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The purpose of education

When former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf was in power in Pakistan, he violated democratic and moral dictates by altering the electoral laws and making it mandatory for candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree to hold a seat in the National Assembly.

The 2002 parliament comprised politicians with higher qualifications. However, when a US-based academic carried out research to compare the performance of legislators elected in 1997 (prior to the electoral law amendment) to those in 2002, the results showed that levels of education made no difference in the performance of representatives on the ground. Since then, Musharraf’s insistence on education as a prerequisite to hold an NA seat has been thrown aside, extending the right to contest elections to all Pakistanis, including the vast majority who have not received graduate-level education.

This brings us to a larger problem. While Musharraf’s ruling on the matter was obviously unjust and biased in favour of a particular class, what we should be asking is precisely what is achieved through the education we offer to our people. Only a tiny minority attending elite schools, and backed by parental influence and anxiety-inducing pressure, make it to top academic institutes in the world. Many have performed brilliantly at these centres of excellence and made Pakistan proud. Among them, there are those who have given back to their country by opting to work here, at least for a period of time, thereby trying and putting their knowledge to the use of people. Economist Asim Ijaz Khwaja, who visits home regularly, is an example. There are many others in various fields including medicine and other sciences.

But we need to ask what happens to the rest. The education that the majority of our children receive at public or lower-end private schools offers them little benefit. The education is alienated from their needs and often designed to favour those from the comparatively more privileged tiers of society. Making English a compulsory subject to pass the basic matriculation exam in the country is just one example.

There are countless teenagers and young people who are unable to excel in their lives because they cannot clear the paper in a subject that has no place in their lives and is badly taught at schools. Their teachers would also have difficulty in passing it. This is an education crisis. Research by non-profit groups such as Alif Ailaan have found that a majority of children educated up to the primary level cannot read or write a simple sentence in either English or Urdu or perform the basic mathematical calculations that would be expected of say an eight- or nine-year-old child. We are thus failing our children badly by providing such a low-quality education which handicaps them, instead of empowering them.

The matter gets even worse by the new focus on the teaching of particular disciplines in a specific manner. While it is important that children learn as widely as possible, there are many countries in the world which leave religious education to families, given the nuances and sensitivities involved in the matter as well as the question of interpretation and how this is put across to the child. More significant still is the fact that almost all teaching at schools, except perhaps for the most elite, depends entirely on rote and the focus is solely on acquiring high grades, forcing parents to send their children to tuition centres or ‘academies’, which now exist across our country.

Children then have no relief from the rote learning imposed on them and this learning means that, as historian KK Aziz noted in his detailed study of Pakistani textbooks, history had been deliberately distorted to fit a certain narrative. Students, for instance, have little knowledge of the events of 1979 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in a verdict which, according to the confession of two Supreme Court judges, was given under pressure, or of other events of immense significance to the Pakistan of today such as the 1971 civil war which tore the country into two parts. The realities of the war are never discussed.

Critical discussions, arguably the pivotal point around which education should rotate, rarely exist in our classrooms. Students do not find any opportunities to explore issues or facts critically, whether in science or the arts, and must simply go with what their textbooks tell them. But their textbooks – even of straightforward subjects like mathematics – are frequently flawed; this has been pointed out several times by experts. What then are we teaching to our children and why are we doing so? The answer to the second question is quite simple. We wish to create a rigid and limited mindset that discourages people from thinking creatively or putting forward ideas that could help produce some momentum in a stagnant society.

All this is a well-known fact. We also make limited efforts to help young people move into technical fields which could benefit both them and the country. Vocational education is limited and substandard. Many promises made to promote it have never been honoured.

We should then be asking if people who have not been forced through the educational mill in our society are in some ways better equipped to reason for themselves and put forward solutions to our many problems. Of course, wider education is helpful for the country as schools provide the skilled workforce and with this more investment in the country. But given that we have been so lax in providing quality education, we must ask how our teaching methods benefit our people. Those who are uneducated are perfectly aware of the problems they face and able to articulate their opinions lucidly and sensibly. Many protests that are often led by those with no formal degrees highlight how these people are better informed despite having no education training. They have views that need to be put forward strongly and debated so that we can find solutions.

In the seven decades of our existence, we have found far too few answers to the problems we face on a daily basis. The poor face many more problems than the rich. The recent floods are one example, and only a limited number among those affected can fully comprehend how global climate change is so devastatingly affecting their lives. There needs to be a much better understanding of these problems so that we can take our people forward and create real differences in society.

At present, the Pakistani people are not in a position to do so, whether they are educated or not, as a result of the flawed and deeply biased learning they receive. The quality of textbooks offered to young children tells us the story of what lies ahead. This story has to change if education is to bring any real benefits to the country.

The minor changes that have come with the new Single National Curriculum (SNC) as well as the more retrogressive teaching that parts of the new curriculum put forward will not help our new generation move ahead with more open minds or the ability to think with greater clarity and individuality.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Kamila Hyat, "The purpose of education," The News. 2023-01-12.
Keywords: Education , Vocational education , Quality Education , National Curriculum , Academics , Asim Ijaz Khwaja , Gen Musharraf , Pakistan , SNC