Unpacking education

Updated September 09, 2019

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The writer was dean of the school of humanities and social science at Lums.
The writer was dean of the school of humanities and social science at Lums.

WE will not figure out education if we continue to use it as a catch-all term without distinguishing its different aspects — knowledge (ilm), skills (hunar) and credentials (sanad).

These distinctions are best elucidated with an example. I take my car for repairs to a ‘Chota’ who was apprenticed early to an ‘Ustad’ and acquired exceptional expertise. Chota is also street-smart and wise. Yet no one would consider him educated. Why not?

The notion of being an ‘educated’ person has become imprecise today, with much variance in its perception. The traditional view equated being educated with being knowledgeable, which manifested itself in the ability to engage in intelligent conversations on subjects unrelated to professional expertise or occupation. To do that a person had to be well-read and fluent in at least one language in which to compose and express his/her thoughts coherently. The fact that educated individuals were referred to as being cultivated suggests that acquiring knowledge was a deliberate process exercised with diligence and care.

Chota is highly skilled but considered uneducated because his knowledge is limited. This is where things get a bit tricky. Chota can be considered a stand-in for many others in present-day Pakistan. Just as Chota is a skilled mechanic who deals with cars, there are skilled mechanics of the human body, of computers, of company ledgers, etc. Ever since Pakistan Studies and Islamic Studies displaced subjects that encouraged thinking, our colleges have begun producing people who are reasonably skilled but often poorly educated in the traditional sense. Many doctors, engineers, accountants and soldiers fall in this category — to the detriment of society.

Chota is highly skilled, street-smart and wise. Yet no one would consider him educated. Why not?

Chota, at least, is honest in recognising his limitations. If asked to explain why Pakistan has remained poor while other countries have done much better, he would generally respond that this was beyond his competence. Not so the doctors, engineers, accountants and soldiers who always have all the answers. They would tell you immediately that the cause is lack of education or growth of population or increase in corruption or absence of leadership or loss of faith. Push them a little further, say, on why we have an absence of leadership, and the conversation would circle around to Allah’s will. If asked why India was doing better with six times the population, you might be enlightened by the revelation that Indians are different and Bangladeshis are outpacing Pakistan because they were always very devious.

Chota can also not be considered uneducated merely because he lacks a degree or diploma. In fact, given what is being taught in schools, he might be fortunate to have been spared the indoctrination comprising the school curriculum. And if forced to obtain a credential to practise his craft, he would most likely buy one because no one would care about its credibility. In this, Chota would be in good company — many of our worthies have bought advanced degrees from fake institutions to meet their job requirements, while others, including a former director of the watchdog HEC, have plagiarised their dissertations. Is more evidence needed of the crisis of education in the country?

I am not implying that the truly educated are necessarily good or moral. What one does with one’s education is a choice that is both personal and a function of prevailing values. There are enough bootlickers, mafiosi and sexual harassers among the educated to put paid to any such false equivalence. I heard recently of a well-educated mother asking her son, who had failed to pass a course, to find out who she needed to speak to and how much money was required to alter the outcome.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the importance of a knowledgeable, informed and thoughtful citizenry cannot be denied — because we live now not under monarchs and self-appointed saviours but under democratic dispensations, and need to be able to exercise intelligent choices after reasoned deliberation to select our representatives. There isn’t much of a future if citizens are unable to distinguish rhetoric from reality.

A labour force with the ability to think and process knowledge is also vital for economic development, but for that it is a necessary, not a sufficient attribute. If governmental policies cause a decline, an educated labour force cannot remedy that by itself. It can only vote the government out in order to induce policy change. On the other hand, if economic policies lead to growth, a knowledgeable labour force can leverage opportunities much more effectively than one without the ability to think or innovate.

It is only in the context of a growing economy that the aspect of education as skill acquisition becomes relevant. The nature of the economy demands particular skills, and individuals invest in those that offer the best prospects over a lifetime. The demands of the labour market, in turn, guide the supply of training programmes offered by educational institutions. The cart cannot be put before the horse. Hoping that jobs would be created by choosing to produce PhDs in science or handing out large numbers of diplomas is something even Chota would dismiss as silly.

One can consider the contrasting examples of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Great Depression in the US in this perspective. There was almost universal opposition to education for the poor in Britain until the advent of industrialisation, which created a growing demand for jobs requiring literacy, numeracy, book-keeping and various other skills. During the Great Depression, no amount of education could prevent jobs from disappearing.

The takeaway from this discussion should be that education as knowledge is vital for good governance and economic development and ought to be cultivated through high school. Education in terms of the acquisition of skills, though necessary, would not spur job creation on its own. First and foremost, development needs good policies for which skill acquisition is not a substitute. Nor should governments decide what skills ought to be promoted; the choice is best left to individuals as they respond to economic opportunities. And education as just the proliferation of credentials is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

The writer was dean of the school of humanities and social science at Lums.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2019