Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.       

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Miseducating Pakistan

December 14, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated.

It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education.

I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth — for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate and GDP per capita in US dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity. Consider the pair Uzbekistan (100; $6,856) and Mongolia (98; $13,000): the latter is almost twice as wealthy at about the same level of education. Now consider Pakistan (58; $5,527) and Bangladesh (73; $3,869): the former is actually wealthier at a lower level of education. Consider Myanmar (76; $6,139) which is one-and-a-half times wealthier than Bangladesh at almost the same level of education and comparable in wealth to Pakistan despite having a considerably higher level of education. For historical evidence consider the fact that in 1700 India had 25 percent of the world’s wealth with virtually no literacy. How did that happen if wealth is the outcome of education? This share dropped to 6 percent by 2015 despite increasing education for a host of unrelated reasons that cannot be ignored in drawing conclusions about the relationship between education and wealth. It is equally important to be aware that both in 1700 and 2015 wealth in India was not widely distributed but was concentrated in very few hands.

The bottom line is that there is no simple correlation between education and wealth and it is deceptive to derive such a conclusion by looking at education levels in developed countries like Japan while ignoring the many other factors that might have been more critical like, for example, the Meiji reforms of 1868. Nor is there a simple relationship between wealth and its distribution. Leaving aside the accidents of history, many, more crucial, factors can determine a country’s development path of which the policy framework is paramount. While it is true that China invested in education, its growth dynamic was triggered by the policy changes in 1979 while earlier, despite the education, it had suffered unimaginable catastrophes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

This last point highlights the damning inference that it is disingenuous to blame the lack of mass education for lack of development which is primarily due to misgovernance — keep in mind that all policy decisions are taken not by illiterate citizens but by the well-educated rulers. Just like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, the policies in Pakistan to promote fundamentalism and hostility towards neighbours are solely attributable to its well-educated ruling classes. While Chinese leaders learnt from their mistakes, Pakistan’s rulers remain enmeshed in their mindless jingoism and container thought. It is naive to hope that mere education can get them out of this mess of their own creation.

The greater irony is that the kind of education being promoted by Pakistan’s elite is exacerbating and not alleviating the problems of misdevelopment. Fundamentalism and intolerance are the more obvious outcomes of an education designed not to encourage creativity but to buttress a chimerical national identity rooted in fear and arrogance. One must remain cognizant of the difference between the quantity of education and its quality.

Deep down I believe Mr. Ismail is aware that there is no straight road from education to richness because the party to which he belongs did little for education during its tenure. Go over the list of heads of educational institutions appointed during that period and it would be obvious that improving education was not the motivation. Little was done to regulate private colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills turning out graduates without any prospects of employment. And higher education remained plagued by the virus of plagiarism in which the Executive Director appointed by the government to the watchdog institution, the Higher Education Commission, was himself complicit.

Mr. Ismail has made other debatable claims in his article. For example, he has asserted that “for some reason education is not very valued by our modern culture.” This is not consonant with the back-breaking sacrifices made by poor parents to put their children through school and simultaneously pay for supplemental tuition to compensate for the low quality of the latter. This, despite the fact that returns to education are very low in Pakistan where connections matter more than knowledge or merit.

Mr. Ismail also claimed, citing Aristotle, that “if parents do their jobs and raise their children well, in one generation all of society’s problems will go away. Every citizen would be educated, decent, kind and well mannered.” How one wishes this were true. What proportion of the set of educated people in positions of authority today are decent, kind and well-mannered? The educated who routinely slap low-paid public servants, mistreat maids, and use foul language in public discourse offer sufficient contrary evidence to challenge this claim.

Good and meaningful education is a basic human right which ought to be pursued for its own sake and not for any instrumental reasons. It is essential for individuals to live fulfilling lives to which they are entitled by virtue of being born. It is a grave failure of the state to have deprived the majority of good education for so many decades. It is adding insult to injury to attempt to pass the buck for this neglect and criminal misgovernance of the ruling class onto powerless people, an allegedly apathetic culture, and parental negligence. The first step towards a better future requires the state to own its responsibility for the welter of serious problems enmeshing the country of which lack of education is only one. The problem is not that people do not value education; it is the abuse of education for patronage, profits, and political ends. This abuse needs to end before the journey to development can begin.

