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The Funniest Thing I Read Today — 30.11.2021

November 30, 2021

By Q.M. Saltanat, PTB; SBMM

Today the Supreme Court told the Secretary Defence, Lt Gen (retd) Mian Hilal, that “If these [military] lands are not being used for defence purposes, then they will be returned to the government.”

“The secretary responded that the term ‘strategic defence’ was a broad term. He claimed the “commercial activities on the military land were also part of strategic defence.” He said the commercial activities on the military land promoted the welfare and boosted the morale of the army deployed on borders during peace times.”

What a profound statement that gives a whole new dimension to the term ‘broad’ — I mean just consider its strategic depth. The National Defence University should award Mian Sahib an honorary doctorate for such a pithy and spirited defence, verily a one-line dissertation, undoubtedly the shortest in the world. It would give a further boost to his already high morale.

As for the return of the land, don’t get your hopes too high. This kind of shadow boxing is par for the course in the Land of the Pure. 

Pāk sarzamīn shād bād / Kishwar-i ḥasīn shād bād

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Knowledge and Power

October 18, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language”?

All the issues that engage us at this moment are there in this debate from almost 200 years ago — the desideratum of scientific knowledge, the non-availability of content in local languages, the best medium of instruction, and the process of mental cultivation.

Reading history is so humbling. Everything being said today can be found in the columns of the newspapers of those days, The Tribune and The Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore among them, debating heatedly the pros and cons of the Anglicist and the Orientalist positions.

Reading history is also so very sobering. Then, as now, when all is said and done, when all the words and wisdom have been exhausted, it is power that carries the day. What is decided on high is impervious to reason, argument, or the well-being of the recipients and driven solely by the needs of the ruling class. 

There are many fascinating dimensions to this bit of history. Compare Macaulay and Mill to begin with. Were it not for the Minute, Macaulay would be a footnote to history. Mill, on the other hand, was the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty is still considered a seminal text today. But the ridiculous pronouncements of the former trumped the commonsense observation of the latter just as the footnotes of today override experts of the stature of Dr. Tariq Rehman.

Why commonsense? Because it takes half a minute of honest reflection to recognize its truth. Imagine a five-year old child from a village trying to understand addition in her own language or in English. Which alternative would she find easier? Imagine her narrating the day’s events in either language. In which would she be able to express herself with greater ease, fluency, and creativity?

The answers are obvious. Why then would we want the child to learn in English rather than in her own language? Is it because content is not available in her language? But what content does a five-year old child need to learn to add? Give her a pile of stones, a bunch of marbles, a few apples and she would do a lot better than reading out of a book. What content does she need to tell a story or talk about a butterfly or a frog or about the weather and when it would be time to milk the cow? And why one milks the cow in the first place and what happens to the milk after it is collected? Making five-year olds learn out of books is a poor and unimaginative choice.

What is given up when a child is taught in a language not her own? “Mental cultivation” as Mill had mentioned nearly 200 years ago. Instead of learning about things and ideas, the child is left struggling with an alien language, fearful of making mistakes, preferring silence to being laughed at, apprehensive of being tested on things that are not fully understood. This is the beginning of the road to memorization, to reproduction without understanding, to acquiescence instead of enquiry.

If all of the above is so obvious, why is it that parents want their children educated in English, the argument always cited, then and now, in support of English as the language of instruction? In preparing the Minute, Macaulay had said that “English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic,” and that “the natives are desirous to be taught English.” 

The simple answer is easily deduced by a student of the history of education in colonial India: “By making English a necessary skill to gain access to employment in the higher levels of the Indian administration, an English education became something to which all Indians strove.”

The answer to the puzzle is obvious and lies buried in the distinction between the two functions of education — that of mental cultivation or learning and that of a passport to employment. Parents, especially those who are poor and without old-age security, invest in their children in the hope that the latter find good jobs in the market. To that end, they are willing to sacrifice mental cultivation especially when no educationist has made them aware of how high the cost is of the sacrifice.

The English had an obvious vested interest in creating a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be “loyal servants of the colonial regime.” But no such interest is at play in a sovereign nation where power is supposed to reside in the people. Why then do we retain English as the passport to good employment requiring such a huge sacrifice in mental cultivation of which all serious educationists have long been aware since the time of Mill? 

This is the real puzzle that requires an answer. Why don’t we just do away with the requirement of such a colonial legacy. China does not require it; Turkey does not require it; and they are considered successful countries doing far better than us. For all our English-speaking geniuses we can’t even collect our own garbage for which we need assistance from the non-English speaking Chinese and Turks.

So why do we continue to require English as the passport for decent jobs? Is it because colonialism has never really left our land? Is it because our neo-colonial masters wish to cripple the mental abilities of the people to keep them loyal, docile, and uncompetitive? Is it because power is afraid of knowledge? Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, there are Chief’s Colleges, quite distinct from the intellectually impoverished institutions for the natives, to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo. 

Surely, it should not be so in an Islamic country aspiring to the Riasat of Medina.

Quotes are from Patriots and Practical Men: British Educational Policy and the Responses of Colonial Subjects in India, 1880-1890 by David Thomas Boven, Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2017.

This opinion was published in The  News on October 16, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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A Radical Road to Better Governance

October 13, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Consider the state of Pakistan today. There is a crisis when it doesn’t rain. There is a crisis when it does rain. If it is not the season of drought it is the season of flood. In each, foreigners are beseeched to dole us out.

In seventy years citizens have not been provided with clean water, with decent education, with basic health, with adequate transport. Half the population is illiterate. Half the children are stunted. Half the young are jobless.

Five thousand years ago, Mohenjodaro functioned better than our cities. The sight of Karachi drowning was a disgrace. Parts of Lahore were no better. Is building new cities an acceptable response? If the old ones cannot be held together why would new ones be run better? Especially when every new cohort of managers, on average, is worse trained than the one before. 

