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More complex than education


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I’M involved with an education project in Sindh; the aim of the programme is to get 200,000 children into school in the province.

But sometimes I wonder if the project is going to be a failure before it even starts, not because we can’t get those children into school — we certainly can and will, hopefully — but because we’re putting too much emphasis on education as the key to solving the problems of our country.

We make the mistake of assuming that educating our children will turn them into moral, responsible, ethical individuals, the building blocks of any civilised society. But this is an elementary error in the philosophy and understanding of what education can do for us.

While education is a powerful tool in the quest to build good character, education is not the same thing as character. And while many Pakistanis may be educated with varying degrees of success or failure, we lack character, something which education cannot give us unconditionally.

The dictionary describes character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual”.

While we tend to think of honesty and truthfulness as the hallmarks of good character, it’s more complex than that: in a long list of character traits, benevolence, compassion, creativity, faith, forgiveness, discretion, diligence and endurance and a good 30 other traits sit alongside honesty on that list.

Does education automatically bestow a human being with these traits? The answer is obviously no.

Psychology Today says that “character is one’s emotional world” and that many factors, possibly the most essential of which is childhood experience, goes into shaping a person’s character, either negatively or positively.

Consider that a child spends five years of her life — the most important five years of a child’s life, according to early childhood experts — not going to school. And think about the emotional world of children in today’s Pakistan: stress and turmoil outside the house, values and behaviours inside the house which may or may not be consistent, wholesome and nurturing, affected by the chaos of our lives and our rapidly changing society.

Once a child gets to school, the emphasis is on achieving numeracy and literacy; very few curriculums address issues of character-building or moral reasoning.

There may be a unit in a social studies class on civic sense in third grade, taught completely in isolation to the rest of the child’s educational career. But the concepts on the page clash hideously with what a child witnesses going on in the school around her: competitiveness, success at any cost, teachers and students alike seeing how they can cheat the system and get away with the bare minimum while aspiring to climb to the highest positions of power and success through immoral means.

And schools are a microcosm of our society at large.

The worst thing I ever heard as an instructor at a university in Karachi was this attitude displayed to me by the students: ‘We’re paying your salary so you are our employee. Therefore you have to do what we want you to do’.

This is not a belief that sprang out of nowhere; this is the sum total of 18 years of an education system so corrupt and weak that teachers are little better than salaried servants in the minds of the young.

Where else do they learn this attitude but from their parents, who rail about the rising costs of education and yet do not bother to inform their children about the long-term value of education, which is beyond price?

Asad Umar of PTI says, “We Pakistanis love to outsource our political responsibility.” We Pakistanis also love to outsource our responsibility to build our children’s character and moral fibre: to teachers, maulvis, television, even their future spouses.

Parents abdicate their roles as shapers of their children’s character, because it takes too much time and effort to teach a child the difference between right and wrong.

You can parrot platitudes and clichés about honesty and “being a good Muslim”, but if you don’t make efforts to model moral behaviour in your own life, your child will learn from you and repeat that behaviour in her own life.

It goes beyond lying and stealing. If you underpay your servants your child will learn how to treat the working class with disrespect and dishonesty. If you avoid paying your taxes and rail about how the government is dishonest, your child will grow up believing that he has no civic responsibility, and that he owes nothing to society.

If you are a bigot and speak intolerantly about people of other faiths, nationalities, or races, your child will become a bigot. If you’re sexist, and speak about women in demeaning terms, or if you treat women unfairly, your son will become a chauvinist.

If you tell your daughter there’s no point in studying because all she should do is raise a family, she’ll become disengaged from her studies at an early age and be more interested in her looks than her abilities.

Sending your child to the best school in the world will not ensure that she or he becomes an honest person, or an ethical citizen. Most of the children involved in the Friday protests against the anti-Islamic film appeared to be students. Where were their parents when they were out on the streets, stealing chairs and vandalising cinemas?

We cannot send our children to school, madressah, college, tuitions, university hoping that the teachers will take our place and teach our children how to be good. This is expecting too much from an already overburdened educational system. Recognise that as parents, you are your children’s first teachers. Then think about what you are teaching them. The turnaround in our society begins with you.

