyses for Punjab are showing that this is linked more with accessibility issues than gendered positions amongst students or their parents on continuing an education.
More importantly, preliminary reports from reviews of one of the largest education stipend programmes in the country (possibly the world), Zewar-e-Taleem (ZeT), indicate inconclusive causality between financial incentive and educational demand.
This is a useful flag to the Government of Punjab, not just to restructure ZeT for more targeted subsidising of girls’ education in creative ways, but to use data and technology more intelligently to bring efficiency to service delivery.
The good news is that the School Education Department (SED) is already moving in this direction, having recently launched an e-transfer application that has resolved nearly 18,000 teacher transfer cases in the first month of its operation (which would manually have taken six to eight months), according to a source close to the SED.
But the most intriguing insight from ZeT is that once in school, girls seem to generate enough will and positive externality to associate education with more than some form of monetary compensation or reward.
A recent report on the state of reading amongst Pakistan’s children by The Wilson Center confirms this phenomenon: data from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shows that the demand for girls’ enrollment is at — if not above — capacity.
Across Swat — of anti-girls’ education rhetorical fame — I have been fortunate enough to witness the urgency and singular purpose with which parents and young activists are leading their communities to ensure all children get to school, stay there and learn something in the process so that their lives are a step ahead of the previous generation’s.
Tucked away in the mountainside of Tehsil Kabal, a persistent schoolteacher has been operating off a few mats and a chalkboard to make sure the little boys and girls in his makeshift primary school stay relatively on track.
Further up, a group of rights campaigners led by an enthusiastic Dardic linguist from Bahrain, Swat continues its push for primary education to be delivered in a child’s mother tongue so that it is easiest to comprehend what is being taught.
These seemingly underdeveloped school environments and their caretakers are teaching students the best kinds of lessons: of resilience, agility, empathy, care, love and service in the face of potentially no return.
These are the 21st century skills Pakistani children need most in an uncertain, often brutal world that challenges us daily to remember what makes us dignified humans.
There may be a temptation to think mass education in Pakistan, too, is the consequence of industrial hysteria — even if imaginary — as it was in the post-World War I Western world.
The voices from the field remind us, though, that everyday experiences of education are not explicable through linear equations between learning and employment. The traditional notion of the ‘market’ also does not help understand why Pakistanis struggle so earnestly to learn something.
The demand for education in this country, it is clear, is mediated by a far more complex web of motivations and aspirations than we are currently even documenting: something all universities and think tanks involved in the education sector must think about seriously.
And if we look at the education superstars in this country, can we be genuinely convinced we are a one-dimensional lot for which all educational roads lead to the singular aspiration for a monetary gain?
The problem with money is that we can’t live without it. So of course it features in every conversation we have, as does education. We need to do better by ourselves and look at the nuance of both these terms to wonder whether it is just money that drives education — its investment, outcomes and externalities.
The stories I have narrated here might help you start to realise the answer to the above can be a firm ‘no’. Ours is not a country that lacks imagination. Nor do we not have the resources to try and start thinking differently about how and why we learn.
But to do so, perhaps we have to wade past the fallacy of grand narratives, big data, sweeping assumptions and the constraints of structures: money, the electorate, the invisible hand(s), cyclical illiteracy, religious friction.
We prefer to explain our problems at a distance, removed from us. But what if we owned these problems as ours, so that we would be in a position to present their solutions, not forces beyond our control?
When French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu first wrote of the interplay between the education structures that seemingly bind us through our social positions, and the inescapable urge as a human being to be free, he created a theory around habitus.
The ultimate result of any fight between structure and perceived agency, he argued, was a student’s unconscious conditioning into ‘thinking’ he was ‘free’ (the study was of a boys’ elite school).
By the end of his life, Bourdieu had challenged his own theory. His contention? The world had transformed itself too much through technology, the media, behavioural economics and resistant politics to argue anymore that a student could ever be kept shackled in his/her mind by the confines of a textbook, classroom or lacklustre teacher. Structures could be overpowered by a relentless struggle for human dignity and agency.
This is what we must remind the Pakistani learner every single day. I am very sure many of our students, teachers and parents already know this inside. That’s why they go to school.
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