People might invent excuses but this state of affairs is the cumulative result of atrocious governance. The Supreme Court of the country has labeled one of its governments a mafia and this charge has been bruited all over the world to leave no doubt of the intentions and actions of many of the country’s previous governments. It would be hard to find a project, big or small, untainted by a scam. Even Zakat and BISP funds have been fiddled with which should leave no doubt of the depths that have been reached.  

In situations like this international organizations recommend a regimen of Good Governance. They pretend, for reasons that suit their business, that a leopard will change its spots while they continue to lend it food to eat. This is no different from believing that if the aristocrats of France had been pampered and advised on good governance they would have given the peasants bread instead of cake. The peasants knew better.

Given that the leopards will not change their spots, what are the options for better governance? We live in the age of representative governance and there is no way we can go back to monarchy even if we can dig up a successor to Akbar the Great from under some rock. Dictatorship is not an alternative either given the immense damage that has been inflicted on Pakistan, including its breakup, under its dictators. In any case, there is no reason for citizens to yield their sovereign rights and become subjects again.

So, what do citizens need to fight for to get better governance within the framework of representative rule? The choice now is as stark as it can get. They can, as Arundhati Roy put it for India, “keep voting for the people who are leading us into penury and war, tearing us apart limb from limb,” before adding sarcastically “At least they are building us a grand temple. And that’s not nothing.” Ours will give us a new city, a flaming BRT, and the highest, longest cable car in the world that will attract millions of tourists.

They could continue to vote for the spotted leopards or they could consider fighting for something that would really deliver the promise of representative rule — transferring power into their own hands from those of predatory elites who rotate it among themselves while promising change. Once again, one has to turn to the French to see through that facade: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

It is time for citizens to make their voices heard, to articulate how they wish to be governed, to demand what they want from their governments, to take government into their own hands. The time for lying back, allowing any misfit to take over, and hoping for the best should be over.

I am an advocate of sortition — the choosing of governors for fixed terms by random ballot — a practice with a heritage going back to Rome. It is an extreme measure but it is time for extreme measures. Nothing can be worse than what we have and the hope for a miracle has been dashed too often to remain credible. God will not help those who do not help themselves.

We need to put the responsibility for governance into the hands of a set of ordinary citizens who are representative of the population. Who know what it means to drink polluted water, to be miseducated, to be denied health care, to be unable to cross a signal-free corridor without walking a mile, to be offered a job as a janitor after graduating from a diploma mill. Let them define the priorities and engage experts if they feel the need for them.

And they might be able to get there without a French Revolution if they can force the aristocrats to accept an amnesty, something the latter are very fond of when they give it to each other. Let the aristocrats take whatever they want and leave for their homes abroad. This country is rich enough to rebuild itself from scratch. Its real capital are the people whose output has been appropriated all these years. Let them work for themselves for a change. 

Once we truly have a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we can evaluate different choices to move forward. For example, given the disastrous condition of our cities, we could lease a few of them for twenty-five years to those who have shown how to manage big cities well. The Japanese run Tokyo, a metropolis of 26 million people, like clockwork; let us request them to take charge of Karachi. The South Koreans manage Seoul equally well; Lahore could go to them. The French have done fine with Paris; they could do the same for Faisalabad. An so on. As it is, we cannot even collect urban waste without the assistance of foreign firms. Why not let them deal with the entire mess.

This is not as outlandish as it might seem. The economist Paul Romer, a Nobel Laureate, has proposed the concept of a charter city managed by a guarantor administering it under mutually agreed terms and compensated from the revenues generated by the city. There is thus an in-built incentive to increase city revenues by making it more peaceful, livable, efficient, and productive.

There is also a real-life example of using competition among different guarantors to ensure high levels of performance. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s strokes of genius, very soon after 1947, to set up a string of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) each run by a different technologically advanced country. The success was beyond expectations. The IITs ranked with the best in the world and their graduates put India on the technology map both in industry and in academia.

This path to the future is bold, daring, and perhaps outlandish. But with our cities sinking and our lives crumbling, we have touched rock bottom. The choice now is very stark. It is between going under or having any kind of future at all. It is hardly a choice. 

This opinion appeared in The News on Sunday on October 11, 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.

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SNC and Language of Instruction

October 11, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. 

This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged — to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit.

This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the weight of evidence. The first pertains to the wonders that would result from packing even more religious content in the school curriculum. It cleverly manipulates societal values while ignoring evidence that religious education is not correlated at all with any indicator of development and not even with the value of goodness itself. The outcome of the Zia experiment should be sufficient to dispel the myth. 

The second myth is that a single national curriculum (SNC) would yield an equal, stable, and peaceful society. There is no example in history of a mere school curriculum yielding such lofty dividends. As it is, the lack of any serious commitment to the goal of equality is evident at the outset by the retention of schools that can bypass the SNC. Add to that the fact that instability in the country is almost entirely the outcome of conflicts between elites educated in the same schools under the same curriculum. That should be enough to expose the emptiness of the claim. 

While the aim of the SNC — dumbing down the population the better to perpetuate the rule of Brown Englishmen — cannot be camouflaged from any serious analyst, there are among the critics some who believe that teaching everyone in English, even under a SNC, can level the playing field and enable the masses to compete with the elite. Their efforts are thus diverted into a blind alley giving the SNC a free pass. Once again, there is no evidence from history of such an outcome from everyone learning in the same language. The USA is the most striking example of the fallacy of such a belief.

On the other hand, so much evidence has accumulated over decades that the languages spoken at home are the best for a child’s early education that one must wonder what is going on in the minds of the proponents of English as the language of instruction. On what basis can they argue for the proposition in the face so much evidence, both from controlled research studies and from direct experience of countries teaching in their own languages? 

