Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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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The Political Economy of the SNC

September 6, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Language, Learning and Logic

July 11, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 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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Mind the Money

April 1, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Leafing through the Sunday Careers section of Dawn I came across a quarter-page Position Vacant advertisement by the U.S. Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) at the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar. I am wondering if readers will find the experience as surreal as I did.

The advertised position is for a driver on a contract basis with a high-school degree and a valid license. A long job description includes the following: application of knowledge of commercial driving and skills in maneuvering a vehicle at varying speeds in difficult situations, such as heavy traffic and inclement weather; the ability to sit and remain alert while driving for an aggregate period of up to 11 hours; and the ability to operate equipment in all types of weather and conditions which include going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and in and around very tight areas.

An online application form is to be requested; only shortlisted candidates will be called for an interview; and no TA/DA will be admissible.

Is this the most efficient and cost-effective way of recruiting a driver? Do all public sector institutions follow this process? Or is this the outcome of the fact that, going by the name of the organization, this is a USAID funded initiative in which the donor’s procurement rules are to be followed without exception and there is more money floating around than anyone knows what to do with?

To me it seems that a call to a local employment bureau or agency would have yielded half a dozen candidates for selection at minimal cost instead of a quarter-page placement in a national English language newspaper, an online application process, in-house shortlisting of candidates, followed by interviews, etc.

Frankly, I found this mindless and immensely wasteful. The most ironic part of the absurd exercise for me was the fact that an organization ready to throw away money in this manner was not prepared to offer any TA/DA to the few shortlisted low-income applicants that it intended to invite from cities across the nation.

I tried to put this use of funds and rule-bound procedure, which makes eminent sense for large procurements or recruitment to senior positions, in the context of three other phenomena that have been on my mind.

First, how do we square it with the super-cavalier attitude being demonstrated towards procurement of billions of dollars worth of equipment and services related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? Almost every project seems to be sole-sourced to Chinese firms. How can these contradictory practices exist at the same time? And, if they do, should we be ultra-careful in the purchase of power plants or in the recruitment of drivers on a contract basis? We seem to be living in an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which anything goes and no questions can be asked.

Second, I keep thinking of things for which we really need money and to which little attention is being paid. As an economist, I keep worrying about the quality of education in the subject and fail to understand how many of the public sector universities in secondary cities have come to be accredited. One can visit the websites of many and find departments with one or two assistant professors with MA degrees responsible for programs offering BA, MA and MPhil degrees and announcing the launch of PhD programs in the near future. Quite a few of these websites have not been updated for years.

This is an act of immense cruelty being inflicted on the students enrolled in these programs which should either be funded appropriately or shut down. Till such time as enough qualified faculty is not available, it would make a lot more sense to pool resources into provincial centres of excellence where graduate training of an acceptable quality can be imparted. As it is, the discipline is in a stage of transition and even the best institutions in the country are having a hard time keeping up with the changes.

Third, there is the question of the very model of centres of excellence that was in vogue in the country years ago and has now resurfaced with new funding from USAID. Is there any evaluation of the centres funded in the previous cycle? Has there been any meaningful output commensurate with the amount of money spent? Could that money have been spent in a more useful manner?

Without such an evaluation, the infusion of dollars into new programs like USPCAS-E can only be expected to result in quarter-page advertisements for contract drivers capable of going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and in and around very tight areas without really arriving anywhere.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 31, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Note: The ad appeared in the Dawn Careers supplement on 12.3.2017 on page 10. A copy can be seen at:

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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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Language and its Functions

March 14, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country.

This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world.

Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province in Pakistan, is also the least developed?

A great deal of similar confusion on language stems from not realizing that it has very distinct functions in society. Take only three that are extremely important in Pakistan today – language as a glue to cement nationhood, as a necessity for participatory development, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Consider nationhood. While it is true that no nation can become stronger just by having a ‘correct’ official language, it does not follow that nationhood cannot be weakened by having an ‘incorrect’ one. For proof, recall the contribution of imposing an ‘incorrect’ language on East Pakistan which not only weakened the nation but split it asunder.

