Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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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Four Talks and a Funeral

November 9, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

University of Michigan, Center for South Asian Studies

April 5, 2013


University of California at Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies

September 8, 2014


Cornell University, College of Art, Architecture and Planning

September 16, 2014


(More easily viewed here in two parts):

Part 1 –
Part 2 –

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC

September 24, 2014


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

LUMS, Orientation Week

August 28, 2014


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

Now to the funeral:

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

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Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Here was the answer to that question:

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


I had two questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education: Is More Money Good News?

July 9, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

All provinces have increased their budgetary allocations for education and as an educationist I am expected to be pleased by the development. I am not – might we not be throwing more good money after bad?

As an analyst I need to see a credible diagnosis that education is held back by a shortage of funds. I find it curious we have so convinced ourselves of that. There are many countries that started out at the same level of economic development and have done much more with equally constrained resources.

Take just one indicator, the literacy rate among 15 to 24 year old females: Pakistan at 61 percent compares very unfavorably with Sri Lanka and China at 99 percent, Nepal and Bangladesh at 77 percent, and India at 74 percent. It would be hard to argue that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or Nepal were more resource rich than Pakistan.

One might argue they allocated more to education than Pakistan in which case it is the flip side of the equation that is really the more interesting. Given that Pakistan was in the same league as these countries in terms of resource endowments, what prevented it from allocating more to education? What was unique about Pakistan? Were there popular pressures against education? Were political parties opposed to education? Was there no demand for better education?

None of these is a plausible proposition. The only conclusion that holds up is that successive governments, despite much lip service, have actually assigned a very low priority to educating citizens. And this is what shows up in the resource allocation numbers.

Of course, another reason for better outcomes in the countries cited above could be much more efficient utilization of resources. If so, it would point to the serious problem of public sector governance in Pakistan that everyone is familiar with.

The present state of education is akin to a bucket with many holes in its bottom. Pour a hundred Rupees into it and perhaps five will get to where they were intended. This would be a grossly inefficient way of promoting the national interest although it would be a bonanza for all those who would pocket the other ninety five.

A low priority for education and extremely poor governance are major causes for the sorry state of the education sector today. Clearly, more money is not going to have any impact on governance. It is much more likely that the increased allocation would leak away as it has in the past in the form of salaries for unqualified or non-existent staff and for the construction and renovation of schools that exist only on paper.

More importantly, decades of neglect, corruption, misuse, and poor governance have distorted the education system to such an extent that more money might no longer be the most relevant input in its revival. The best analogy here is of cancer – the treatment that works when it is detected early is completely inappropriate when it has ravaged the body.

Once again, it would suffice to mention just one aspect of the non-monetary problems that plague the sector – the content of education. Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world – over 5 million in just the 5 to 9 year age bracket – but what they might be taught is more problematic than whether they are taught at all. Someone rightly said that the educated middle-classes in South Asia are more bigoted than the illiterate masses because they are ‘educated.’

I find nothing in the discussions that convey any sense of systemic thinking about the big issues in the sector. All the focus is on increasing allocations and that, in my view, is putting the cart before the horse.

What is needed is an appraisal of the issues followed by the articulation of a revamped system that passes the scrutiny of credible experts. Only when such a certification is obtained would it make sense to spend any money at all on the implementation.

This brings up the million dollar question: What would trigger the transition to a revamped system that is certified as sound and sensible? What has changed from the past that would ensure this time is different?

For the moment I remain a pessimist. I have yet to see anything that suggests the state is really ready to raise the priority it accords to education. We will be continue to be at the receiving end of lip-service and high-sounding promises.

What is needed to change the dynamic is serious, tangible pressure from citizens. That is the way politics is supposed to work in the age when sovereignty resides with the people.

A look at history might be instructive. In France students had to riot in 1968 to force reform of its outmoded system of education. Columbia University in New York City agreed to changes when students agitated in the same year. More recently, massive student protests in Chile between 2010 and 2012 brought radical change in education on the political agenda.

It is a fact that systems change, more often than not, either when a change is in the interests of the ruling class or when it is forced by pressure from below. Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s education system would reveal its bipolar distribution. There is just enough quality education at the top to accommodate the needs of its tiny elite. There is no pressure from below to improve the rest of the system.

Citizens need to be concerned. Citizens also need to be sufficiently organized to channel that concern in a politically effective manner. Without that there will just be more sweet whisperings in our ears.

 Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 8, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

A more detailed analysis of the political economy of education is here: Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

Useful links to topics on education are here: Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

A proposal for educational reform is here: Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

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