Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The Political Economy of the SNC

September 6, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

As an educationist, I am appalled by the Single National Curriculum. As a Pakistani, I am disappointed but not surprised. I have articulated my reservations in a series of opinions. They have to do with the process (non-transparent and non-participatory, excluding the principal stakeholders) and the pedagogy (old-fashioned, privileging memorization over thinking). But it is equally important to explore why the SNC has taken this particular form.

I was discussing the SNC with a successful, well-educated executive and asked if she would put a child she was responsible for, say a grandchild, into a school teaching from the SNC. Absolutely not, she said without a moment’s hesitation and with a shudder of dread. I asked if, in her opinion, any senior bureaucrat in grades 20, 21, or 22 would enrol a grandchild in a SNC school. Absolutely not, she said again. She was less sure of politicians — they are such a motley bunch, she said.

This does need a survey to nail down comprehensively but I am reasonably confident how the results would come out. Successful people want their children to be successful and they know the education that can deliver achievement privileges thinking and not memorization. It is no surprise that the successful people have made sure the main plank of the SNC — equality across schools — has been consigned to the dust bin. They can now breathe easy that the O/A Levels and the IB schools shall remain undisturbed.

I don’t have any quarrel with such an attitude that is an outright rejection of the SNC. But the question that follows is why the successful don’t agitate for a similar quality of education for all children, not just their own? After all, every child is a citizen with equal rights entitled to the same set of opportunities guaranteed by the state.

It is not a given that education for poor children has to be poor in quality. Retired Chief Justice Jawwad Khawaja and his wife run the Harsukh school for children from villages around their home. They have enough confidence in the Harsukh curriculum to enroll their own grandchildren in the same school.

The only plausible explanation for the SNC is that Pakistan is not one nation but two — that of the rulers and of the ruled. The rulers need to learn how to think in order to lead while the ruled need to memorize the lessons of obedience in order to be good and contented followers. The more so, for the rulers are not rulers because of any exceptional talent or achievement on a level playing field but because they have inherited the mantle in a milieu in which all competition is effectively crippled.

A more frightening thought is the following: Forty percent of children below five in Pakistan are stunted, among the highest percentages in the world. This fact has been known to the state for decades and nothing has been done to redress it. Is the SNC then designed for children who are already doomed and cannot handle anything that requires creative thinking?

Or, is the SNC designed for the poor to further cripple the remaining competition and to mould them into pliant followers? This might also explain why people who come up with these kinds of educational programmes never ever consult those for whom the programmes are intended. They decide for them, which, in reality, means that the designs are intended to maximize the privilege of those with the power to decide.

This denial of participation is particularly striking in a country that professes Islam, a religion with such a heavy emphasis on consultation especially of those for whom something is being decided. How does one explain such an un-Islamic practice in an Islamic country except by questioning the sincerity of the Islamic pretensions of its rulers?

My suggestion to the Minister for Education is to live up to the Islamic ideal and engage in a broad-based consultation with citizens. The Minister might want to assemble the leading members of his team and engage in an in-depth debate with a set of leading experts like Pervez Hoodbhoy, AH Nayyar, Tariq Rahman, Rubina Saigol, and Zubeida Mustafa. The debates would be held in all the major district towns of the country spread over a period of twelve months with the audience comprised predominantly of parents whose children are to be the beneficiaries of the SNC. 

I wouldn’t presume to know where the parents would come out at the end but, at the very least, their silence should not be passed off as approval. It is patently unjust to decide something so momentous for others without a sincere consultation. Avoiding such a debate and rushing ahead with a show of force is a sign of weakness that undermines both the democratic and the Islamic credentials of the government.

In closing, an apt couplet from Ghalib (not all memorization is bad but no one imposed it on me before I could understand what it meant):

kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN / miri aavaaz gar nahiiN aati
why would I not scream because I am remembered / only when my voice is not heard

This opinion appeared in The News on September 4, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

Back to Main Page

What’s Wrong With the SNC?

September 2, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Before I list my problems with the Single National Curriculum (SNC), let me accept that its proponents are completely well-intentioned and want the best for our children. But let me also add the caveat, to which all reasonable people would agree, that good intentions by themselves are never sufficient as a justification. Good intentions can also lead to terrible disasters.

No one can doubt the good intentions of Mr. Jinnah. Yet his decision to impose a single national language set a tragedy in motion. Such disasters do not distinguish between the secular and the religious. Zia ul Haq was the most Islamic of our rulers as well-intentioned as anyone else. History will be the judge of what his educational interventions have done to this country. The liberal Mr. Musharraf was no doubt well-intentioned when he led the country into Kargil turning it into an international pariah state.

Intentions are irrelevant in the end and only those who are unable to defend their positions on grounds of logic and coherence assume a self-righteous posture construing criticism as an affront to their intentions. Intentions are particularly irrelevant when the stakes are as high as they are with an education policy for the country. The lives of millions of children would be set on a path from which there would be no return for the cohorts who are launched on it.

Given the stakes, the first signal of good faith would be to involve the entire country in the discussion. There is no justification for presenting a fait accompli with already determined dates of implementation and prescribed model textbooks. A non-transparent process with no participation of the actual stakeholders and no disclosure of its deliberations is a sure sign the proponents are afraid the output would not stand scrutiny from either the public or experts in early childhood education.

This lack of confidence in the product is obvious from the weak arguments being put forward in its defense. Yes, 400 people were involved but who were they? By and large, politicians, bureaucrats, school owners, textbook publishers, madrassah managers and the like, not experts in early childhood education.

Yes, the provincial governments might have signed off but how much confidence should one repose in the legislators who signed off on the tahaffuz-e bunyad-e Islam bill without reading it?

