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Good for what?

Akbar Khan, who I have known for two decades at least, has, quite literally, worked himself to the bone to get his children educated. He worked in the construction sector, carrying bricks, for about a decade, as a mason for another decade and when he was no longer able to manage the hard labour demanded by the above occupations, he became a night watchman. He must be approaching his 70s by now. But he is still working.

Some months back Akbar came to me and asked me to get a job for one of his sons who, Akbar proudly said, had just passed his FA. I told Akbar that I would need to meet the young man to find out what he wanted and get a better idea of his capabilities before I could try to find a job for him. Amjad came round the next morning.

Amjad is a very nice young man. He is a hard worker and has gotten reasonable grades throughout his educational career. He went to the village public primary/middle schools. Even after 12 years of education, Amjad was barely literate. When Akbar saw that Amjad was interested in his studies and had done well at school, he brought him to the city where Amjad attended low-fee private high/higher secondary schools to complete his FA.

Amjad was not able to have a conversation with me in English. Trying to gauge his language skills, I asked him to write a paragraph or two in English on a topic of his choice. When I came back after 15 minutes, he had not penned a single word. He said he had ‘forgotten’ the essays he had learned when he was preparing for his FA.

When I asked him if he could write a couple of paragraphs in Urdu. He did. But what he produced was barely even coherent, let alone an essay with an argument and structure.

When I asked him for some definitions of concepts he had learned in his course work, he could repeat definitions but he could not go beyond and use the concepts to make sense of the world around him. Rote learning is what he had been made to do and he had become good at it, but his education did not equip him to go beyond that.

I asked Amjad what sort of a job he wanted. He said he wants an office job, preferably a government job. I asked him why he did not want to learn some skill and become a self-employed person or a skilled technician/worker. Amjad, it turned out, had a lot of contempt for skill-based jobs/professions. In the hierarchy of things he could be doing, he placed skill-based jobs at about the same level as being unemployed or even worse.

I could not right away bring myself to tell Amjad or Akbar Khan that it was very unlikely that he could secure a government or desk job. FA was not enough for most jobs. But, more importantly, the quality of his education was very poor: it was not even clear how educated he actually was. He could read and write, but, and especially in English, his facility in reading and writing was rather elementary. He had no skills that any office could have use for.

What kind of jobs could be open to him? It was heartbreaking to see that though Akbar Khan had sacrificed so much and worked so hard, and Amjad had also done all he had been told to and well, it was going to be very hard for the young man to break out of the cycle of poverty his family was caught in. Even after 12 years of education, Amjad was barely literate.

And he had, over that time, acquired no skills at anything, not even interpersonal skills, and, in fact, possessed a distinct and strong aversion to skill-based professions. It was not Akbar Khan or Amjad who had failed. They have done all they could and more. We, the state and society of Pakistan, have failed them. And they are the ones who are going to be paying most of the price of our failure.

Amjad went to a decent and functional school in his village and then in Lahore. So, this is not a story of non-functional schools messing things up. And Amjad is not alone.

An acquaintance doing BA in English, some years back, asked me for help in preparing for her English-language paper. Even at BA level she could only ‘learn’ essays and then reproduce them. The biggest hurdle, for her, was to somehow manage the précis question in her paper: she had to make a summary of an unseen passage and since she could not prepare for that through rote learning, it was an issue. She passed her BA and is now a teacher in a low-fee private school. I shudder to think what she must be teaching her students.

We have plenty of data that shows that education quality, even when measured in the narrow sense of learning outcomes in languages and mathematics, is quite poor in public and low-fee private schools. Rote learning further erodes such achievement claims. As for skills — occupation-specific or life skills — our education system does not even attempt to provide any to our children.

We have been too focused on access issues in our traditional advocacy efforts for education: arguing for implementation of Article 25A, saying that some 25 million-odd schoolgoing age children are out of schools, and arguing for more schools and facilities. These issues are important, but we need to focus on quality of learning as well: generations of Amjads are not only tragic for these children and their families, they will have a huge cost for us as an economy and society too.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at LUMS, Lahore.

Faisal Bari, "Good for what?," Dawn. 2015-08-28.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Social needs , Child education , Society-Pakistan , Language-English , Education , Schools , Akbar Khan , Amjad , Pakistan , FA , BA