Statistics show low literacy rates in Pakistan, many out-of-school children, and poor standards of education. In a population of 242 million, only 12 million complete primary education, half of that complete matriculation, less than two million acquire a Bachelor’s degree, and a mere 618,937 earn a Master’s degree or above. But are the remaining uneducated?
Pakistan is buzzing with ‘uneducated’ people with expertise in laser printing, fixing laptops, phones and computers, working complex machines in factories, repairing cars, rewiring motors, making sensors and alarm systems, making guns in small workshops, and growing arguably the world’s tastiest fruit. How did they learn their skills? Is that not the result of another kind of education?
The concept of state-run formal education is only a few hundred years old. Informal education dates back to the beginning of society, when elders taught children and each other to understand the world around them — how to survive, how to heal and how to teach when it was their turn.
The ustaad-shagirdi or apprenticeship system produced great poets, musicians, Sufis, theologians, law givers, kings and queens, warriors, artists, craftspersons, inventors, healers, farmers, traders, actors and a host of other skilled professions.
Ensuring that citizens are productive members of society should encompass more than only trying to provide formal education
Ustaad Ashiq, the famous naqqash of Multan, was not just a craftsman but a theorist as well, who inherited a design manual from his ancestors and understood the underlying principles of design. The first Memons who built up the industry and economy of Pakistan had not gone to business school. They learnt from their elders and in the school of life. That was the way of learning across the ancient world. Socrates taught in the Lyceum of Athens, a gymnasium and gathering place.
In the Muslim world, teaching took place in a home, a workshop or a garden. Free public schools (maktab) were formed in the 14th century, along with extensive libraries. Education consisted of ta’lm (knowledge), tarbiyah (moral growth) and ta’db (manners and culture). Ibn Sina recommended that, at the age of 14, students should be given the choice of selecting their favorite subjects — reading, manual skills, literature, medicine, geometry, trade or commerce.
Attestation of education, the ijaza, was granted by a particular scholar, rather than the institution. Students travelled great distances to join the halqa or circle of a great teacher. This form of education produced the brilliant scientists and philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam that spread across the world and inspired European education.
The Muslim empires in India, especially the Mughals, established schools and libraries all over India — an amalgam of the Islamic and Hindu systems. Modern school systems established during the British Raj, while creating opportunities for joining the international fraternity of scholarship, also created a rural-urban divide. Students came to believe themselves to be better than those who had not attended school.
Not everyone has access to, or may be interested in, a formal education. This need not mean that education itself is out of their reach. Nineteenth century American author George Cary Eggleston, in his book How to Educate Yourself, With Or Without Masters, suggests self-education requires the ability to reason logically, acquiring a wide knowledge base, developing the art of conversation and a purposeful focus on an area of knowledge or skill. Learn both sides of every question and avoid mindlessly believing everything that is written.
Observation of nature and people is equally important. James Watt famously developed the steam engine after noticing the lid of the kettle rising as the water boiled. The Quran also gives great importance to observation. Many sentences begin with, “Have you not seen…?”
Research shows that 80 percent of learning is informal. The 70-20-10 rule claims that 70 percent is learnt through challenging experiences, 20 percent from relationships, and only 10 percent from coursework and training.
Today, social media provides unprecedented opportunities for self-learning, from cooking and construction techniques, to the history of the Palestinian conflict and current politics. The IQ of Pakistanis is said to be higher than Indians or Bangladeshis, but it waits for a nurturing system to truly blossom.
The Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) certification is one way to acknowledge abilities learnt under the ustaad-shagirdi system. Most of all, an informed and active citizen can make a positive difference to society.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.
She may be reached at
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 12th, 2023