The clearest sign the proponents feel unable to defend the SNC is the pushing of the religious button, a time-tested strategy of last resort. The critics are damned as belonging to a tiny secular elite (ashraafiya) that still honours Mr. Jinnah’s statement that religion has “nothing to do with the business of the State.” (Note how the intentions of the critics are being questioned — what is sauce for the goose is obviously not sauce for the gander.) The proponents, themselves as much a part of the ashraafiya as the critics and by no means ajlaf or, God forbid, arzal, are, by contrast, Islam-loving, more one presumes in the Khadim Rizvi camp. 

The Islam-loving ashraafiya is happy to enlighten the Islam-haters (by gratuitous labelling) that the hopelessly confused Mr. Jinnah was overruled first by the maha-Islamic Mr. Zia-ul-Haq and then set right by the national assembly in 2016 which determined that even more religion ought to be taught in schools. This determination is held to be sacrosanct even though the rest of the assembly’s intentions are castigated, it being damned for belonging to a government of thieves. It is not even asked if these members, most of whom are still around albeit having taken a new vow of honesty, bothered to read what they were signing off on in their dishonest days. Not likely, if their Punjab brethren are an example to go by.

In defense of the SNC we are told that it is nothing new — it just builds on the one put in place in 2006 by an unrepresentative government itself among those responsible for the very sorry state of education today. But if the state of education is so poor where is the evaluation of the 2006 curriculum that is partly responsible for that outcome? And what makes one believe the same departmental functionaries who masterminded it with laudatory proclamations would now come up with something radically better by tinkering at the margins?

What exactly is the SNC supposed to do? It began with the objective of creating musawat (equality). But now we are told there is no intention to reduce choice in the types of schools in existence. In defense of this backtracking the seemingly clever argument is proffered that even in America it has been impossible to equalize the quality of schools. How can a poor country like Pakistan attempt something so impossible? This argument conveniently ignores the fact that the foundational principle of the American system is inequality which is considered a good thing leading to dynamism, entrepreneurship, and the like. Failure is the responsibility of individuals who do not work hard enough. America has never staked a goal of musawat or of using its system of education to turn the country into the Riasat of Medina. Hiding behind any incoherent argument that comes to hand is a sure sign that good intentions cannot make up for cognitive dissonance and intellectual confusion.

So, if the quality of schools can vary as before, what would the SNC achieve? What children learn (not memorize — the two are distinct) is less a function of the curriculum and more of the quality of teachers, the environment at home, and the availability of resources. How much can a curriculum matter when the basic learning outcomes in cognitive skills are more or less standardized? Systems that have evolved to maximize the cognitive abilities of children, like Montessori and Waldorf, let them learn more or less through play without making them memorize anything they are unable to imagine.

The bottom line is that the lives of millions of children is at stake and there is no margin for making a mistake no matter how well-intentioned. The principal stakeholders are children who are unfortunately unable to articulate their opinion, positive or negative, on the SNC. Given that, it is an ethical imperative to consult in good faith with their parents who have dreams for their children, wish the best for them, and invest hard-earned incomes in their education. Do not presume what parents want their children to learn. Find it out — it is not difficult. Do not be afraid of what experts would think of the SNC. Find it out — it is not difficult.

The future of the country depends on the education of the coming generations. A test of good intentions and of confidence in the SNC is a very wide consultation — I am sure a hadees can be found, if needed by the Islam-lovers, to support this proposition. This is not the time to hide behind religion and divide the country between one kind of elite and another because, when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

Note that the draft of the New Education Policy that was coincidentally just approved in India was open for public discussion for 18 months and received over a quarter of million inputs. Before this phase, two draft committee reports were released as interim documents for perusal by all citizens. You don’t have to be a lover of Islam do something sensible.

Is the big rush in Pakistan an acknowledgement that the SNC would not stand public scrutiny? Is it a contemptuous signal that in the Pakistani democracy it is still power and not argument that rules the day?

I recall a line from very far away:

Itni jaldi kya hai gori saajan ke ghar jaane ki
sakhiyoN ke sang baiTh zara kuch baateN haiN samjhaneN ki

This opinion was published in The News on August 28, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

Back to Main Page

Education: A Proposal

August 29, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Frankly, the Single New Curriculum is so absurd that one would have to be a masochist to wade through its details. Trust our governments to come up with ridiculous things that are completely without merit but that consume so much time that could be better spent resolving the real issues of real people.

Nevertheless, education is a matter of vital importance and one has to engage if only to prevent our children having done to them in spades what Zia ul Haq did to their parents. That, indirectly, should also tell you where this curriculum is coming from and how brilliant Zia Ul Haq’s children have turned out to be. It would only be a very slight exaggeration to liken this curriculum to a suicide bomb that would be lobbed not just in one school, like the APS, but in all the schools of the country that exist to cater to the children of the non-elite.

Let us begin from the beginning and try and figure out what ought to be the concerns of an education policy.

First, and this should be obvious, there is need to raise the horribly awful standard of school education in the country. In case you doubt my word, ask why Pakistan does not participate in any of the international comparisons of the quality of education across countries? Where do you think it would rank if someone could convince our government to put their system to an open test? Who do you think would rank lower? Want to bet? 

Second, and this should also be obvious, there is need to provide equal access to quality education for all students. It is just preposterous how privilege is transmitted from generation to generation in this country. People fortunate enough to be affluent, by hook or by crook, have been sending their children to the few good schools in the country and, no matter how mediocre, the latter, with the help of quotas when nothing else works, have been been filling the positions of power and authority over generations. If in doubt, just look at the calibre of the people in our parliaments and in our cabinets.

Meanwhile, in a country of 220 million people, there are thousands of really brilliant children many of whom do not even get to go to school. Some I can vouch for as I have personally worked with them. One sat for the CSS twice and failed English each time. There we have it, the biggest single barrier to entry that keeps out the truly talented and lets in the mediocre who have had the money to go to an English-medium school.