All I can think of is that this is a manifestation of a perverse contrariness — because the elite is having its children taught in English, why should the masses be deprived of that privilege? This ignores completely the welfare of the child. The elite is the elite not because it can speak English but because it was either born or has bought its way into privilege. Even a cursory probing of Pakistan’s ruling class would reveal that speaking English has no correlation with superior wisdom. The proponents of English are prepared to sacrifice the intelligence of their children to satisfy a strange sense of envy. This ‘English Revolution’ — snatching English from the aristocracy — would be our non-violent equivalent of the French Revolution. I wonder what Gandhi would have to say of this approach to gaining equality. 

The other explanation relies on Khaled Ahmed’s distinction between Urdu as the language of ‘emotive walwala’ and English of ‘reasoned discourse’ on the basis of which he favours the latter as the language of instruction. Going by this hard-to-accept hypothesis, I can only conclude that the proponents of English, although educated in the language, continue, naoozubillah, to think in the vernacular. The solution might then be to aim for native fluency in English so that everyone can actually think in it and has no need at all to be held back by the malevolent burden of native languages. What a pleasure it would be to see our ministers transforming into little Shakespeares.

The evidence on what is the best language of instruction for a child is overwhelming and considered settled. Any critical engagement that does not feel compelled to take sides would arrive at that conclusion. What remains of interest is to figure out why there still are people who are not swayed by the evidence and think it is a subject on which they can start from first principles with their prejudices as the point of departure. 

This opinion appeared in The News on October 9, 2020 is 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.

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Can a Language Be Irrational?

October 4, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Khaled Ahmed has made a perfectly rational critique of the Single National Curriculum (Obsession with Uniformity, Newsweek Pakistan, September 9, 2020) but then taken a surprising stance on the varying rationality of different languages. I have great respect for the erudition of Khaled Ahmed so I wish to engage him by pushing back in order to come to a better understanding of his position.

But first, let me reiterate Khalid Ahmed’s critique of the SNC with which I agree completely. The entire premise of the SNC is flawed: “perceptual differences” are the cause of “conflict in society” and these perceptual differences are outcomes of the different types of schools in the country. The SNC will lead to “uniformity of thinking” and this would yield a “stable society.”

This confuses the symptoms with the disease. The different types of schools were not created by God but by various elites to serve their political purposes — the contributions of Ayub Khan, Bhutto, Zia ul Haq and Musharraf are particularly salient.  The products of the elite schools aided and abetted the growth of madrassas to further their jihadist dreams whose blowback ignited the enhanced social conflicts in society. Pakistan has become progressively more violent — just compare the sixties to the nineties.

Add to that the byzantine political conflicts among the products of the elite schools, those who compete as in a jungle for the seats of power. What happened to the “uniformity of thinking” among those who all went to the same schools? It is convenient to pass off the blame for the resulting mess onto the long-suffering people and to propose a remedy that will take at least a generation to mature. Meanwhile the misrule of a predatory class will continue without challenge with the further dumbing down of the population herded onto the path of memorizing pious thoughts. 

When it comes to explaining the SNC, Khaled Ahmed believes that “the crux of this uniformity-producing utopia is to minimize the use of English.” I find this claim puzzling. How has the use of English over 70 years harmed the ruling classes in any way? What might have convinced them that its continued use poses a threat to their survival? In my view, this switch away from English in early education is the only sensible thing in the SNC that finally brings Pakistan, after many wasted decades, in conformity with overwhelming global evidence accumulated over more than half a century. But the language that is used to teach cannot yield much by itself if the content of what is being taught is designed to serve an ulterior purpose. That is really where the SNC is culpable and will create the “dystopia” of which Khaled Ahmed rightly warns.

The motivation for the SNC is more complicated and needs to be unraveled. Khaled Ahmed attributes it to language because of a seeming belief that “rational thought” is only possible in the English language. This is a very strong claim especially when extended to assert there are some languages, including Urdu, that are intrinsically “irrational” in the sense that they are incapable of sustaining a “logical-sequential discourse.” 

Even if one accepts this argument of the superiority of English, it is not clear if it yields the benefits attributed to it. Khaled Ahmed claims that unlike Urdu, which is a vehicle for “emotive walwala,” English discourse promotes “rational thinking” as a result of which “reason has suppressed such collectively emotive concepts as nationalism” in the West. How then would one explain the two World Wars? Was the Holocaust an example of the supremacy of reason? What about the nationalism of the English so recently displayed with Brexit and the bitter nationalism of the Irish? What about the vicious nationalism of Donald Trump based on White supremacy? These counter-examples dent the claim that English or its cognate languages guarantee the reign of reason. 

Be that as it may, it still remains to take up the claim that Urdu is only good for “emotive walwala” which is a more difficult challenge. Here too, Khaled Ahmed has staked out an extreme position by dismissing the entire “folk and national poetry” of a civilization as detrimental to “logical-sequential discourse.”  Shibli and Azad had expressed similar views in the early 19th century without quite advocating a rejection of the language. 

I am not dismissing Khalid Ahmed’s conjecture out of hand. I have also reflected on aspects of it in my capacity as an educationist experiencing the difficulties faced by faculty members educated in English in getting across to audiences unfamiliar with the language. My conclusion, which has some support in linguistic theory, was that speakers of different languages have subtle differences in how they see and understand the world to which one needs to be sensitive. For example, the way one would try and convince an English-speaking audience and an Urdu-speaking one in Pakistan are quite different — the former responds more to deductive logic, the latter more to appeal to precedence. 

