EDUCATION in Pakistan has again come under the spotlight. In a report released by the Brookings Institution in Washington recently, two staffers, Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff, have investigated the role of madressahs and the school system in Pakistan in fuelling militancy in the country.
This spurt of interest by westerners in our education can be explained in the light of the militancy spilling over across our borders and spurring terrorist attacks abroad. The fact is that our education system has for long been inculcating an extremist mindset among school- and university-going youth.
The Brookings Institution states that the debate over seminaries and the mainstream education system “deserves close attention in policy circles given the domestic and international security stakes and the US pledge to triple economic assistance to Pakistan under the 2009 Kerry Lugar bill. For FY 2010, this pledge includes a total of $334.7m for education, of which $264.7m is for basic education”.
Since the report Beyond Madrasas will obviously be used as a guideline by American policymakers when releasing aid to Pakistan, it is important that the assessment contained in the report should be correct if all the effort and funds to be invested are to create an impact. The authors are spot on when they identify the mainstream schooling system as also being a part of the problem apart from some madressahs.
After all, as pointed out by Javed Hasan Aly, the author of the 2007 White Paper on Education, some religious parties that were “globally funded” have preached intolerance in educational institutions by having hardened ideologues infiltrate the ranks of the staff and students. Brookings fails to take note of it and of America's past role in strengthening these parties for the 'jihad' in Afghanistan.
The damage already done has to be undone, if it is not too late already. The report makes 13 recommendations. If implemented they should go a long way towards improving matters by making education more accessible and tailoring it to the job market. But will they be implemented? Brookings expresses considerable scepticism when it writes that the national education policy is “unlikely to translate into significant gains on the ground”.
The problems I foresee are mainly in three interrelated areas. First is the performance of the teachers. It needs to be made clear that holding teachers accountable for their performance in the classroom, as the report recommends, should be the first priority. It is important to ensure that teachers attend school and play the role that has been assigned to them.
That by itself will, however, not be enough. Pedagogic skills are so poor that teachers' training is absolutely essential as the authors of the report also agree. That is the big challenge. The teachers' knowledge of the subjects they teach is so inadequate that even if they are persuaded to attend school regularly they will find it difficult to deliver without upgrading their own education. Remember they are the products of a system that has been in a state of rot for at least four decades.
The second issue is our failure to take a clear-cut stand on the language to be used as the medium of instruction. The aspirations of our policymakers — and also of a large number of parents — is that English be introduced as early as possible and this should also be the language of instruction. Market pressures and the quest for political power and social status have been allowed to reinforce the demand for English.
But are the teachers qualified to teach in English? The Punjab government had a brainwave teach them English in crash courses of two weeks. The British Council also pitched in and launched a programme to familiarise teachers with the language in 18 days. But obviously these efforts will prove to be futile.
The Brookings experts also suggest that the students be taught critical thinking and schooling should have job relevance. An ideal proposal. But considering the profile of an average Pakistani student, one can well ask if he can be taught critical thinking if the education he receives is in English. It would probably be his first encounter with the language. In all likelihood he would be the first generation school-goer. His parents would know no English at all while his teacher's proficiency in that language would be minimal.
These features will encourage the culture of silence and rote learning in the classroom. In this scenario, can you really expect a child who hardly comprehends what he is taught to think critically in a 'strange' language in which he can hardly express himself?
As for the madressahs, whether they teach militancy and violence or not, all of them indoctrinate their students and they do a thorough job of it. Language is their strongest tool. They use the mother tongue of their students to communicate. They teach Arabic but they do not teach in Arabic.
The third challenge to be encountered is the approach to be adopted towards Islamic studies. The Brookings report advises the US to, “Leave Islam out of it,” since religion features too prominently in Pakistan's culture. The authors of the report feel that questions concerning the role of Islam in school curricula should be left to Pakistanis to debate. A wise suggestion no doubt as foreign meddling will invite a reaction. But can we hope for good sense to prevail? Last year the education policy was delayed because the government wanted to add a chapter on Islam.
The only solution would be to use the teachers to teach a softer version of Islam as it used to be before the hardliners took over. If teachers have to motivate, mobilise and persuade, let them do it in a language they and their pupils know best. Love and tolerance are not taught from textbooks.
As for English, by all means teach it but as a second language. Education can be made relevant for the market by teaching English as the language of inter-personal communication. Let the child do his critical thinking in his own tongue which will take him far in understanding the folly of militancy.
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