You are not going to tell me we have to wait to benefit from all this latent wasted talent till our Single New Curriculum can raise everyone’s standard of English to the point where there will be a level playing field. I will answer that you are either being stupid or dishonest or both. Do we have to use English as the screen to admit the best candidates or can we not admit the best candidates and give a year-long intensive course in English to those who need it? Don’t we send our Foreign Service inductees to other counties to learn their languages in an year? Why can’t we do the same for English? The answer obviously depends on the definition of ‘best.’ If the best are those who can speak English, then you are happy to adopt that absurd stand because it protects your privilege.

Better yet, why not see language as a means not an end and have all entrance examinations in the language of choice and then see who gets in and who gets left out. What is likely to happen to the quality of the entering cohorts? At the same time, what is likely to happen to the hierarchy of privilege that exists undisturbed in this country in which Independence has only meant the replacement of the White Englishman with the Black Englishman who, sadly, is not half as good.

And, please, don’t give me all that rubbish about English being the global language and that we will be left behind if we don’t know it. You just reveal your dismal IQ by making that argument. First, we have already been left way behind despite all the fluent Oxbridge luminaries in our governments and brilliant decision-making bodies that produce idiotic documents like the Single National Curriculum. Second, the Koreans and the Chinese know much less English than we do, teach in their own languages, and are now vying for global leadership. They teach their students English later when they need it. Third, to know English one doesn’t need to emerge speaking it from the mother’s womb. In fact, there is a huge amount of evidence that children do better learning English later if their first language is not English. 

But evidence is always ignored when privilege is at stake and all sorts of weird arguments show up when dependence has to be maintained and when contenders to the limited seats of power are to be kept out. Recall that in the American South during slavery, it was a crime for a slave to learn and for a non-slave to even attempt to teach a slave. Our rulers can’t go that far for education as a right is conceded in the Constitution and they need the votes but they can do the next worst thing to the serfs — make sure no one learns anything by starving the school system of all resources and, to boot, using the appointments of teachers and principals for distributing patronage. Are you telling me our brilliant rulers really do not know how to improve schooling and need to invite Sir Michael Barber at some huge fee to tell them? If they don’t know even this, should they be in charge of the entire country in the first place?

So, what is to be done given that no one really wants to do anything except divert attention from real issues by letting loose red herrings like the Single New Curriculum? If you really want me to tell you, I would be happy to do so. And I will not charge a fee either because it is not rocket science.

This opinion was published in The News on August 18, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

Back to Main Page

Reconsider the Single National Curriculum

August 22, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

At its most basic, education has two dimensions — what is taught and how it is taught. Everyone would agree that the most excellent content can be taught very poorly. It is less obvious that good pedagogy can overcome the handicap of indifferent content by enabling students to self-learn, a skill they can use to find content that meets their needs.

This reflection should lead to the conclusion that how we teach is more important than what we teach. Even more so in an age when old content dates rapidly and new content is added daily. In such times the only skill that ensures survival is that of self-learning beyond the classroom.

We no longer live in times in which students were prepared for careers that lasted lifetimes and for which they required foundational training to which they added incrementally by learning on the job. Today, careers are here today and gone tomorrow and students need cognitive abilities to adapt to radically altered job markets.

In such times, the approach to teaching also needs to adapt. Pedagogy itself can be viewed in two ways — the first emphasizes filling students’ heads with information that some authority or committee considers useful and training them for the job market; the second stresses nurturing the intellectual development of students to enable the full realization of their potentials whatever those night be.

Once again, it should be obvious which approach is more relevant in our times given the rate at which information becomes obsolete. Consider how many who studied physics and chemistry in high school remember what they were asked to memorize? The purpose of having such subjects in the curriculum was not to memorize the speed of light or the periodic table but to learn to be surprised, to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, devise experiments, record observations, and derive logical conclusions. Those skills, if acquired, became second nature and lasted a lifetime proving valuable across any number of domains.

Much of these insights were ignored when education was transformed into a vehicle to mass produce workers for an industrial age, an age when training, discipline, and compliant behaviour were attributes most desired by the majority of employers. As an added benefit such education also produced placid citizens who would not question their rulers. But the insights themselves were known since much earlier times. Socrates described education as the kindling of a flame, not the filling of an empty vessel. His focus throughout his teaching life was on the acquisition of self-knowledge by the individual and his method of choice was to teach learning through questioning, the celebrated Socratic Method. 

We don’t teach Ghalib anymore as it is worthless in the job market or if we do it is only to memorize six ghazals by grade 5 and recite two of them (not necessarily on pitch because music is not fit for the classroom). But if we had, we would have recognized the Socratic Method in just this one couplet: 

kya farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-sa javaab / aaʾo nah ham bhi sair kareN koh-e tuur ki
(Is it a given that all will get the same response / Come let us also take a stroll around Mount Tuur)

Of course, one would also have had to know some history to figure out koh-e tuur but that too we have discarded as useless.

Thinking along these lines should alert us to the danger of choosing education that is content heavy and pedagogy that aims to fill an empty vessel. We will inevitably fill our children’s heads with whatever content is deemed ‘right’ at a particular time to serve the ends of adults. That is both dangerous and unfair to children who are unable to protest against such manipulation of their lives. 

Kindling a flame avoids such dangers. For example, anyone taught to question and sift evidence would be sceptical of the belief that one can be taught to be good in a classroom — had that been the case one would not have had the problems in the Catholic Church. They would be similarly sceptical of a slogan like ‘One Nation, One Curriculum’ having observed what happened to ‘One Nation, One Language.’

The argument that one can have the best of both worlds — the head can be filled with content and the mind can be allowed full reign to be creative — has not been proved anywhere. Students tend to one mode or the other. They mostly conform though some rebel — Bertrand Russell famously said that schooling does not succeed in destroying everyone.