But that acknowledgement of difference is a far cry from claiming that a language itself can be incapable of argumentation based on reason. Can one seriously claim that Ghalib and Bulleh Shah do not epitomize the discourse of reason and is it a failing of the language that they are excluded from the school curriculum? The madrassah education that Khaled Ahmed holds responsible for irrational thinking in Pakistan is in Arabic. Does that make Arabic a language incapable of “logical-sequential discourse”? If so, how come it were the discourses in Arabic that pulled Europe out of its dark ages? And it was the speakers of the same language that later went into a steep scientific decline from which they have yet to recover. One cannot blame a language for the underlying politics that determines the uses for which the language is employed. 

Reading Khaled Ahmed, one can’t help thinking back to Charles Grant who arrived in India as a soldier in 1767, became a trader in the East India Company and rose to the position of a Director in 1796. In 1797, he published his thoughts on the education of Indians which were an input into the official policy of 1813. Grant wrote that if only Indians were educated in English “Men would be restored to the use of their reason… the cultivation of the mind, and rational intercourse would be valued; … and as the people found their character, their state, and their comforts improved, they would prize more highly, the security and happiness of a well ordered society.” Was Grant aware that the numerals he was using to balance the Company’s accounts, including the zero, were the inventions of Indians. That Kautilya had written on the art of politics well before Machiavelli. That Panini had come up with an incredible grammar. That Indians had come up with chess, the ultimate game of reason, and elucidated exponential growth by observing what happened if grains of rice were doubled on successive squares of the chessboard. All this without the benefit of an English education to unlock their ability for logical-sequential reasoning.

One can’t also help think back to the “emotive irrationality” of the Partition, the doing of English-educated nationalists, that left over a million dead and ten million homeless. The rational voices drowned in that discourse were of people like Maulanas Madani and Azad who were not educated in English although Azad, at least, could write it better than many of the others. 

Some resolution to these conundrums might emerge from ascertaining the place of language in society. In my view language is a reflection of the underlying culture — think back to the Urdu of 19th century Lucknow. It would be much harder to prove a reverse causality, i.e., that language influences culture in any significant way. This leads me to the rather pessimistic conclusion that the language we speak today is a measure of the steady deterioration of our cultural values — take tolerance and respect for intellect as two of many possible examples. It follows that even if we all learn English, we would continue to communicate in the same way as is often witnessed on TV talk shows. We would just be slapping and abusing each other in English instead of in Urdu.

I would like to go back to the SNC by way of conclusion. I have repeatedly come across well-meaning people who advocate English simply because it is the “global language” and they fear we would be “left behind” if we don’t learn it from the first day of our lives. They are amazingly oblivious to the fact that we have already been left very far behind by countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea, among many others, that don’t teach in English from day one. Those who want or need to learn English, and not everyone does, do so at a later age. Such advocates of English cannot make the elementary distinction between learning a language and learning in a language and are consequently unaware of the immense cognitive damage caused by conflating the two.

I hope Khaled Ahmed will reconsider his views on language and rely on the huge amount of evidence, endorsed by agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the EU, that has accumulated in support of early childhood education in the mother tongue. This does not in any way obviate the teaching of English as a subject at an appropriate age as in the case of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. What Khaled Ahmed must insist on is that early childhood education should inculcate and promote rational thinking which the SNC has no intention of doing. That is why it is a catastrophe that will cripple the future of our children and of the country as well.

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on September 27, 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.

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A Better Way to Teach

October 2, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The Single National Curriculum has some very laudable objectives including raising good human beings and promoting inclusiveness and tolerance. It has decided on a methodology to achieve these aims. For the sake of discussion, I am suggesting an alternative to the proposed methodology.

The chosen methodology leans heavily on religion as the vehicle for raising good human beings. Muslim children will be introduced to Ahadees, Ayaat and Quaranic injunctions in support of habits that include speaking the truth, respecting one’s elders, being kind to fellow humans and animals; and of beliefs that all citizens have an equal standing in society regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, gender and colour.

Muslim children will be learning these good things by memorizing the relevant Ahadees, Ayaat, and Quranic injunctions and will be tested on them. While Muslim children are attending the class on their religion, all non-Muslim students would leave and go to segregated classes, separate for all religions, where they would be taught exactly the same good habits drawing from their own scriptures.

Religion can be a very good vehicle for teaching these basic lessons but dividing children, who might otherwise be very close friends, into separate groups every day may not be the best of ideas. Young children would inevitably ask why some of them have to leave the class and would have to be told that it is so because they are different. The consciousness of difference would be ingrained from day one. The aim of inclusiveness would be compromised and that of tolerance would be strained.

Could exactly the same goals be achieved without sacrificing inclusion and incurring the negative psychic costs of physical separation? How about experimenting with the following alternative: All children stay together and learn together. This is possible because all controversial material has already been sensibly removed from the SNC. Thus, if the lesson is about speaking the truth, the relevant messages from all religions can be listed on the blackboard. Similarly for lessons pertaining to respecting elders, treating others with kindness, etc.

(This would also resolve the awkward problem of not knowing where to send the child who subscribes to the category now allowed on the Pakistani passport — ‘no specific religion.’ Imagine the cruel fate of a child ‘outed’ in such a manner.)

It is hard to imagine that any religion would have messages contrary to the essential traits of good conduct. It would be a huge gain if by going though such a collective exercise children learn in a convivial environment about other religions and also that all religions emphasise similar good things — they are different roads leading to the same destination.

These collective exercises could be extended by exploring what the places of worship of different religions look like, on what date the new year begins for different religions and how it is celebrated, what are the different rituals at birth, marriage, death, etc. At a certain stage students can be taken on visits to different places of worship and encouraged to engage with the caretakers to satisfy their queries.

Such an approach would encourage curiosity, prompt students to ask questions, and promote mutual understanding in a positive and not an artificial manner. It would also obviate the need to memorize anything. Anyone who has been close to education knows that memorization, especially of material that cannot be imagined, is detrimental in every way. It stunts the intellectual development of children. In particular, memorizing religious injunctions cannot make people good. Had that been the case our clerics would have been the paragons of virtue but they are just as good or bad as anyone else. 

