What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan
By Anjum Altaf
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834457
196pp.

Plain Truths About Primary School Education in Pakistan: Letters to Parents
By Anjum Altaf
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834396
90pp.

Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction
By Anjum Altaf
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834433
196pp.

Single National Curriculum: A Review of Pre-1 Model Textbooks
By Anjum Altaf
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834402
124pp.

Dr Anjum Altaf is not just a celebrated economist, but also a thinker, writer and poet. For the ‘Education and Teaching Series’ published by Folio Books, he’s written a set of four texts that explore Pakistan’s current public education system from various angles.

The first of these books, What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, adds a number of excellent arguments to the current debate on education in Pakistan, and, taking the conversation to a higher theoretical level, examines some fundamental problems besetting public education in the country.

Nearly everyone in Pakistan is unhappy with the poor state of public education. Enormous amounts of gathered data and numerous surveys conducted over time have raised public alarm, yet have failed to move the state policy for any sound remedial action. State-level commitment to education is disappointing, which brings us to the most fundamental question: why isn’t public education a priority for Pakistan’s rulers?

Most writings on public education have been in the spirit of pointing out deficiencies in the system. They often take the form of describing symptoms of an ailment. Diagnostic writings have been fewer and not convincing to all, least of all to the educational establishment. There are many prescriptions, but not all are based on a sound diagnosis.

Four books by Dr Anjum Altaf tackle with great insight the problems of, and misconceptions about, education in the country and the inherent issues around its policymaking

This book is different. It does not stop at describing the lack of progress, or lamenting about it, but poses incisive questions and searches for answers in order to diagnose the ailment. The questions take readers into the depths of the problems besetting education and help understand if the very government is a problem, or a solution.

The answer it gets is disturbing. It proposes that poor education standards are a matter of government choice. Our society is hierarchal in structure and the assumption that the government cares and works for the welfare of the entire nation is a myth. This is all the more true if the government consists of robber barons concerned more with their self-interests.

The priorities of a government such as ours lie elsewhere. Pakistan’s government is content with the relatively good education that expensive private schools provide to those who can afford it. It also finds its needs further fulfilled by the less affluent, but talented, students who do well despite the poor state of public education.

Although there is public representation in the democratic governance, the democratic dispensation is distorted because of the absence of accountability from below. In such a situation, our only hope lies in the author’s final prescription: “The fate of Pakistan is in the hands of its citizens. In the era of democratic politics, they need to find a way to enforce accountability from below by educating, organising, agitating and offering better alternatives.”

Addressing the general complaint about meagre budgetary allocations, Dr Altaf wonders if spending more on bad education is not tantamount to wasting good money. Although often asked, this isn’t a simple question. Education is bad because, among many other reasons, it is starved of the resources needed to improve it. How can it improve otherwise?

A classroom in a government school in Thatta
A classroom in a government school in Thatta

Government-compiled data tells us that nearly a quarter to a third of public-sector primary schools are single-room, single-teacher schools. Imagine the classroom environment: 50 or so students of classes one through five, all squatting together on the floor in a cramped room, all being taught by a single teacher scribbling on a tiny blackboard.

No public sector school has a laboratory. In fact, lab work has been taken off the Board examinations. This practice has now spread to undergraduate education in quite a few universities, too, public as well as private (and expensive). Amazingly, the reason cited is paucity of funds.

Shortage of teachers is a perennial problem and this is as much an exercise in cutting down expenses as it is because of long procedural delays in hiring.

But pumping in resources without revamping anything else will hardly improve education. In other words, finance is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Increasing financial input must be accompanied by several other reforms, for example, in modifying the educational content, in the production of textbooks, in teachers’ training and, above all, in the assessment system. Otherwise, the good money put into it would go to waste.

The essay on education and development is also thought provoking. For most postcolonial societies — as also for under-developed traditional societies — modern education is something external, something that grew somewhere else, and is being sought to be implanted in a different society.