The SNC has to be evaluated on these two counts. First, is it focused on how to teach rather than on what to teach and is it abreast of modern trends in education? And second, does its pedagogy subscribe to kindling a flame or to filling an empty vessel or? If the latter, who will decide what will be filled into the empty vessels?

The last is a very important question. Setting all my misgivings apart, I shall be prepared to bless the SNC if I am shown a chapter, vetted by reputable historians, that students are asked to memorize on what happened in East Pakistan. How many of our students born in this century even know that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan? How many of the rest recall the song we were made to sing with such patriotic fervour that had this line about Golden Bengal — vahan ka bachcha bachcha apni qaum pe marne waala hai (every single child there is willing to die for his/her nation). Which nation? Our committees have erased all that history from what is to be filled into the heads of our future generations. 

For educationists, the SNC is sadly wanting on all counts; it is a cut-and-paste exercise that is confused, outdated, outmoded, and a minefield of unintended consequences. It needs to be revisited in good faith and with an open mind. Parents need to voice their opinions on whether they want their children to be blinkered, compliant cogs in a political game or be confident, thoughtful innovators ready for the future. Just as goodness and patriotism cannot be taught in a class, neither can innovation or entrepreneurship — these are attitudes of mind that emerge out of a process of learning that kindles a flame.

Half a couplet from Ghalib is the best summing up of the learning process I can think of:

tuutii ko shash jihat se muqaabil hai aaiiinah
(the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror)

In our tradition, talking parrots were taught to speak by making them see their own reflection in a mirror while an unseen human voiced the words. What happens when the mirror is distorted? The point to ponder is whether we are raising thinking human beings able to comprehend the truth, whatever it is, or parrots regurgitating platitudes that their masters wish to hear. Not to forget that even parrots trained through distorted mirrors can only take that much distortion without losing their minds and poking out the eyes of their trainers.

This opinion appeared in The News on August 14, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

Back to Main Page

The Downward Spiral of Higher Education

August 20, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The mandate of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) should now be to save higher education in Pakistan but quite asides from the fact that past actions of the HEC are themselves responsible for the present state, I think the tipping point, much like that for climate change, has been crossed. Mir Taqi Mir would have equated the proposition with seeking a cure from the same apothecary’s son responsible for the ailment 

Now when I think of either, I can’t help thinking of Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s quatrain:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

I have said it before and have no reason to change my mind that disastrous as operations like Gibraltar, Searchlight, and Badr were for the wellbeing of Pakistan, their damage was reversible. But the havoc that the HEC has wrought is not, simply because it has institutionalized mediocrity and mendacity and made sure that each succeeding generation of Pakistanis, on whom the future of the country depends, would be worse prepared than before. Locusts visit the country once in a decade and our considered a menace to agriculture. The HEC has ensured that all too many locusts are permanently installed in the hallways of higher education eating away its innards at will.

Where are the wise kings who had set up this institution? They should all be brought into the dock and made to read from Shelley:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In case you wish to sample hell on earth, do sign up to be a referee for a Master’s thesis at many of the diploma mills the HEC has licensed as universities. If you wish to be reinvited you are required  to pass the candidate. If you don’t, you are reminded by the faculty that “This is Pakistan,” one can’t be too strict here. A statement of pride has become one of apology.

Nine times out of ten, the thesis makes no sense whatsoever. There is no hypothesis and even if there is, it has little to do with the work. The English is close to gibberish. Through all this, one can sense that the student is not entirely brain dead, that he or she is struggling to express some thoughts. A helpful suggestion to let the student write the thesis in a language that he or she might be more comfortable with is dismissed righteously as an assault on “our standards” — gibberish in English being valued more highly than quasi-sense in a local language. A suggested compromise to let the student write in a language of choice and have the thesis translated into English for submission after approval to comply with “our standards” is rejected because it would impose a cost on the student. This, after charging fee for two years to teach virtually nothing, not even how to write passable English.

What is quite obvious from suffering through such an excruciating exercise is that the fault is not of the student. It is an abject failure of supervision. My charitable guess is that the supervisor has not bothered to read the thesis and never had any meeting at any juncture during its writing. At best some handout has been passed out with directions for what is expected. Amongst the incentives the geniuses at HEC have institutionalized to “promote” “cutting-edge” research are bonus payments per paper published and student supervised. Anywhere else in the world this is part of the regular work of an academic. Anyone with any sense should have been able to point out the perversities inherent in such incentives especially where abusing incentives has become the norm. The rampant plagiarism of papers, proliferation of fake journals, and exploitation of supervisees is an unsurprising outcome. 

This is the reason I think higher education is beyond the point of no return in Pakistan. These kinds of supervisors must have been students from an earlier generation who must have been passed because “This is Pakistan.” And the students they pass in turn would become the supervisors of the next generation. No amount of tinkering at the edges would negate the deadening weight of this human capital that has already swarmed over most of the higher education landscape in the country.

There is only one radical solution but it is beyond the reach of the HEC even though I am sure many there recognise the necessity. Anyone half in earnest would place all the Master’s level theses awarded by Pakistani universities in an open access archive and send a random sample of them to a panel outside the country for evaluation. The supervisors of all theses rejected by the panel would be instantly dismissed and any institution with a higher than five percent rejection rate would be closed down. Then one can begin to pick up the pieces.

This seems a drastic measure but drastic situations need drastic solutions. It is in line with the much milder proposal of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy that all the course material being used for online teaching be placed in an open access archive so that  we may know who is teaching from notes dating dating back to 1976. And we know what happened to Dr. Hoodbhoy. 