Good habits pertain not just to conduct. Good mental habits are equally important and they cannot be inculcated by memorization. In fact excessive memorization of normative content dulls mental capacity by taking away agency and replacing behaviour based on intelligence by that based on fear of punishment. And why persist with a failed approach when Pakistan’s position on the Corruption Index shows that the fear of God has ceased to deliver good behaviour with the most blatant violators being its leaders who have performed endless umrahs.

Educationists who have kept up with the subject also know that children learn in very different ways — some respond more to aural stimuli, others to visual cues, and yet others to tactile inputs. Some love to put things together, others to take them apart. If allowed the freedom, children gravitate to what excites them most. Instead of regimenting all children into a standard format and boring most of them to tears, the first few years are the time when a teacher observes and groups children by how they learn best. Once their learning ability is unleashed they progress much faster than children raised in the equivalent of chicken coops or cattle stalls.

Let us have faith in our children and give them a chance to develop into intelligent human beings leading fulfilling lives. Yes, they will ask questions but what kind of an adult is afraid of questions children might ask?

This opinion was published in The News on October 1, 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. 

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Fair Skin and Fluent English

September 26, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Neelam Hanif has mounted a passionate defence of English as the medium of instruction (SNC and the language question, The News, September 12, 2020) but I fear the passion is misspent. Look at the beginning: “English… is part of the colonial baggage we carry. From aspiring to be fair-skinned to being fluent in this historically contentious language is our most coveted wish.” And now consider the end: “This language has been part of our culture and heritage for the past two hundred years. It is time to own it, and use it to our advantage in training our children to face the challenges of our collective global future.” How can the two be reconciled?

Just these two sentences let loose a flood of questions both cynical and serious. If English is a “colonial baggage” why is it time to “own it”? Isn’t baggage something one wants to shed? Climate change is the biggest challenge of the global future; are people who don’t know English unable to face it? Being fair-skinned is as valuable in the marital market as English is in the job market. Why don’t we own that part of the colonial baggage as well and use it to the advantage of our children?

But let me move beyond cynical and serious to the really profound question. Neelam Hanif wants an early start in English because “Implementing Urdu or regional languages in the early grades is also not a solution as that will further impede children from learning English and competing with children from elite schools.” Does one really believe that knowing English would enable poor children to compete with children from elite schools? Could we please look at the USA where everyone learns English from day one. Does that enable the poor to compete with the rich?

Why don’t we look at the evidence? Two-thirds of the students at Ivy League universities come from the top fifth of the income scale. The relationship between social class and admission test scores has been known for decades.  Social mobility in the USA is stalled — the poor remain poor whether they know English or not. In the USA it is particularly easy to see because it is in black and white. There is no confounding problem of Urdu or regional languages there. So how can one make a chimerical claim of this sort and base an entire policy on it?

Does teaching regional languages in early grades really impede children from learning English? How did millions of non-English speakers from Europe learn English when they needed it? Did Nabokov or Conrad or Brodsky, all of whom wrote in English at the highest level, grow up speaking the language? Why is native-English fluency our aim anyway when all we are concerned with is white-collar jobs?

Neelam Hanif is chasing a Quixotic dream and ends up unsurprisingly tilting at windmills. She is so convinced that English will help the poor compete with the rich that she is prepared to turn the entire society upside down to achieve it. “This government needs to provide equal opportunities to the children of public schools and madressahs to acquire the English language. This would require a team of teachers to be trained in theory and practices of English Language Teaching and to have intensive language programs initiated in these institutions. This would also mean developing materials for these schools and equipping them with libraries and computer labs. The government needs to provide underprivileged children with the environment conducive to acquiring the language that will bring them at par with the children from the elite schools.”

Where does one begin? Governments that have been unable to provide a one-room building for 20 million out-of-school-children and toilets for millions of in-school children are going to do all this especially if that would enable the poor to compete with the rich? And given that fluency in English can propel people to the highest echelons of society, all the highly trained teachers would remain teaching in public schools instead of migrating to Dubai?

I am entirely with Neelam Hanif in wishing for a level playing field but one can get there much more easily than the convoluted way that has been proposed. If one really wants to fight for a level linguistic playing field, one should fight to have all entrance examinations in local languages. It would be much easier for a privileged minority to learn local languages than for an impoverished majority to be fluent in English. They would do it the same way they acquired the “colonial baggage” even though they were not born carrying it.

Unfortunately for Neelam Hanif, a level linguistic playing field will do little to alter class differences. We have to be cognisant of the system in which we exist — economic inequality has increased in parallel with greater access to education even in the USA. Those who believe structural inequality can be addressed by learning a language need to reflect deeply and provide some evidence of where that has happened before. In the absence of such evidence, they need to rethink their recommendations.

I can assure Neelam Hanif that children fluent in local languages and taught to think in them would be able to face the challenges of our collective global future. They might even be able to learn English on their own if they felt the need for it.

This opinion appeared in The News on September 19, 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.

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Is the Madrassah a School?

September 22, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

An argument is being advanced that the madrassah is just another type of school and that the objective of the state is to integrate it into the mainstream of the educational system using the newly announced Single National Curriculum. There is some support for this narrative from those who assert that the madrassah is here to stay and it would be to the advantage of society to facilitate its mainstreaming by offering help in the teaching of subjects like mathematics, English, etc.

There are some grey areas in this narrative that can be best illustrated by considering schools run by orders of other religions. There is no dearth of such schools in Europe, North America and  South Asia. 

The most salient point to note is that while these schools are run by religious orders, they are regular schools in every sense of the term. The proof of this assertion is that their product is indistinguishable from that of a regular secular school and is often better in quality. The acid test of the last claim is that non-Christians go to any length to get their children into one of these schools.

