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More complex than education

October 01, 2012

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