This opinion appeared in The News on August 9, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

Back to Main Page

Infectious Stories

June 7, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Many are having a hard time comprehending the coronavirus in Pakistan. They have not seen it before; it has no distinctive symptoms; there have been very few deaths in most communities; it hasn’t yet penetrated rural areas where half the population lives. This lived experience makes it hard to relate to what they are being told by the rest of the world — that they are threatened by a lethal pandemic that calls for extreme constraints on how they live.

Mixed messages from political and social leaders have fed the doubts. From the Prime Minister down, many in government have underplayed the threat likening it to the flu and comparing the number of deaths to those from road accidents. The Chief Justice has turned denier-in-chief, ordering the immediate opening of markets for Eid shopping. Partisan infighting has convinced many that this is just politics as usual. Clerics, who have most sway with people, insist it is just a manifestation of divine will. The Prime Minister has telegraphed himself sitting with folded hands behind a leading cleric who has advocated praying for mercy rather than defying the will of the Almighty. Unable to resist, he has also ascribed the divine wrath to the sartorial immodesty of women.

These people may well turn out to be right but that would be gambler’s luck. The optimistic inference is based on past experience with the flu, a sense of security from the small number of deaths to date, and faith in God. It is not informed by an understanding of how infections spread, of reproduction rates, or of the deceptive inception of exponential growth. It does not anticipate that if indeed the growth turns out to be exponential, the curve flattens and reverses only in response to much harsher measures or after almost the entire population is infected. 

As a result, Covid-deniers and conspiracy theorists are having a field day forwarding increasingly intense WhatsApp messages by the minute. Religiously oriented groups are convinced Muslims are being targeted while politically oriented ones believe the government has concocted the crisis to obtain debt relief, centralize power, and crush dissent. 

The people are not to be blamed for this state of affairs since Pakistan’s elite has deliberately kept its population scientifically illiterate and a number of such benighted cohorts are now in positions of leadership. In a manner of speaking, almost the entire country has been infected by the blight of ignorance and has developed herd immunity to reason. It would be a huge surprise if a representative sample were to reveal more than a few percent of the population familiar with exponential growth, the idea of an equation, or the ability to comprehend a graph. Concepts like inflexion points or ‘flattening the curve’ mean nothing to a very large majority. A gradual rise in numbers, displayed daily on countless dashboards, is just that; leaders and people alike are akin to Russell’s chickens who, quite oblivious of the approach of the feast, believe that the future will be an extrapolation of the past. 

What can be done given this state of comprehension? Perhaps stories might communicate the reality better. The first analogy that comes to mind is of a forest fire that can be sparked by a solitary stray match. The most effective response is to stamp the fire out before it spreads. But if it does, either because of negligence or strong winds, other stricter measures are needed. One of them is to cordon off the forest so that the damage is contained and the fire does not jump to neighbouring communities. The other is to identify and neutralize any particularly vulnerable patches within the forest. A fire typically spreads slowly through mature and healthy trees but whenever it crosses areas with decaying logs, scrub, or tinder, it consumes them in a flash and gains strength before slowing down again.

Countries like Italy and the USA have a relatively high proportion of old people with comorbidities, many concentrated in nursing homes run indifferently by for-profit corporations. The USA also has severely disadvantaged ethnic groups lacking access to care. Hidden away in a much-lauded city like Singapore are migrant workers tightly packed away in dormitories. Huge spikes in sudden mortalities have come from such tinderbox locations.

The Pakistani forest is different. It is all brown with no blacks and whites except that some are less brown than others. The population is much younger and there is no tradition of outsourcing the care of the old and vulnerable to specialized institutions. As a result, there have been no dramatic spikes in the daily count of deaths attributed to the virus which has encouraged a sense of complacency. However, the number of trees being consumed continues to grow by the day. And now that the protective cordon has been dismantled, the danger of the fire jumping to other communities has increased.

The second story is of the man-eating tiger that South Asians have encountered in their lore. The relentless encroachment on the tiger’s natural habitat has pushed it closer and closer to populated areas and there have been many cases of its straying into communities. When that happens, the prudent first response is to retreat into houses and to lock the doors. The tiger generally has a nose for avoiding difficult targets but as soon as it senses a weak one, it pounces. These weak elements of the population are the homeless, the malnutritioned, the handicapped who cannot run fast enough, and those who have no option but to venture out to find food to eat or visit a field to relieve themselves. The tiger does not spare the easy targets.

While retreating into houses and bolting the doors is a sensible first response, people know well that it is not a solution to the problem because a lockdown cannot be sustained indefinitely. People will run out of essentials just as used to happen in old times when those besieged behind city walls finally had to surrender. The real solution is to neutralize the tiger. Only when the predator is removed from the human community can normal life be resumed.

One can’t begin to communicate these analogies in the midst of a pandemic but incorporating them in books for the young can yield mental models that might help when the next epidemic comes around as it inevitably will given the continued encroachment on the natural habitats of wild animals. Telling such stories might even generate respect for natural habitats and the appreciation for a renewed relationship with nature. 

Needless to say, such stories are not a substitute for the cultivation of a scientific attitude, numeric literacy, an ability to reason that enables people to understand why and how infections spread and what factors contribute to their decay or exponential growth. But the stories can serve as intermediate steps to rational elaborations. The process of education is facilitated by a move from simple and familiar models to elaborate and more complex ones. It is indeed ironic that the first popular illustration of exponential growth, the story of the king and the chess player who wished his reward to be one grain of rice placed on the first square of the chessboard and doubled on each subsequent one, is said to have originated in South Asia. 

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on May 31, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020.

Back to Main Page

Education: Put It to the Test

October 8, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Once again, claims are flying around about the astounding results achieved by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in an earlier period and attempts are being made to return to that dispensation with promises of a revved-up ‘knowledge’ economy that will propel Pakistan into the future. Such claims need to be taken seriously because of the importance of education for the progress of the country. 