The writer is the author of Slum Child.

Twitter: @binashah

Author Image

Bina Shah is a writer and columnist in Karachi; she is the author of the novel Slum Child and A Season for Martyrs.

She tweets @binashah

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

dL70 Oct 01, 2012 10:37am
Once a long, long time ago, when my mother taught Urdu at a Karachi school, an under appreciated labour of love if there ever was one, her colleagues complained she spent more time on her students' 'tarbiyat' than she did on their 'taa'leem'.
ali Oct 01, 2012 07:20pm
Really appreciated the writer's point of view. But if by taking an example of two brother/sisters fed by the same guidance from the parent and attending the same school, still have drastic changes in their character. So, there are some other factors too involve in changing their personalities. Every individual born with different genes, by which he responses to the society in different ways. So, not only parents the whole system ,the media impact and the close circle in which he moves, everything inspires and attract him. So its the duty of every citizen to perform his task in the moral growth of our child.
ahmed41 Oct 01, 2012 04:36am
This is a mighty clear thinking article . Education in its formal sense is not all of character building and civic sense . But here's what Hajirah Mumtaz -------- says in Dawn today: KEEPING THE FAITH "-----But in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, a few people
taseerali Oct 01, 2012 11:05am
Very Right! An insightful article that makes every Pakistani ponder about the Change we need to bring in out educational system And the change within. Blessings!
Basharat Ali Oct 01, 2012 03:53pm
It is a well written article by Bina Shah. I do not disagree with most of what she had written. The only thing I ask is that let us not give up on education of our children. We need to strive harder to contribute to character building. Among other things, we need to make greater efforts in improving our text books from the very first grade until the end of primary and secondary grades. What I am proposing that all those attributes such as honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness and the like should be taught sequentially from one grade to the next one. In simplistic terms, on the subject of honesty, we got to have a moral story or poem appropriate for the age group that builds upon what was covered during the previous year. During the later years, story telling, essay writing, speech contests and such other activites be promoted and rewarded appropriately. This is a long and slow process but all good things in life require hard work, patience and time. From my childhood, I still remember some of the poems and stories in text books that inspired me at the time and had stayed with me through the years. I commend the writer of touching upon an excellent subject and I hope readers would positively respond and contribute to the cause. Keep up the good work, Ms. Shah! From a development professional Basharat Ali Kabul, Afghanistan
Aziz Oct 01, 2012 08:22am
Bina Shah! Excellent article. Very correctly points out the limitations of 'formal education'. Education should comprise of both ' formal' and even more importantly the 'informal' which teaches and inculcates 'value systems'. A child in his mother's lap being taught that stealing,back-biting, destroying, telling lies is bad will turn never do so. Pakistan's priority. Educate the child as well as the parents. Correct 'ethos' and 'proper' education can turn a nation around within one generation. Asad Umar of PTI is right. Families and parents should not outsource the 'ethical education' of their children. But they need to be 'educated' first.
Zohair Oct 01, 2012 06:58am
kindly add 'sense of' between 'the' and 'security' in the above comment if you decide to post it Thanks
Tahira, USA Oct 01, 2012 03:26pm
Dont you think that Ulema should set an example of cleaning the streets after every Juma prayer?
Zohair Oct 01, 2012 06:52am
Excellent article, Ms Shah, on a crucial but criminally ignored subject. Most children are born with pristine empathy. A two year old toddler will pick up and return a dropped object to a parent or even a stranger if unafraid. Providing education & nurturing empathy are entirely different projects. I agree that the general home environment in Pakistan is not conducive to either. We're all consumed in a desperate struggle for survival for which each individual as well as those above and below are to blame. You've raised relevant and important questions. I am hoping you will follow-up with answers taking into account the opinions of child psychologists, parents, teachers and even those who have an interest in how the security of various types, environment, aesthetics, opportunity for recreation, travel and social interaction between various cultures is an essential part of preservation of humanity in each on of us