An edited version of this opinion appeared in The News on December 9, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?

June 20, 2017

By Sara Fatima

This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system.

In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the origin and history of major ideas and is equipped with the conceptual tools to perceive and understand the dynamics of the real world. The social sciences are a part of the educational curriculum even at a preliminary level. Such is not the case in Pakistan where a school graduate is not equipped with a strong foundation in the uninhibited exploration of ideas. The canvas of education is limited and insular, a weakness that is exacerbated by textbooks that are not rich enough to familiarize students with a rapidly evolving world. Nor do they convey sufficient knowledge of ancient civilizations or even of the contemporary world. The result is a myopic worldview.

This observation is quite plausible but we may question whether it is just the content of the textbooks that is source of our problems. If we replace these books with those used in the developed world, would be induce the required change in the thinking of our people? It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.

In Pakistan, students are discouraged from asking questions in class. They cannot even think of disagreeing with their teachers who are considered as being in positions of supreme authority, a relationship that discourages critical thinking. Teachers in turn are risk-averse and prefer not to stray from the conservative norms of religion, race and gender. They are either incapable of, or deliberately stay away from, conveying a more universal humanism depriving the students from developing a tolerance of differences in attitudes and values.

Another important factor contributing to the narrow-mindedness of the educated elite is the elimination of the social sciences from professional training at advanced levels of education. This is particularly the case in engineering, medical and military training. The curriculum is confined to technical subjects leaving out the more open-ended subjects that need to be a part of  intellectual growth. This one-dimensional education is resulting in the growing fundamentalism and increasing intolerance of our educated youth.

Recent research suggests that a disproportionate percentage of students involved in violent activities have a background in science, engineering or medicine. A study conducted in the sociology department of the University of Oxford (‘Engineers of Jihad,’ 2007) confirms this hypothesis that students of the above-mentioned subjects are over-represented in violent Islamist movements. The plausible explanation given for this phenomenon is that the mindset of people with this educational background inclines them to take extreme positions on matters that may have multiple answers or causes. The study reinforces the importance of the social sciences to mould individuals who can see things in grey instead of in black and white.

Despite the above, there are some other questions that need to be raised in order to address the issues raised by Professor Waseem. We need to be sure that our elite is truly ignorant of the crucial issues as presumed by him. Could it be possible that the  ignorance is a mere pretence? Is our political elite really interested in building an open intellectual environment in our society or does the status quo better serve its parochial interests? These questions direct us to a larger debate that is probably more significant in unravelling the sociopolitical dynamic of our society.

Sara Fatima graduated from LUMS with a major in Politics and Economics. For a related article, see Education: Humanities and Science

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Education and Politics

December 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

I wonder what the concerned students would be thinking of the government’s directive to some teachers of the Pak-Turk school system to leave the country. I guess they would consider it political interference. If so, they would be wiser than the experts who look upon education and politics as separate domains.

The real lesson that the affected students need to internalize is that the incident involving their teachers is not unique. Since schools are not teaching students how to think, exploring what has been happening to schools might induce some much needed reflection.

The reality is that education has always been subjected to political interventions. That may be one reason why history is no longer taught in our schools. The less one knows of the past the less likely it would be to decipher the ways in which education is manipulated to advance political interests.

Some political interventions can be considered incidental to education. The deportation of the Turkish teachers falls in that category. The sole objective of the government was to please one man and it was mere coincidence that the cause of the latter’s disapproval was associated with schools. The personnel could just as easily have been part of another industry, say health. Even so, given that the foundation operated only about two dozen schools, the impact on education as a sector remains marginal.

Another political intervention of this type was the outright nationalization of educational institutions schools in 1972. An ideological rationale, which had its supporters and detractors, was offered for the intervention. In this case, however, the impact was spread across the sector and most educationists consider it one cause of the subsequent decline in the quality of education in the country.

A second type of intervention pertains to what students are allowed to do in educational institutions. It is deeply ironic that those who lauded the intense politicization of students at Aligarh University during the Pakistan Movement concluded it was not such a good idea after all once Pakistan was achieved. Not surprisingly, interventions in education remain subservient to political ends.    