There are many who remain deeply sceptical of these claims. While wars like those of 1965 and 1971 and incursions like Kargil have caused immense setbacks to Pakistan, it is possible for a country to recover from such disasters. But the combined havoc wreaked by the nationalization of schools by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, their Islamization by Zia ul Haq, and the quantification of higher education by the HEC under Pervez Musharraf has done damage that is well-nigh irreversible. Those who have graduated from the resulting education system are now imparting education as teachers to subsequent generations. In addition, there are so many vested interests involved — ideological, political, and financial — that it is simply not possible to undo the damage. All this is at the expense of the young who should be the future of the country and whose parents are shelling out hard-earned money to have them educated.

The bottom line is that there are claims and counterclaims with no real objective evidence on the basis of which citizens can assess the truth of either. Given the immensity of the consequences we cannot continue with a situation characterised by one word against another because when that is the case it is always the party painting the rosy picture that prevails in an environment of uninformed governance.  

How then do we resolve the controversy? I propose a very fair test — an independent assessment of Pakistan’s school and higher education systems. These assessments need to be conducted by agencies that have no stake in the outcomes, i.e., those who have neither contributed to the design nor funded the implementation of existing systems, and also not by those who are wary of antagonizing the government, which is the case for most local NGOs.

Each assessment should be conducted by two teams, one local and the other external, and their findings should be compared and discussed at the conclusion of the exercise. For  schools, a local organization already carries out the Annual Status of Education Report which, incidentally, does not paint a rosy picture but has not been taken seriously enough as an input into policy. The ASER team strengthened by the addition of individuals with the credibility of, say, Zubeida Mustafa and Abdul Hameed Nayyar, can leverage their already existing resources to deliver the required output.

For the external evaluation, I would recommend a team from a small country with no political axes to grind in Pakistan. The ideal would be a country like Finland which has reputedly the best school system in the world. This external evaluation should include administering the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test to obtain a comparison of the state of school education in Pakistan relative to other countries.

Assessing higher education would present more difficult challenges. For the local team I would consider eminently qualified individuals like Kamran Asdar Ali (dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS), Syed Noman ul Haq (dean of the school of liberal arts at University of Management and Technology), Muhammad Hamid Zaman (endowed professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University), and Sayed Amjad Hussain (emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo). Eminent scientists Dr. Atta ur Rahman and Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy are excluded from the list as the assessment would essentially involve a validation of their respective claims. 

For the external team, one would have to search for academics with stellar reputations in the field of education and an understanding of the role of higher education in postcolonial countries. With my limited experience I can think of Martin Carnoy from Stanford (author of many books including the celebrated Education as Cultural Imperialism) and Philip Altbach (founder of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and a longtime analyst of higher education in India). They could recommend other experts to be included in the team.

The aim of this suggestion is not to identify the teams but to stress that such an independent evaluation of Pakistan’s education system is long overdue and badly needed. Without an assessment of how much our students know and the quality of what they are being taught the entire future of the country will be at stake. Such an evaluation should also be a legitimate demand of students and those investing their hopes and money in their education. 

One would have to wonder why if the government declines an objective and fair test of the present state of education in the country.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on October 5, 2019 and is reproduced here with permission of the author who was dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS. 

Back to Main Page

Unpacking Education

September 15, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

We will not figure out education if we continue to use it as a catch-all term without distinguishing its different aspects — knowledge (‘ilm’), skills (‘hunar’), and credentials (‘sanad’).

These distinctions are best elucidated with an example. I take my car for repairs to a ‘Chota’ who was apprenticed early to an ‘Ustad’ and acquired exceptional expertise. Chota is also street-smart and wise. Yet no one would consider him educated. Why not?

The notion of being an ‘educated’ person has become imprecise today with much variance in its perception. The traditional view equated being educated with being knowledgeable which manifested itself in the ability to engage in intelligent conversations on subjects unrelated to professional expertise or occupation. To do that a person had to be well-read and fluent in at least one language in which to compose and express his/her thoughts coherently. The fact that educated individuals were referred to as being cultivated suggests that acquiring knowledge was a deliberate process exercised with diligence and care.

Chota is highly skilled but considered uneducated because his knowledge is limited. This is where things get a bit tricky. Chota can be considered a stand-in for many others in present-day Pakistan. Just as Chota is a skilled mechanic who deals with cars, there are skilled mechanics of the human body, of computers, of company ledgers, etc. Ever since Pakistan Studies and Islamic Studies displaced subjects that encouraged thinking, our colleges have begun producing people who are reasonably skilled but often poorly educated in the traditional sense. Many doctors, engineers, accountants and soldiers fall in this category to the detriment of society.

Chota at least is honest in recognizing his limitations. If asked to explain why Pakistan has remained poor while other countries have done much better, he would generally respond that this was beyond his competence. Not so the doctors, engineers, accountants and soldiers who always have all the answers. They would tell you immediately that the cause is lack of education or growth of population or increase in corruption or absence of leadership or loss of faith. Push them a little further, say, on why we have an absence of leadership, and the conversation would circle around to Allah’s will. If asked why India was doing better with six times the population you might be enlightened by the revelation that Indians are different and Bangladeshis are outpacing Pakistan because they were always very devious.  

Chota can also not be considered uneducated merely because he lacks a degree or diploma. In fact, given what is being taught in schools, he might be fortunate to have been spared the indoctrination comprising the school curriculum. And if forced to obtain a credential to practise his craft he would most likely buy one because no one would care about its credibility. In this, Chota would be in good company — many of our worthies have bought advanced degrees from fake institutions to meet their job requirements while others, including a former director of the watchdog HEC, have plagiarized their dissertations. Is more evidence needed of the crisis of education in the country?    