ahmed41 Oct 01, 2012 05:55am
This article shows the reality and the limitations of EDUCATION. Character is different from a *good* education at an elite school . I am associated with an elite English medium school in India ( high up in the Himalayas) . In every class , the Principal has posted notices : " LITTERING IN STRICTLY PROHIBITED". Yet when i go to Class 10 every Saturday to conduct * special classes in mental maths* , the floor of the class does have a bit of litter !!!! A few weeks ago i met a group of our school's ex-students ( girls )in the bazaar. So i said : "Let's buy ice-cream from Shop no. 10 " After we bought the ice creams, the girls quickly unwrapped the wrappers and promptly threw the litter right in front of our Shop no.10 . Me ( in horror) : " beta what are you doing ? This is not what you were taught in school " Girls : " Aray, sir, this in India. Just see all the other litter in front of the shop " The conclusion : what is taught in school as a civic value, is not followed by society 100 meters out side the school gate !!!! Its a cultural problem !!!!
Tahira, USA Oct 01, 2012 03:24pm
You mean people with honesty, dedication and integrity. Having a degree is not synonymous with education. You have so many highly educated people with degrees in the parliament but you may have seen how they conduct themselves there and when they are invited on TV shows. They do not even wait for others to complete speaking and all speak at the same time so one does not understand any of them. May be that is their purpose but I have to switch channels when this happens.
Cyrus Howell Oct 01, 2012 04:39am
Pakistan needs a righteous man.
pakistan Oct 01, 2012 06:35pm
very right...
Nadeem Oct 01, 2012 09:33am
Miss Shah its a wonderful article endorsed parental responsibilites to build their childrens character, we all like to chat with internet friends and overlooked the same oppurtunity within our own family. Generally we forget to share and exchange healthy discussion with our family members. Islam is the only religion who comprehensively defined the right and duties of an individual to build well cultured society with high human values like being a muslim we never allow to through litters infornt of our own door so our neighbour may not get feel inferior due to limitation of resources. But we have loose all our pride.
Tahira, USA Oct 01, 2012 03:15pm
You are a brave lady with great insight. The Pak education must go through a mighty revolution. Memorization should be replaced by critical thinking, starting from childhood. Children must be asked to contribute to the teachers' ideas in class since most are intuitively quite smart. Exam questions should also test their thinking ability and not their memorization ability. Unfortunately in Pakistan, at every stage through MA/M.Sc, exam questions are are recycled, set from previous 30 years of exams questions. This deprives students from acquiring knowledge to develop thinking. I have taught at university level in UK, USA, Middle East, Africa and Pakistan but I met the most opposition from colleagues in Pakistan to any improvement in teaching methods and setting up some exam questions to test if the students had developed sufficient thinking skills. This may not exactly reflect the situation in schools/ colleges hopefully. I wish you success in this great endeavor.
aaliya Oct 01, 2012 05:16am
superbly said... at first i thought how come education nt change charter but writer has well said ... true
Sohrab Oct 01, 2012 10:35pm
To a degree you are right.....not always true. Some of the pooerst and most uneducated in Pakistan have embarassed me over the years with their wisdom and strength of character. Again for the time, knowlege and wisdom are not mutually exclusive but not exactly the same thing.
Fahad Oct 01, 2012 10:04am
very well said. there is light at the end of the tunnel. we just have to plough on.
sadam magsi Oct 01, 2012 06:42am
very impressive. amazing thinking Oct 01, 2012 06:43am
Don't underestimate the power of education. It will surely bring some negative results in the beginning, not because education is bad but because those negative is deep inside us. Priority of an educated men always move him towards a good way, it may take generations to achieve, but otherwise there is no hope.
Sam shaikh Oct 01, 2012 06:06am
You nailed it.
Sue Sturgess Oct 01, 2012 10:53am
I agree that good character is not learned at school, however bad character seems to closely follow the uneducated, who in turn often become the unemployed, forced to survive any way they can. At least a good education is a step in the right direction, and a platform upon which to build good character
ali Oct 01, 2012 08:39am
valid points. good article.