A third, quite different, type of political intervention has to do with influencing the purpose of education itself. One may consider Macaulay’s intervention in 1835, changing the medium of instruction in British India from local languages to English, to be a classic case of such an intervention – the stated purpose being to form a “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” It is ironical that those who vilify Macaulay have done nothing to reverse the intervention after the British departed. The politics of that contradiction remains to be fully explained.

Ziaul Haq’s contribution, infusing education with morality and nationalism, is another example of such a political intervention. Yet another is the funding from the Middle East to promote an alternative education in support of a political ideology. And how many people know that in the mid-1980s textbooks for schools in Afghanistan promoting jihad were produced in America under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development at the University of Nebraska and routed through Pakistan. Whatever one’s position on these interventions there is little doubt that they have quite significantly altered the very nature and purpose of education in the country.

All kinds of political interventions are of interest but the third type merits special attention. A botched nationalization of education can be reversed, as it has in Pakistan, and sensible measures can retrieve the institutional damage. Student unions can be re-introduced in colleges. But altering the nature and content of education has much longer-lasting consequences – it produces cohorts of decision-makers who by virtue of their orientation rule out the very possibility of certain types of policy reversals.

An obvious example is the production of the class of persons envisaged by Macaulay. It was unsurprising that the departure of the British witnessed no radical discontinuity in the colonial system of education – the class whose privileges rested on the knowledge of English had little incentive to empower speakers of native languages.

Similarly, Ziaul Haq’s ‘children’, now ensconced in key positions have virtually taken curriculum reform off the table. No amount of studies demonstrating problems with the existing curricula and pedagogy can get past the mindset generated by that intervention.

These examples should make clear why education is such a fiercely contested political domain. The most vital resource of a country are its students who will graduate to become the next generation of decision-makers – they are virtually its future. Whoever controls what these students believe and how they think (or do not think) controls the future as well barring unforeseen events or unintended consequences. The stakes are very high; not surprisingly, interventions to mould education to political ends are endemic.      

One should keep in mind that countries that are globally competitive, or aspire to that status, are forced to promote scientific and technological innovation which, by its very nature, requires the freedom to think openly. Hence the existence of top-tier educational institutions in the US, for example. But the outpouring of innovations comes mixed with intellectual questioning which is an outcome of the same freedom to think openly.This  dissent has to be tolerated and managed with sensitivity.

Rulers in countries like Pakistan with a primary focus on maintaining the status quo and no real intent to be globally competitive see no reason to promote open minds that can only result in the citizenry asking difficult questions. Hence the continued interventions in education to stifle the promotion of critical thinking and muzzle the possibility of any dissent that could threaten the political status quo.

If our students had read Bulleh Shah or Kabir at school they would have been equipped with the tools for self-reflection. The fact that they do not is as telling a clue as one might need to figure out the purpose being served by our present-day system of education.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on Saturday, December 10, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Four Talks and a Funeral

November 9, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

In September I was in the US for a month for a series of lectures and presentations. Three of them were recorded and are available for public viewing. I am linking them here for those who might be interested in any of the topics which are very varied.

Most of the talks are on YouTube so a proxy would be needed for viewing them in Pakistan because of the continuing ban on YouTube. I am presuming readers are technologically adept enough to navigate their way to a solution.

University of Michigan, Center for South Asian Studies

April 5, 2013


University of California at Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies

September 8, 2014


Cornell University, College of Art, Architecture and Planning

September 16, 2014


(More easily viewed here in two parts):

Part 1 –
Part 2 –

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC

September 24, 2014


There was one earlier presentation I made to the incoming freshmen class at LUMS during Orientation Week on August 28, 2014. The theme was that effective training requires a solid foundation of general education. It is much more sensible to educate first and train later rather than to train first and (try to) educate later. The latter strategy almost always fails leaving behind unidimensional professionals.

LUMS, Orientation Week

August 28, 2014


The objective of these talks is to start public conversations. No change is possible unless there are ideas in circulation about which people engage each other converging through discussions to understandings that can energize political action. It is not enough to be passive readers. I would like you to use the space for comments to air your views and especially your disagreements.

Now to the funeral:

All these presentations were made when I was the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. Soon after my return from the US I died in that role and was reborn as provost of Habib University in Karachi. Incidentally, Habib University has the kind of foundational education that was the theme of the lecture at LUMS. For details see the description of the liberal core at Habib.

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Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.


I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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