I am not implying that the truly educated are necessarily good or moral. What one does with one’s education is a choice that is both personal and a function of prevailing values. There are enough bootlickers, mafiosi and sexual harassers among the educated to put paid to any such false equivalence. I heard recently of a well-educated mother asking her son, who had failed to pass a course, to find out who she needed to speak to and how much money was required to alter the outcome.  

Notwithstanding all of the above, the importance of a knowledgeable, informed and thoughtful citizenry cannot be denied because we live now not under monarchs and self-appointed saviours but under democratic dispensations and need to be able to exercise intelligent choices after reasoned deliberation to select our representatives. There isn’t much of a future if citizens are unable to distinguish rhetoric from reality.

A labour force with the ability to think and process knowledge is also vital for economic development but for that it is a necessary, not a sufficient attribute. If governmental policies cause a decline, an educated labour force cannot remedy that by itself. It can only vote the government out in order to induce policy change. On the other hand, if economic policies lead to growth, a knowledgeable labour force can leverage opportunities much more effectively than one without the ability to think or innovate.

It is only in the context of a growing economy that the aspect of education as skill acquisition becomes relevant. The nature of the economy demands particular skills and individuals invest in those that offer the best prospects over a lifetime. The demands of the labour market, in turn, guide the supply of training programs offered by educational institutions. The cart cannot be put before the horse. Hoping that jobs would be created by choosing to produce PhDs in science or handing out large numbers of diplomas is something even Chota would dismiss as silly.

One can consider the contrasting examples of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Great Depression in the US in this perspective. There was almost universal opposition to education for the poor in Britain until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that created a growing demand for jobs requiring literacy, numeracy, book-keeping and various other skills. In the Great Depression, no amount of education could prevent jobs from disappearing. 

The takeaway from this discussion should be that education as knowledge is vital for good governance and economic development and ought to be cultivated through high school. Education in terms of the acquisition of skills, though necessary, would not spur job creation on its own. Development needs, first and foremost, good policies for which skill acquisition is not a substitute. Nor should governments decide what skills ought to be promoted; the choice is best left to individuals as they respond to economic opportunities. And education as just the proliferation of credentials is a surefire recipe for disaster.  

This opinion was published in Dawn on September 9, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. For an Urdu translation, see here.

Back to Main Page

Education is Not a Solution

July 31, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

People often insist that Pakistan’s lack of development requires investing in education. They should reconsider this relationship. 

Consider the following arguments:

In countries we consider developed today, mass education followed development not the other way around. Countries did not wait till they were fully educated before they began to develop. Rather, they began to develop which created the need for the spread of education. Great Britain became a global empire when there was relatively little mass education. Today, with universal education, it is a minor player in the global system. There is no linear relationship between education and development and certainly the former does not cause the latter.

Apply this framework to British India. There was little mass education when the British took over but because there were so few they needed local intermediaries to help administer the colony in ways familiar to them. That was the genesis of the limited number of BA and MA programmes set up to produce the babus they needed. Pakistan has continued to produce many more babus than it needs. By any measure, there is much more education today than there was in 1947 without commensurate gains in development. By comparison, many countries like Malaysia and Indonesia with similar education levels at the outset have greatly outpaced Pakistan.

There is yet another problem in attributing the lack of development in Pakistan to a lack of mass education because the key economic and political decisions have been made by well-educated people. Why have they been making very poor decisions despite their excellent educations? It is a travesty to blame uneducated people for the sins of the educated rulers. 

These arguments should suggest that the emphasis on mass education in the context of development is misplaced. Policy choices, which are made by the educated, matter much more and if the policies are flawed no amount of mass education can undo the damage. Climate change is a good example — the existence of universal education in the USA is of little avail if the Trump administration opts to disregard the evidence on global warming.

All this is not to argue that education is without value — it is obviously better to be educated than not to be educated. But to appreciate this point we need clarity on what is meant by education and also differentiate between its two quite different functions.

At the level of individuals, education confers the ability to realize their full potential. Just as the lack of adequate diet results in physical stunting, the lack of adequate education results in intellectual stunting — both are handicaps that hinder the realization of human potential. But this education provides very different kinds of tools — the ability to think, to learn, to reason, to evaluate evidence, to argue logically, to differentiate truth from falsehood. In short, this education provides the foundation for leading a life based on reason.

On the contrary, what we commonly understand as education is much better described as training in particular skills like medicine, engineering and accounting. We mistakenly believe that the earlier we start students on acquiring such skills the better off they would be — thus the existence of pre-professional streams in high school. This insistence on acquisition of skills comes at the expense of the general education that ought to be the mandate of schools. It is no surprise that we have many highly skilled technicians who appear intellectually stunted.  

This second type of education, the acquisition of skills, is what people need to earn their livelihoods. Here we are guilty of a major fallacy because the demand for skills does not exist independently of the state of the economy and society. To take an obvious example, if an economy is not generating any jobs, training a whole lot of professionals is not going to lead to development. We should be familiar with this phenomenon having seen huge numbers of Pakistani professionals emigrating in search of jobs. They are moving to developing economies requiring specific types of skills. 

This reiterates the claim that development comes first and signals the kinds of skills required. In economic terminology, the demand for skills is a derived demand. It derives from the state of the economy, its needs, and the nature of its growth. For example, unilaterally overproducing highly specialized doctors in a low-income country with no environmental sanitation makes little sense — most would seek to emigrate while the majority of the population would be unable to afford the ones that remain and be forced to resort to quacks who respond to the effective demand.

These arguments should make clear that Pakistan’s development problems are not going to be resolved even if every citizen acquires a postgraduate education. All that would happen would be a worsening of the existing crisis. Today, an advertisement for the job of a naib qasid draws thousands of applicants including many with postgraduate degrees and professional qualifications. Many lawyers can be found driving Uber cabs.