Now consider the madrassah in this light. Would non-Muslims send their children there? This is not just a matter of the quality of the education. The question could be sharpened to ask if non-Muslims would send their children there even if the quality was better than that of a secular school? 

But the most important question is the following: Would a madrassah accept a non-Muslim child? The answer to this question should tell us that there is something special about the madrassah that keeps it from being a substitute for a regular public school. It should alert us that the madrassah might not be a regular school but rather a seminary aiming to produce a professional starting from grade 1 and not from grade 10 as public schools do with their branching into pre-medicine and pre-engineering. 

It is claimed there are madrassahs that require an education upto grade 8 in accordance with the regular public school curriculum before admitting students in the theological stream but it is not known what percentage of madrassahs adhere to this protocol. This information needs verification before a policy of mainstreaming can be finalized.

In any case, the professional that a madrassah intends to produce is an Islamic scholar, not a scholar specializing in the religion of Islam, which is why it would not make sense for it to admit a non-Muslim. On top of all that, it intends to produce a scholar whose talents are devoted to refuting all differing points of view, an aim that is completely contrary to that of a regular school.

To further understand the difference between a school and a seminary, consider some parallels. Conservatories are institutions dedicated to the teaching of music. Imagine a conservatory that admits students in grade 1 with the intention of turning them into professional musicians after 16 years. This seems absurd but in fact a form of this existed in South Asia till very recently with very young children being entrusted into the custody of Ustads for lifelong learning during which the student served the teacher in many other ways as well. There is a lot of nostalgia for this guru-shishya-parampara

In fact, this system lives on for many others in a country where half the population is below or just above the poverty line. Young children (chotas) are apprenticed to master craftsmen of various sorts to learn their trades. This kind of specialized training, considered quite acceptable, can in no way be considered the equivalent of a school.

Consider along the same lines the institution of the military academy (Kakul in Pakistan; Dehra Dun in India) where students are taught the art of warfare. Now the army in Pakistan has also entered the field of primary education starting schools like the Army Public School in Peshawar. Imagine if students entering grade 1 in an APS were taught only how to fire rifles, throw grenades and practice war games. Would it be considered a school? Would parents wanting a general education for their children admit them to such an institution? 

Given the above, it seems naive to think that those running a madrassah need the help of empathetic outsiders to teach mathematics or English which are not rocket science by any stretch. They already teach whatever they feel is needed to produce the kind of graduate they want to produce. The proof of this claim is that many a madrassah graduate is quite up to speed in information technology because the madrassah values the skill to disseminate its message on social media. If a madrassah can impart knowledge of IT it can pretty much do so for anything else it considers useful.

The entire discussion above is to question the facile proposition that a madrassah is just another private school and that parents would be indifferent between the two if they were of equal quality. No verdict is intended on whether the madrassah is good or bad for society. That aspect merits independent analysis. We know that schools of the type mentioned earlier, run by other religious orders inside or outside South Asia, are considered neutral, intrinsically neither good or bad. 

The impact on society of any institution depends on how it is used by the state. Think back how the adherents of religious orders in Europe were used during the Crusades a thousand years ago. In this perspective, there is little doubt that the Pakistani state has used the madrassah for political ends to the detriment of society. In this context, one should also wonder why foreign powers have poured huge amounts of money into institutions providing such poor general education to a minority instead of supporting the public schools that cater to the majority of children.

The knowledge that the state has used the madrassah for political ends is small comfort because many would claim, with much justification, that especially post-Zia ul Haq, it has also used the public school system for political ends though nowhere to the same extent. This should alert civil society that the ongoing attempt to bring the madrassah into the public school via the Single National Curriculum is a danger signal that can only be ignored at a huge social cost. 

Needless to say, the madrassah has every right to exist, as it has for considerable time, as long as a genuine demand exists for its product and there are parents who wish to enroll their children in it out of considered choice. It remains the duty of the state to ensure that no child goes to a madrassah because of poverty and the lack of an affordable preferred alternative. It is a duty in which the sate has failed abysmally, advertently or inadvertently.

There is no reason to oppose the desire to improve the standard of education in madrassahs as long as there is a demand for it. But it should not be overlooked that there are about 50 million children of school-going age in Pakistan of which about 20 million are out of school. The number of students enrolled in madrassahs range from an estimated 200,000 to a reported upper-bound of 2 million. Addressing the madrassah ‘problem’ by importing it into regular schools would be a case of the tail wagging the dog. 

‘Helping’ the madrassah requires the recognition that it is a marginal educational institution with a legitimate function in society but one that has been endowed an outsized political significance embodied in its dharna-power which frequently comes in handy for secular parties. The political issue has to be addressed on its own terms. It is naive to think that curricular tinkering would make it go away. 

If the state really wishes to mainstream the madrassah in the social interest, as it proclaims, it can mandate some minimum educational standards for the certification of its graduates. With such a requirement in place, the madrassah itself, being flush with funds, would do what it takes without needing any help from the outside. A very different pathway to rapid improvement of the madrassah would be a requirement for all political office holders to enroll their children in one. Without the one or the other, the big talk is just big talk.

This opinion was published in Naya Daur on September 17, 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 the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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No Minister, Yes Minister

September 20, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The Minister for Education has written an opinion defending the Single National Curriculum (Debating the SNC, The News, September 8, 2020). It fails in its objectives but I am grateful to the Minister for providing a revealing insight into what governments in Pakistan think and desire and how they work.

First, the latter, taking the SNC as illustrative of policy making — substituting the chicken-and-hen scheme or CPEC just reiterates the point. Governments make policy behind closed doors with a manufactured consensus and announce it as a done deal. If there is a storm of protest, it is considered a substitute for the debate that should have taken place during the deliberation on the policy.

