Drink less tea

Published June 19, 2022
The writer is the author of What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan.
The writer is the author of What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan.

I LIVED in Karachi in my younger days and a pleasurable activity was to drive over to Tariq Road to a place called Havemore or Eatmore ice cream. I thought of it when asked to drink less tea.

That is a memory of the old Pakistan where you were asked to, and could have, more of things. Now we are living in the new Pakistan and constantly being told to have less of them or better still not have them at all. I mean, you seriously want to eat cheese?

So, if we are already living in the new Pakistan, what is the new new Pakistan going to be like? Would we be notified not to play golf and live in our SUVs?

The journey from the old to the new, from the sublime, relatively speaking, to the ridiculous was already captured quite vividly, albeit unintentionally, by the title of the 1980 book From Jinnah to Zia written, incidentally, by the very man who spurred the descent.

Why has the quality of human capital declined in Pakistan?

This story was reiterated by Intizar Husain in his 50-year retrospective of Pakistan’s literary history (Charaghon Ka Dhuan). His most telling verdict pertained to observations of the changes in the culture of the Pak Tea House, the hangout of artists, in Lahore: In 1950, he wrote, the waiters had the sensibilities of poets; by 2000, the poets had the sensibilities of waiters.

Intizar Husain also attributed this decline to the quality of leadership in the country. In another of his memorable phrases, he lamented the absence of people of stature (qad wale log) and their replacement by pygmies (bauney).

This may be an oversimplification but there is no denying the decline in the quality of leadership. It could very well be because every leader who has muscled his way to power has picked someone of lesser ability as a deputy and a group of yes-persons as enforcers. Or, alternatively, the nod has gone to the most pliant individual likely to do the bidding of the power brokers without questioning. Humayun had the good sense to at least limit the reign of Nizam saqqa to two days.

This is a plausible dynamic in a country where leaders do not earn the right to office by any demonstration of competence; often their first real job is to be the chief or the prime minister under advisement that they be given a chance to prove themselves. That’s how democracy works in Pakistan. I suppose I would be labelled undemocratic for not giving my bike for repair to a person who was in the process of proving his competence at my expense.

We are familiar with the reality of how our leaders are selected, elected, and ejected but the decline in competence is not confined to the leadership alone. The real and more serious question is why the quality of human capital has declined across the board in Pakistan. What accounts for the role reversal of Intizar Husain’s waiters and poets in the Pak Tea House?

It seems reasonable to argue that nations develop when every new generation is more knowledgeable and better trained than its predecessors. Countries like South Korea and China support that premise. In Pakistan, one doesn’t see that progression; on the contrary, every new cohort comes across as intellectually poorer.

It is hard not to trace this phenomenon to what has been happening to school education. Virtually all questioning and creativity has been sucked out of it over the years and replaced by dogma, indoctrination and uncritical acceptance of officially approved narratives.

It might be unbelievable for some that in the old Pakistan of Eatmore ice cream, morality was not taught in schools. In the new Pakistan of drink less tea, contrary to the practice in most other countries, morality has spilled over into every subject. Today, an exercise in critical thinking in a Grade-4 English textbook asks students the age at which Hazrat Ali accepted Islam. And yet, the trade-off has been unfavourable. The standard of morality has not risen while that of all other subjects, that have had to cede time, has suffered.

What is driving this trend? It may appear puzzling but there may be an explanation in the perspective of political economy. Education is not independent of politics and school education is a potent instrument in the hands of the state to perpetuate its hegemony; the more repressive the state the more education is employed to indoctrinate and legitimise its narrative.

There is thus a deadly feedback: the usurpation of power by intellectual pygmies represses a free-thinking education and a repressed education produces yet more intellectual pygmies.

There seems no escape from this double bind in Pakistan. Every newer Pakistan will make us yearn for the old. For now, drink less tea and don’t even think of cheese.

The writer is the author of What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, Folio Books, 2022.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2022

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