The choice of language to build nationhood needed a lot more thought and discussion in 1947 than it was given. The situation was particularly complex but, as the example of India shows, more intelligent alternatives were available. In any case, this remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process. Citizens can decide whether they agree on a common official language for present-day Pakistan. If not, some other formula needs to be found.

Regarding development, it is hard to imagine socially meaningful progress occurring in a country without an inclusive dialogue. How can there be a shared vision if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that so few understand? Take, for example, the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals that consumed enormous sums in five-star talk-a-thons. How can citizens participate when there is not even a semi-comprehensible translation of the title in any local language? When officials speak in important forums do we want citizens to follow what they are saying? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for official purposes. Whether it should be Urdu or Urdu and other regional languages is again a choice that needs analysis and democratic resolution.

As an educationist, I believe a critical function of language is as the medium of instruction which bears on the cognitive ability of successive generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that this is yet to be addressed seriously in Pakistan borders on criminality as it has impaired the ability of millions whose parents set aside scarce resources hoping to educate their children.

Here the evidence is overwhelming – early learning, which provides the foundation on which later learning is acquired, takes place best in the language spoken in the home. This does not imply a binary choice between one language and another that has become the staple of partisan polemic in Pakistan. The emphasis is on early education which is followed by appropriate changes in the medium of instruction over the years depending on the needs of students.

There is lot to go on for those seeking a rational approach to the issue. Many multi-national countries have evolved bilingual and trilingual sequences for sound school education. In such countries people still manage to acquire good English despite early education in a different language. This should discredit the rhetoric that education in any language other than English would close the door to the modern world. Had this been even remotely true, South Asian countries would have advanced much faster than East Asian ones.

It is important to realize that education in Pakistan, like in many developing countries, is a highly contentious ideological and political issue. Its problems, largely of content and pedagogy, are not amenable to technocratic remedies but confusion on the importance of the medium of instruction does little to help.

We need vigorous, open, inclusive, and participatory discussion on the issue of language followed by democratic decision-making. It would help towards this end to separate the various functions of language and be open to the possibility that each might call for a different formula and compromise.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 13, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Which Language Should We Choose?

March 12, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points.

Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart.

Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be improved by flipping from English to Urdu or vice versa. Change can happen only when education is seen as a means for opening minds rather than an instrument of ideological control.” No one will dispute the claim that opening minds is critical but that has more to do with the content of education and pedagogy than language. Even so, the question of which language would be more effective in opening minds in Pakistan, provided the intent is there, does not become irrelevant.

In this connection, the author himself states that “Using different mixes of bilingualism and even trilingualism… has enabled some [former colonies] to develop a better education for their young. Pakistan has not.” Clearly, if Pakistan were to emulate these countries, it would have to decide what mix of languages it would need.

Some of these contradictions have arisen because the author has not addressed separately the three quite different functions of language – as a means to cement nationhood, as a mode of communication between the rulers and the ruled, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is quite right that “nation-building needs more than a common language” but at the same time one cannot dismiss the functional need for an acceptable common language in a nation. It was indeed impossible to find one in 1947 but today, as the author points out, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca. This remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process – citizens can decide whether Urdu can serve as the common language of Pakistan. If not, some other formula would need to be found.

Regarding communication, it is hard to imagine that real development can occur without being inclusive. How would we progress to a shared dialogue and vision for the country if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that “fewer and fewer people speak and understand”? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for “official and other purposes.” The fact that “English stayed” is to be taken seriously as a failure to include citizens as full partners in the business of the country.

The most critical aspect of language is its function as the medium of instruction because it bears on the cognitive ability of new generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that it is yet to be addressed in Pakistan does not lessen its importance. Here, the author himself states that “Early learning happens fastest in the mother tongue, and only the tiniest fraction of Pakistanis speaks English at home.” How then can one be indifferent to the importance of having a ‘correct’ language policy for purposes of education?