Yet another societal malady militates against the acquisition of even those skills that are needed by the economy. One often wonders why in a country of over 200 million with serious underemployment, it is difficult to find a competent electrician or plumber. Is it because employment and advancement are not based on competence but other factors? If most jobs are doled out on patronage or exchanged for bribes, it is smarter to invest in connections or acquiring funds to buy jobs than to acquire additional skills..

Given the above, why do poor people in Pakistan acquire any education at all? Simply because the oversupply of labour relative to economic development has made degrees a filter for recruitment for even the most mundane jobs. This has transformed education into credentialing. People need credentials and many institutions have responded by becoming diploma mills either churning out worthless degrees or selling them outright. 

Regretfully, more education is not going to provide an easy solution to Pakistan’s development problems. A good schooling would provide a platform while sensible economic and social policies would be needed to spur growth leading to appropriate skill acquisition.         

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 25, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. This opinion has been translated into Urdu by Dawn News.

Back to Main Page

Debating Education

June 18, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

I admire Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy for not giving up on education in Pakistan. In a recent article  (HEC — stormy times up ahead, Dawn, May 25, 2019), he suggested a debate on the contrasting visions for higher education offered by Dr. Tariq Banuri, the current head of the HEC, and Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, who held the position earlier.

Since then Dr. Rahman has also articulated his vision (Higher education in turmoil, The News, June 1, 2019). It would therefore be a lost opportunity to not discuss the issue further given the centrality of education to the future of the country. Needless to say, in countries that hope to progress each succeeding generation must be better educated than the one preceding it, building and improving on the latter’s achievements.

The terms of the debate are provided by the two contrasting visions as summarized by Dr. Hoodbhoy. Dr. Banuri’s vision places emphasis on “concentrating the bulk of HEC’s resources into widening and strengthening undergraduate teaching across Pakistan” while Dr. Rahman’s emphasis is on “the number of published research papers, patents obtained, and PhDs produced locally.”

This is primarily a difference in emphasis. Both Drs. Banuri and Rahman are sophisticated enough to know that it is not an either/or proposition — both undergraduate education and doctoral research have their place in an ideal system of higher education. However, the difference of emphasis, and the allocation of scarce resource it implies, is stark enough to trigger very different trajectories which need to be considered not in the abstract but in the context of the concrete realities facing Pakistan today.

From my perspective, as a scholar with a PhD from a research-oriented university and an educationist having served as dean at LUMS, among the leading undergraduate institutions in Pakistan, I am partial to the Banuri vision. It is not possible to have sustainable doctoral programs without good undergraduate education. Nor does it make sense to have a few good doctoral programs benefiting a very small number by shortchanging the overwhelming majority of students destined for the job market after obtaining undergraduate degrees.

Dr. Rahman has labelled the Banuri vision “a scheme that would make the universities of Pakistan low-level community colleges focusing largely on undergraduate teaching.” This is an unfair characterization. In fact, many would contend that good teaching institutions like Lahore College for Women and Islamia College Peshawar have been transformed into poorly performing universities by HEC policies. Their doctoral programs are seriously understaffed at the level of quality required to deliver acceptable results.

Given the tradeoff, it is poor resource allocation to produce a few mediocre PhDs locally at the cost of neglecting the many undergraduates since the available faculty can give their time to either one or the other. In any case, the most promising students prefer to obtain their post-graduate degrees abroad given the premium on foreign qualifications and the ready availability of scholarships, leaving a residual cohort available for enrollment in local PhD programs. The general quality of undergraduate programs is also presently so weak that most students the HEC sends abroad for PhDs are unable to gain admission in first-tier universities, many failing to even pass the basic GRE qualifying tests.

The other ills spawned by the earlier HEC focus on numerical targets, like number of publications, coupled with perverse financial incentives have been repeatedly documented by scholars like Dr. Hoodbhoy and Dr. Isa Daudpota. These include the tidal wave of plagiarism, the plague of fake journals, the mass enrollment of doctoral students, and the production of cringe-worthy dissertations. These need arresting at the earliest if higher education is to serve the mass of entrants into the job market rather than a small group of beneficiaries who are exploiting the system at the expense of students they are mandated to educate.

In my view Dr. Banuri has the priorities right at this stage but competent and well-intentioned as he is, it is not within his powers to work a miracle. Dr. Banuri’s mandate is limited to higher education but I am sure he recognizes that while the problem there is acute, that is not where the solution lies. Just as a robust undergraduate system is a prerequisite for successful doctoral programs, so a healthy high school system is needed for building good undergraduate programs.

Unfortunately, the high school system is currently in dire straits and its public component is getting progressively worse. A school education that does not teach students how to learn or how to think and discourages open inquiry cannot be expected to provide the raw material that can be salvaged by undergraduate education no matter how good it is. I can vouch for this on the basis of my experience as dean at LUMS which inducts among the best high school students in the country. It is generally recognized within LUMS that the bottom quintile to the bottom half of the entering class fails to benefit commensurate with the very rich resources available at the institution because of the burden of a weak high school education. This speculation could be gainfully confirmed if LUMS were to track the progress of this cohort of its alumni.   

The bad news is that high school education in Pakistan is so heavily politicised as to be virtually impervious to reform. It will only collapse when it brings down the rest of the system by oversupplying graduates with mismatched skills burdened with rising expectations and a sense of entitlement but unable to find jobs in a stagnant environment in which good jobs are already being replaced by less well paying ones in the informal sector or in the ‘gig’ economy.

I have joined this debate at the invitation of Dr. Hoodbhoy with the sinking feeling that it is an academic exercise. Tinkering with higher education is like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic quite oblivious to the gaping hole in the bottom taking in water at an exponentially increasing rate.

The writer has a PhD from Stanford University and was Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion appeared in Dawn on June 16, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.       

Back to Main Page