Under pressure

October 21, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

ONE of the very powerful authors whose work I have read is a Briton by the name of Neil Gaiman. He writes both non-fiction and fiction, the latter in the main fantasy and some sci-fi. He has done some wonderful humour, amongst the notable being the collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett (another absolutely gifted writer with boundless imagination and a genius for holding up a mirror to reality through fantasy, who shall by millions be forever missed). This book is called Good Omens, combining fantasy fiction with tropes of religion and ethics, morals and mores, all neatly packaged into a riveting read for (fairly) young adults — it has recently been shot as a TV show.

One must refrain from the temptation of digressing, however. The operative part of the case to be made here is a talk Gaiman delivered back in 2013 Dilating upon the importance of reading, especially fiction (but certainly not precluding other genres), of libraries and librarians, and inculcating in children a predilection for the written word, this is part of what he had to say:

“I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

The first condition for reading is literacy. That is where we are failing.

“It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”

As Gaiman himself concedes in this talk and in several others, and printed articles, of course he has a vested interest here given that the written word is what he has an immense talent for (in my humble opinion, not his), and where he draws his bread and butter from. He goes on, however, to talk about how reading, especially fiction, builds character, empathy, and so many other skills that are vital to living life. In a movie, for example, one absorbs a scenario as dreamed up by the director or actors, but in a book it is imagined, fleshed out and populated by the reader himself or herself, building — if you will — amongst other aspects flexibility and strength of mind. The future, says Gaiman, depends on reading, libraries, and daydreaming.

But the first requirement for reading, fiction or not, is literacy, of course. To bring the mind of the eye closer to home, that is where Pakistan is failing — and badly. Notwithstanding the constitutional provision for the right of every child to education, the state’s responsibility to ensure this, and some (albeit well-meaning) efforts in this direction, we have millions of children out of school, who either could not attend or dropped out. The reasons are well-known, and range from poverty to lack of access to the practice of corporal punishment and poorly designed curricula, amongst myriad and unfortunate others.

Couple this with the fact that we have a tanking economy, and a ‘youth bulge’ comprising of some 140m young people vying to somehow get ahead of the race who, in eloquent words published on these pages recently, have “unmet needs and expectations [that] are throwing up an organic crisis the likes of which the establishment and our pro-establishment politicians have never seen before”.

The prime minster has announced his government’s intention to unify the curricula all over the country, but the fact is that one size does not fit all in a place of diversity. The problem, though, remains: first children have to be enrolled — and stay enrolled; that is the primary challenge. The legal system has intervened, on the matter of private school fee hikes that have deservedly become an issue in recent years. Various courts have issued judgements regarding caps on permissible increases, including those in Sindh and Punjab. The most recent came a week ago, when the Lahore High Court directed provincial and district governments to implement the Supreme Court judgement in this regard — there are reports of families being deterred from sending children to school, having to pull them out, or students even being expelled, because of the cost.

Yet these measures are hardly implemented, and given the various factors the future looks increasingly bleak. As has been argued, the state has virtually abdicated its responsibility to education to the private sector, which by now operates akin to a cartel. In truth, there is no getting away from the reality that public-sector schools of some reasonable merit are urgently needed, everywhere.

To return to Gaiman’s words, what possibility is there of a viable future if the coming-of-age generations cannot invent or innovate?

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019