American author and humorist Mark Twain once said that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. Likewise, Albert Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Our mystic poet Bulleh Shah wrote in verse that he didn’t require further worldly knowledge; all he needed was Alif [the first letter in Arabic and in our own alphabet]. It has a deeper meaning, though, as both Allah and alam [grief] begin with the letter Alif. The first of the 30 siparahs [sections] of the Holy Quran is also called ‘Alif, Laam, Meem’ [Arabic letters for A, L and M].

The above-mentioned comments from the masters are, at times, used as an excuse by some conservative religious people and ascetic Sufis in our part of the world to undermine the importance of formal education. Somehow, that creates a comfort zone of ignorance and signifies a contentment, where you decide not to make an effort to expand your knowledge.

One can be content with whatever comfort and wealth one possesses. But how can one be content with the limitations of one’s knowledge? We tend to forget that the masters who said what is stated above had full command over the branches of knowledge they pursued.

Knowledge ignites the intellect and, as held by many, intuition is a higher form of intellect. Therefore, Einstein could say that imagination is more important than knowledge because he had mastered knowledge. Bulleh Shah sought the source of knowledge after swimming across its expanse. Twain learned to read and write in primary school before becoming a typesetter and a voracious reader. Only after that could he chirpily remark that he did not let his schooling disturb his education.

We must recognise that, in the contemporary world, for a child born to non- or semi-literate parents in, say, a village outside Khuzdar in Balochistan, Kandhkot in Sindh or Khaplu in Gilgit-Baltistan, it is only the local school that provides her with the opportunity to begin to learn, to be literate and numerate, to be able to understand the larger world.

That makes the public education system in Pakistan — or anywhere in the developing world, for that matter — the key to individual and collective intellectual and economic growth. The advanced economies, from Japan and China, to Germany and the United Kingdom, have invested heavily in their public education systems.

Even in the United States, the epitome of capitalism, school education for every child is the responsibility of the state. You can be poor, or go broke if you develop an ailment and are not suitably insured, but your child will still be picked up by a yellow bus in the morning to be taken to school.

When the neo-liberal economic paradigm slowly and surely gained currency in Pakistan after the end of the Cold War, private schools and religious madressahs [seminaries] mushroomed in tandem with the state disinvesting from public education.

One may not totally reject private schooling, as there is always a possibility of experimenting with new teaching methodologies available, and trust-managed schools and convents have long been imparting education in a non-commercial way. However, it should not be made mandatory for students and their parents to seek private education because of the absence of public schools, or because of the low quality of teaching and dilapidated infrastructure of public schools.

I totally understand the need and the economic constituency of madressahs as well in the present scenario. They provide almost free education — irrespective of whether we agree with their teaching methodology and curriculum — and, in most instances, free room and board.

Even after the government’s disinvestment and leaving of good quality education to the private sector, more than 60 percent of Pakistani children attend public schools. The number comes to approximately 45 million. About 20 million attend private schools, while about 25 million children of school-going age remain out of school.

What inspired me to highlight the issues in public education in Pakistan is a significant book published in 2021 that I chanced upon recently. It is more like a practical manual, with guidelines for policymakers and education managers. More importantly, it is written in Urdu. There is little tradition left where any original work on public policy or reform administration appears in Urdu or any other native language that we speak.

Titled Asaatiza, Bureaucracy Aur Siyasatdaan [Teachers, Bureaucracy and Politicians], and published by Book Corner, Jhelum, it is a story of a reform programme, comprising various initiatives, that ran across 54,000 schools in Punjab.

This story of successes and failures in overcoming the constraints in the age-old schooling system is told by Javed Ahmed Malik, a seasoned development practitioner and policy adviser who has his heart and soul fully invested in the work he does. From 2009 to 2018, he was associated with this education reform programme in Punjab as a key person. Earlier, Malik wrote another useful book on rural development, called Transforming Villages: How Grassroots Democracy Can End Rural Poverty at a Rapid Pace.

In Asaatiza, Bureaucracy Aur Siyasatdaan, Malik rightly begins with the issues faced by teachers in general and how to deal with these during the reform process. He dispels certain misconceptions about education financing and the reform agenda. Then he moves on to list the fundamental issues faced by the primary and secondary schooling system.

He proposes solutions to the problems of improving educational standards and making school management efficient, and reflects on the link between education and national development. With a review of different reform initiatives, Malik proposes workable solutions based on experiential learning.

The book is properly referenced and illustrated with explanatory charts, tables and graphs. It is no rocket science to make our public education system efficient and purposeful, if there is a will at all levels of decision-making and implementation. Declaring an education emergency and investing properly in public schooling, with a consensus among all political stakeholders, is the only course the state must take.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 16th, 2023

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