The so-called ‘debate’ is negotiated with a lot of handwaving, parrying every question with an answer, usually incoherent and mutually contradictory, confident in the knowledge that given the balance of power not an iota is going to be changed in the policy. And there is no budging from the one-sided claim that the policy is absolutely the best in the word.

So it is with the SNC, crafted by the fabulous 400, whose date of implementation has been announced, the contract for the model textbook awarded, and which is declared to be “outstanding” and “as good as any.” Meanwhile the pseudo-debate rolls on, the arguments falling on deaf ears.

The Minister claims “we studied many international curricula and also got feedback from Cambridge. We also had help from professionals of some major educational institutions of the country.” But he is not willing to disclose which international curriculum forms the basis for the SNC, what was asked of Cambridge and what was the response, and who were the professionals from the major educational institutions of the country. (We do know that Bill Gates was the one who blessed the chicken-and-egg scheme that was to address poverty much as the SNC is intended to address inequality. CPEC, which is to address underdevelopment, still remains shrouded in mystery.)

This is par for the course and we have lived with it for over 70 years in many reinvented versions of Naya Pakistan. But what is of much greater interest is what the government thinks and that can be read so clearly in the Minister’s narrative. The Minister claims that different types of schools lead to “different worldviews” and these different worldviews have contributed to our “internal conflicts.” How sweetly amusing when one views all the bitter conflicts taking place between those who have been to exactly the same schools — all the Aitchisonians and enlightened Oxbridge Blues abusing each other and at each other’s throats, all educated in the Queen’s English from day one and singing Jack and Jill to impress visitors from abroad.

So the Minister believes an attempt should be made to reduce these “perceptual divisions” to minimise “conflict in society” and he thinks a SNC is the way to achieve that “desirable state.” No wonder, he concludes “national curricula are prescribed in almost every developed country. The list is endless but France, UK, most of Europe, China, Japan etc all have a national curriculum.”

What can one say in the face of the Chinese having to put their ethnic minorities into reeducation camps despite the national curriculum, the French having to crack down on the Yellow Vests as well as deal with Marie Le Pen, and the UK having to negotiate a desirable state with the Irish and the Scots. How naive can one get? If all it took to get to a desirable state was a national curriculum, wouldn’t Donald Trump be hugging Barack Obama?

After all that big talk, the apologia that follows is both mind boggling and heartbreaking: “It has been correctly pointed out that the disparities in our education system are not just because of the curriculum. The environment, the facilities, the teaching standards, and in many cases the home environment are fundamentally different. This is true. Making all schools somewhat equal is an impossible task.” 

“But that does not mean that no attempt should be made to at least prescribe the same learning standards, benchmarks, and outcomes, in a common language, for all children. This would give everyone a somewhat equal opportunity – perfectly equal is impossible.” “The single national curriculum is an attempt to level the playing field somewhat.”

I am touched immensely by the three ‘somewhats’ that tell the entire story. How has it been determined that the most effective measure to level the playing field is the curriculum and not the environment, the facilities, the teaching standard and the home environments that are “fundamentally different”? And if the government really wants to level the playing field fast (are you kidding?) why not just switch tomorrow to having all entrance exams in local languages as well as English? Why change the curriculum and wait 15 years before the playing field starts getting leveled ‘somewhat’? 

As for the SNC being “outstanding” and “as good as any,” how is that claim to be validated? Is the Minister’s word enough when a whole host of experts in education argue that is actually very bad? The eminent educationist, Dr. Tariq Rehman, has this to say: “Let me be blunt for a change: I think this pursuit of sameness in the name of equity and justice is a blunder…. it is a dark alley we are entering. I hope I am wrong but this is my honest opinion.” 

This is a dire warning based on sober reflection and spoken from the heart. It is shared by many others. The only honest resolution of the disagreement is to submit the SNC to a panel of independent experts in early childhood education and to abide by their verdict. The dishonest resolution is to start casting aspersions on the critics and calling them names. But, as we also know from over 70 years of experience in Pakistan, honesty does not come cheap in this country.

The Minister’s narrative makes very sad reading. This tried-and-failed belief, which flies in the face of all evidence, that making everyone think alike is the solution to the very real problems caused by think-alike authoritarian elites squabbling with each other to see who can rip off the most in the least time is intellectually depressing. It is a sign, in the words of the Minister, of “effete intellectualism that does not take into account realities on the ground.”

With this kind of thinking at the top, what is there left to hope for? 

This opinion appeared in The News on September 15, 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.

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Medium of Instruction: Logic and Evidence

September 19, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

In an otherwise balanced critique of the Single National Curriculum (Single National Curriculum is a diversion. Quality and access to education is what matters, Naya Daur, August 26, 2020), Mr. Amjad Nazeer makes some claims about the medium of instruction that warrant a debate. 

The issue becomes clouded by the way he sets up the problematic: “Urdu is proposed by the champions of supra-nationalism, English by the wealthy elite and mother languages by the ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters.” This is tantamount to asserting that the advocacy of a medium of instruction is based on nothing more than the maximization of parochial and selfish group interests?

But is this correct? If so, Mr. Nazeer would be unjustly accused of being a partisan himself for advocating English. It would mean that the years of research on the efficacy of the first language as the medium of instruction for early childhood education, especially in the multilingual European Union, is the work of “ethno-nationalist stalwarts and dissenters.” But if that is true, one could ask why the Mother-Tongue-plus-Two [languages] formula has been adopted by the EU. 

The sensible and unbiased approach to this issue is to set aside all the partisan interests and to rely solely on the evidence that has accumulated on the role of language in early childhood education. That should be the overriding determinant: What does the evidence say?

