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What education?

December 13, 2012


IT is surely gratifying to note that the new Unesco drive for girls’ education bears the name of Malala Yousufzai but to what extent will Pakistan’s girls benefit from it?

The Malala Fund for Girls’ Right to Education, for which billions of dollars are to be raised, should be taken as Unesco’s desperate bid to ensure that girls are not left out of any country’s drive to achieve the second Millennium Development Goal (MDG) — namely, achieving universal primary education.

Of all the eight MDGs this is the objective the Pakistani authorities think they can achieve. But there is no denying the fact that girls are still lagging behind boys in primary enrolment. Their enrolment has suffered a further setback as a result of extremists’ attacks on their schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

Hopes that the state’s assumption of responsibility to achieve the goal of universal primary education should expedite realisation of MDG No 2 have not materialised. Two and a half years after the addition of Article 25A to the constitution, under the 18th Amendment, the provincial governments seem to be struggling to establish implementation mechanisms.

If these mechanisms can be put in place in the next fiscal year it may still be possible to ensure that all children, girls included, can attend schools by 2015. At the same time, some progress towards reducing the dropout rate should be possible. The urgency of effective initiatives in this regard became plain when Unesco declared that 30 per cent of Pakistanis were suffering from education poverty as they had had no more than two years of schooling.

An issue in the present debate on child education in Pakistan, as important as universalising primary education, is the need to bring the education courses in harmony with the people’s needs. Enlightened sections of society are coming more and more round to the thesis that what is being offered to children is sham education. Not only that this education does not help the children to develop their personalities as rational human beings and as productive members of society, it is raising a crop of morons at best and callous murderers at worst.

This theme, in various forms, has been in people’s discourse in this region for more than a century. This was one of the issues that attracted the attention of the All India Mohammedan Education Society in the last quarter of the 19th century. (Incidentally, the congregation that decided to form the Muslim League in 1906 comprised the members of this society that had gathered in Dhaka for their 20th conference.)

The demand for universal primary education as one of the people’s fundamental rights raised during the freedom struggle was invariably coupled with a strident critique of Lord Macaulay’s education policy, that it only produced docile clerks to serve the colonial rulers.

By the time of Independence, the leaders of the Muslim communities in the subcontinent had concluded that science teaching had to be given priority. Later on, vocational training also began to be emphasised. Unfortunately, Pakistan has failed to guarantee its children proper instruction in modern sciences and the devastation caused by the deliberate degradation of humanities is visible to everyone.

The point being made here is that education in Pakistan must equip the next generation with the means of meeting the challenges that society is facing today and is likely to face in the years ahead. Education will be meaningless if it does not enable the young ones to overcome the threat to the pluralist nature of their society, does not help them demolish the cult of violence and intolerance. The foundations of such education have obviously to be laid at the primary school level.

Considerable literature is available to show that the curriculum in public schools, instead of emphasising equality of human beings, sanctifies divisions on the basis of belief, domicile, gender and social status. Instead of peace, amity and tolerance it promotes hatred, violence and intolerance.

This is a prescription for making dissensions and conflicts within the society permanent. With such a disastrous and pernicious curriculum, Pakistan will never be able to scale the heights of knowledge, nor will it be able to raise a generation that could hold its head high in the comity of civilised nations. A drastic curriculum reform must accompany the campaign to achieve the goal of universal primary education for girls as well as boys.

A critical issue in debate these days is the place of religious texts in school studies. Attempts to review the selection of Quranic texts in these textbooks are always ferociously resisted. That a Muslim community should like its children to learn something about their faith is understandable but there is need for a dispassionate study on the question of whether such studies should be optional or compulsory for all students, including those belonging to the minority communities.

While one can understand the resistance to any move to delete the Quranic verses from textbooks, there should be no objection to replacing one verse from the holy book with another verse that specifically promotes sound moral values, peace and respect for human life.

At the same time, children should begin to learn in primary classes the basic features of their geography, the fact that their state comprises units that are equal with one another, the essentials of civic responsibility and the bonds that hold the human family together. The slogan ‘education for all’ must be changed to ‘meaningful and quality education for all’. Translating this motto into practice is the obligation Pakistan assumed last Monday when its minister for education signed an agreement with the head of Unesco.

The first task should be the reconstruction and re-commissioning of the schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata that have been destroyed or damaged by extremists and mobilisation of the local communities for standing by Malala’s side instead of meekly surrendering to militants’ threats.