Development, on the other hand, is much more internal. It surely is inspired by how other societies have developed, but the mode of development depends on the historical stage of the host society. For development to be planted, the society has to have the requisite know-how — merely putting up a computer chip-making factory in a Central American country, for example, does not make that country a chip designing and producing country.

Here, then, is an answer to the question ‘would education by itself lead to development, or is it development which would demand education?’ In the author’s view, it is the development that requires and demands specific kinds of education, which in itself is a dynamic demand. As development proceeds, the demand for specific knowledge grows and takes root in institutions.

Another important question is why education is not a political issue in Pakistan. For long, civil society activists have been trying to convince political parties to include education reforms in their manifestos, but without any success. Why?

Dr Altaf argues that scientific and technological development is sought only by those societies that want to take a leading role in the comity of nations. However, by its very nature, scientific and technological innovation requires free thinking and intellectual questioning, which also open up space for questioning the status quo.

He also argues that education has a dual and contradictory role in society: it is needed for advancement, and at the same time it is a convenient tool to preserve the social order — a cherished wish of politicians.

Advancement of society inevitably demands adjustments in the social order. Hence, politicians take care not to commit themselves to something that may become an instrument for destroying their political base. In the author’s words: “Rulers in countries [such as] Pakistan with a primary focus on maintaining the status quo and no real intent to be globally competitive see no reason to promote open minds that can only result in the citizenry asking difficult questions.”

Thus, as the author quotes British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Almost all education has a political motive”, the kind of poor education we see serves the political motive of our ruling elite.

The final chapter of What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, on possibilities for change, contains several short essays, each suggesting improvements in the public sector education system.

Personally, I consider Plain Truths About Primary Education in Pakistan: Letters to Parents as the next best among the four books because it is a unique exercise in cautioning parents over missteps in their choice of educational paths during their young children’s formative years.

In the absence of a formal advice system in schools, or even in electronic media, parents — out of their own ambitions — acquire a number of misconceptions about education, which they impose on their children without realising the consequent harmful impacts.

One result is a large number of drop-outs in early and late schooling. Children have different natural aptitudes and, in the words of American psychologist Howard Gardner, multiple intelligences. To impose one design on all is like killing all other possible avenues of excellence.

The 20 letters in Dr Altaf’s book proffer persuasive arguments to remove several misconceptions that parents hold about early education, and give good advice. Many of the letters, if not all, have already appeared as newspaper essays. If parents follow his advice, much of the tyranny our children suffer in schooling could be avoided, the result of which could be liberational.

In fact, this book of letters to parents needs to be on the mantle of every home with children, to guide parents at all crucial steps in their children’s education. Most of the wrong concepts are in the middle and poorer classes, which generally see investment in their children’s education as investment in their social mobility. They are easily taken in by the lure of English medium education, private schooling, etc and Dr Altaf argues strongly against them.

The remaining two books — Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction and Single National Curriculum: A Review of Pre-1 Model Textbooks — constitute a scathing criticism of, as the title suggests, the new curriculum and powerfully advocate against English as the medium of instruction in public schooling.

No school curriculum in Pakistan’s history has been as hotly debated in public as the Single National Curriculum (SNC) because its basic premises were wrong, its solutions were pedagogically preposterous and it was clearly retrogressive. It was promoted by the vestiges of Gen Ziaul Haq’s era with the same missionary zeal that had plunged the nation into darkness some decades ago.

On top of that, the SNC propounds a very strange policy on the medium of instruction, introducing English as the medium for mathematics from class one, and for science from class three. Dr Altaf addresses this issue in Critical Reflections… and shows how harmful such a policy would be. In A Review of Pre-1 Model Textbooks, he exposes the mindlessness with which mathematics, English and Urdu textbooks were prepared under the direct supervision of the National Curriculum Council for primary classes.

In short, what these books offer to readers are: a correct perspective on school education that should be helpful to all — parents, teachers and education planners; a manual to parents about which of their pre-conceived notions they must resist; and scathing but logical criticism of the Single National Curriculum.

The reviewer is a retired physicist who has taught at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2022

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