Mr. Nazeer does not provide evidence for his claims. He says, for example, that “It is quite clear that learning exclusively in Urdu or mother languages leaves students behind economically” without elucidating how that is clear. The causality might well run the other way — only the economically well-off might be able to attain the fluency in English required for success. He also says that “At the same time, English language emancipates from class oppression and tribalism too” without offering proof in support of such a major claim. A striking counterexample is the persistence of racism in the USA despite universal access to English. Generalizations without credible validation cannot be employed to decide something as crucial as the medium of instruction that impacts the cognitive development of millions of children and thereby the future of the country.

Mr. Nazeer’s recommendation (“Numeracy and scientific concepts should be imparted in English right from Grade I”) is another personal opinion without supporting evidence. He justifies it with a statement of fact that “English today is the source of knowledge, skills and technology.” That is true, but how does it yield the inference that numeracy and scientific concepts should be imparted in English right from Grade I? 

Mr. Nazeer is ahead of many other advocates of English in at least recognizing that the Chinese and the Japanese have become global leaders in science and technology without using English as the medium of instruction for early childhood education. But that overwhelming evidence does not alter his recommendation of English for Pakistan. He dismisses the alternative by asserting that the Chinese and Japanese path would require “spending enormous amount of resources” because all modern and classical knowledge would “need to be translated into Urdu and mother languages (as is the case with countries like China and Japan) which this state is not willing to do.”

Leaving aside the fact the local languages are only being considered for teaching in the early grades, Mr. Nazeer is being unduly accepting of the state. Instead of citing the advantages of early childhood education as demonstrated in China and Japan (and not just these countries) and advising the state to pay heed, he is reconciled to a terrible second-best solution. This is like saying that since the state is unable to provide clean water to poor people, we should teach the latter how to boil water instead. Such a stance is hard to justify when the future of children is at stake.

Even without perusing the evidence, it can be argued that the solution proposed by Mr. Nazeer is impractical. Having himself cited the terrible quality of teachers in the country’s public schools, he believes that children taught in English by such teachers would be able to compete with the children of the elite simply on the basis of their knowledge of the language. This is hard to accept. One could hope that the quality of teachers would be improved, but on what basis? Will the same state that is not willing to translate knowledge into Urdu upgrade the skills of the teachers, something it has not done for seventy years? What will happen to the politics of patronage?  Experience negates such an expectation. 

It should be recognized that with the state’s abdication of responsibility for the welfare of citizens, the onus for a redressal of the blight of inequality is on civil society. It is virtually impossible to get the state to allocate adequate resources for the betterment of citizens whether it is education or health or public transport. But with enough public pressure, it could be forced to yield progressively to leveling the competitive playing field. One should accept the reality that in the existing circumstances it is not possible to raise competence in English of the majority to that of the elite. It might be less impossible to make the elite compete on the wicket of the majority by mandating all competitive examinations in local languages as well as in English. Successful candidates can then improve their English, if needed, as they do in China,  Japan and many other countries

The medium of instruction matters because it is claimed that it affects a child’s ability to learn. In this context it is important to recognize that the first language is ‘acquired’ naturally by exposure to the social environment and not ‘learnt’ in a classroom. It is argued that children think most easily in their first language and use it to negotiate their world with confidence and assurance. This natural ability is then leveraged to learn other things, including new languages, in a structured format. Starting in a language other than the first language(s) (they can be more than one) can shatter a child’s confidence and cripple his or her ability to learn. But a confident and cognitively enabled child would have no difficulty learning new languages if he/she needs to at a later age just as young inductees into the Foreign Service learn new languages in their twenties. Note that the aim of the advocates of teaching English in Pakistan is utilitarian and not the acquisition of near-native fluency needed to produce high literature. For a concrete illustration of the process described above, imagine the impact of starting the education of a child from Naran in Chinese which is arguably the language of the future. Why is that any less absurd than starting it in English?

So, the question should boil down to this: What is the most effective language to promote the cognitive ability to learn in early childhood? All policy must be based on the answer to this question. And this question has been answered repeatedly by educationists based on meticulous research: It is the first language. 

This evidence dates as far back as 1953 when UNESCO declared that “every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue.” In 2016, as part of its Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO repeated the message: “To be taught in a language other than one’s own has a negative effect on learning.”

Empirical studies started appearing in the 1970’s. A pioneering study in Nigeria in 1970 demonstrated unequivocal results: “children taught in their mother tongue simply did better than those who were taught in English.” Since then, such studies have been replicated many times with similar results.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it is not acceptable to keep repeating the assertion that we would be left behind without beginning to teach in English from Grade I. In fact it is quite possible that we are being left behind precisely because we insist on starting teaching in English in Grade I. A former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training in India has pointed out “a bit wearily” just how “water-tight” the academic consensus is on the matter. “This is a heavily researched area for decades now,” he said. “It’s so obvious a point that it really can’t be debated. Mother tongue is the best place to start a child’s education.” All this evidence cannot be plausibly attributed to ethno-nationalists and dissenters.

Many partisans turn this policy debate into a false confrontation between English and local languages. This just diverts attention from the real issue. There is no binary choice involved. Early education in the first language is good for the cognitive development of the child which should be all that matters. Once the ability to learn is acquired, the child can learn other languages as needed as is done in China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and countries of the EU. As mentioned before, there is conclusive research that children educated in their own language learn English better than those who were made to start with English in Grade I.

We owe it to the children to argue this policy on the basis of the best available evidence without questioning the motivations of those engaged in the debate. 

For more details on the evidence cited, see the following:

Why is India obsessed with English-medium education – when it goes against scientific consensus?” Shoaib Daniyal,, August 6, 2020.

On English-medium education, India is having the same debates it did 200 years ago.” Shivakumar Jolad,, August 22, 2020.

What is the best age to learn a language?” Sophie Hradach, BBC, October 26, 2018.

This opinion was published in Naya Daur on September 13, 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.

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