It is a bit odd when the author goes on the state: “So go ahead and change the language to the ‘right’ one. You might get a 10 pc improvement at most.” The author does not clarify what the improvement would be in but whatever it may be, in a country of close to 200 million people a 10 pc improvement is not something that can be discounted so readily.

I am fully aware that Pervez Hoodbhoy, like many others, is frustrated by what is being taught in schools and the manner in which it is being taught. This is a contentious political and ideological struggle which does not make the choice of language irrelevant. In fact, even if nothing else changes, the use of languages more easily understood by those being educated would be a step in the positive direction.

In this context, one can subvert the author’s claim that “A parrot singing in Urdu or Sindhi understands no more than one who sings in English.” True enough, but for listeners it would be much easier to distinguish sense from nonsense if the parrot were singing in Urdu or Sindhi rather than in English.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 11, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Two Conversations

April 20, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics.

The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance.

I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one point in time could have negative effects later. In any case, I did not feel the attempt would have convinced my companion to rethink his position.

This was a frequently encountered conversation. The preference for a strongman brooking no nonsense and getting things done seems deeply embedded in the segment of society represented by my companion.

What surprised me more was an exchange a few days ago in Karachi with an Ivy League alumnus holding a post-graduate degree. I found my host bubbling over with unusual excitement to the point that I was left with no choice but to enquire as to its likely cause. It turned out that on the way home he had noticed the sudden disappearance of all the road barriers that had fractured the city over the preceding years.

Road barriers

My host could now venture wherever he wanted. It was magic. It had never happened before. For the first time someone had delivered. And, think of it, only someone with ‘real’ power could deliver in such a fashion. Perhaps the really powerful had had a change of heart, perhaps they had seen the light. Perhaps, if they now turned their attention to water, gas, electricity, health, education, we would achieve the nirvana for which the country had been founded.

The number of perhaps were too many for my comfort and it was hard, try as I did, to restrain myself. I advised caution, pointing out that all diligent analyses of politics in Pakistan had established beyond reasonable doubt the negative impacts of strong-arm interventions with consequences that had brought us to the point from where recovery seemed all but impossible.

I have to report I was unsuccessful in injecting any element of doubt in the celebration. Hope triumphed over the evidence I could muster and I was left feeling bad at diluting the euphoria emanating from one of the few victories that citizens could savor in recent years.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the two conversations. What was it that our citizens wanted be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate? Clearly, outcomes mattered the most – security, justice, recognition of identity, a sense of dignity, access to services, freedom of movement, etc. How the outcomes were attained was not really a dominant concern – the breed of the cat was irrelevant as long as the color was not very obviously red.

The second realization was that everyone seemed convinced in their guts that our democracy was not ‘real’ – a musical chair of knaves – without quite having a sense of what a ‘real’ democracy might be like. Whence the bald juxtaposition of ‘messy’ democracy with the imagined orderliness of a messiah – divinely inspired or backed by arms.

Finally, I was struck by the episodic nature of our political analyses with comparisons based on discrete snapshots over time – Ayub Khan’s days being the best, for example. The sense that decisions in one period could impact or constrain choices later seemed striking by its absence. Every period was judged solely by what occurred within it.

What prevents a dynamic view of politics for people who seem to have no difficulty with understanding continuity in personal lives? Do trained professionals offering such political analyses fail to shape public discourse because the audience, further distracted by the predominant in-the-moment frame of TV talk shows, is lacking some essential tools?

I wondered if this might contain a clue to the mystery of why the quality of education provided to the majority remains so poor and why history and political science are excluded from its domain even for those who can afford to attend the best institutions. Is this why those with ‘real’ power, who can place and remove barriers overnight, fail to equip the people with the ability to connect the dots but instead allow the circus of talk shows to flourish without restraint?

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University and was formerly dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on April 19, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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