Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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

POVERTY AS A HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERN

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrmP5B5b_tY

University of California at Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies

September 8, 2014

HOW TO (REALLY) FIX PAKISTAN’S EDUCATION SYSTEM

Cornell University, College of Art, Architecture and Planning

September 16, 2014

PERSPECTIVES ON SMALL CITIES IN PAKISTAN

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7ZB_Lc1361BRjF5dTBFVUNaX28/view?usp=sharing

(More easily viewed here in two parts):

Part 1 – https://vimeo.com/113369496
Part 2 – https://vimeo.com/113369495

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC

September 24, 2014

PAKISTAN’S LONG MARCH: REFLECTIONS ON THE ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTS IN ISLAMABAD

http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/pakistan%E2%80%99s-long-march-reflections-the-anti-government-protests-islamabad

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

BUNYAAD KUCH TO HO

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxvHekn5mLxeOS1raFZReTdwSEU/view?usp=sharing

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.

Well!

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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Policy: Prescription, Analysis and Hot Air

April 24, 2013

There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste.

I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education.

So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah.

There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country. (more…)

‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique

April 25, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided.

While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration. (more…)

Craving Middleness

April 8, 2012

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. (more…)

A Letter from the Dean

April 4, 2012

Dear Students,

With this letter I would like to formally introduce myself to you as the incoming Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law (SHSSL) at LUMS. I see my mandate as one of supporting the mission of the university – to make your stay here a life-changing experience. I am taking this opportunity to share my views on the role of SHSSL in the fulfillment of this objective.

Think about this. Our lives are characterized by a series of choices. But how do we know if we have made a good choice in any particular situation? The alternatives can appear to be different depending on whether we evaluate the choice in an economic, political, sociological, legal or ethical perspective. Should we care more about efficiency or fairness, trust emotions more or reason, value more the present or the future, put more store on reputation or on wealth, assign more importance to ends or to means? (more…)

Ten Thoughts on Afridi’s Remarks about Indians

April 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Shahid Afridi’s perceptions of Indians and India are now common knowledge. On the way out of the airport returning from Mohali, he said: “I can’t understand the approach of people, why we are against India? Why there is so much hate for India when we have Indian dramas played in every home, our marriage celebrations are done in Indian style, we watch all Indian movies then why to hate them?” A couple of days later, he said: “In my opinion, if I have to tell the truth, they will never have hearts like Muslims and Pakistanis. I don’t think they have the large and clean hearts that Allah has given us.”

Given the short half-life of such episodes much of the hullabaloo has disappeared. It is time now to move beyond scoring points and to see if some more interesting aspects can be uncovered. In that spirit we present ten thoughts for comments and discussion. (more…)

“Helping the Poor”: The Idea, the Reality and the Shadow

February 22, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Between the idea and the reality, Eliot wrote, falls the shadow. The phrase is so well known as to be almost cliché, but as with many clichés, there is truth to it. There is universality, too – the metaphor could extend to many areas; there are shadows everywhere. Foreign aid, for example: there is the idea and the reality, the theory and the practice, the intent and the execution.

The theory of foreign aid is simple enough: If those lacking capital and technology and ideas were provided with such, they could be launched on the path of progress. In practice it has rarely ever worked like that – there is more to the equation than capital and technology and ideas.

There is the shadow that falls between the theory and the results, a shadow full of objectives stated and unstated, incentives of this party and that (and, of course, their representatives, who develop in the end their own interests, their own goals, their own shadows) – all this, more often than not, causing enough distortions for the reality to mock the idea.

This happens not only in foreign aid, but in any transaction where one party has advice or help or assistance that the other desperately needs, when negotiations are not equal, when representatives of each come with their own axes to grind. Consider the shadow now visible between the idea and the reality of sub-prime mortgage lending: the unstated objectives, the incentive distortions, the regulatory winks and nods, the quick fix to keep the game going for at least one more round. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, who had little to do with foreign aid, was astute enough to realize the pitfalls. Based solely on her observations of how federal assistance was implemented in low-income areas of American cities, she remarked in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.”

Much of this has been obvious for years to those in the aid and lending communities who have kept their eyes and ears open; what has eluded us is that blinding insight that lays it all bare, the kind of insight that comes most often from literature. As literature identified the existence of the shadow, it was literature again that unraveled its nature. Theodore Dalrymple has written an account of the writer Rhys Davies (1901-1978) whom he has called the Welsh Chekhov. I can’t vouch for that since I haven’t yet read Davies but I intend to, especially the story that illuminated for me the shadow of foreign aid – “I Will Keep Her Company,” published in The New Yorker in January 1964.

The story, in Dalrymple’s words, concerns a couple in their eighties, living in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills and snowed in. The old woman has died and the husband, refusing to acknowledge her death, is staying by her bedside. There is in the story a district nurse assigned to the care of the couple:

Meanwhile, Nurse Baldock has geared up a rescue operation involving a snowplow, a van, and a helicopter. She is, as her name seems to suggest, conscientious and bossy and, having completed a diploma in social studies in her spare time, believes herself entitled to a promotion. She had visited Evans a few days previously, when his wife had just died, and was prevented from removing the body by the snow. Now she is returning, determined to get his agreement to leave for the old-age home. When she finds him dead, she utters a bitter yet self-satisfied recrimination:

“This needn’t have happened if he had come with me, as I wanted six days ago! Did he sit there all night deliberately? . . . Old people won’t listen. When I said to him, “Come with me, there’s nothing you can do for her now,” he answered, “Not yet. I will keep her company.” I could have taken him at once to Pistyll Manor Home. It was plain he couldn’t look after himself. One of those unwise men who let themselves be spoilt by their wives.”

In a few pages, with a highly sophisticated simplicity, Davies arouses emotions and thoughts as impossible to resolve into full coherence as life itself. John Evans’s death is both tragic and a triumphant final expression of the love that gave his life meaning; we oscillate between sorrow and joy, between discomfiture and reassurance, as we read. As for Nurse Baldock, she encapsulates the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism that is the modern welfare state. Rationally, we cannot refuse to endorse the efforts to rescue Evans; it would be a terrible world in which his predicament evoked no response. At the same time, we know that these efforts are not only beside the point but, at the deepest level, incapable of being other than beside the point.

There it is: The Evanses are the recipients, Nurse Baldock the donor, “encapsulat[ing] the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism” that is the modern aid enterprise. Her judgments of John Evans echo the familiar comments of the aid executive – poor people “won’t listen,” “men [have] let themselves be spoilt” by their unwise ways. If only he had heeded her advice; if only poor countries would follow the instructions given to them by the well-intentioned donors.

The notion of “helping the poor” is a noble one, but it comes with this shadow that falls between people, states and their citizens, donors and recipients, between individuals and representatives, and this shadow grows darker and deeper as we try to pretend that it is not there, that it can be fixed with one quick step (always one quick step, just to keep us going for the next round).

Perhaps the story offers another insight as well. Nurse Baldock, with her plow and her van and her helicopter, her diploma in social studies, the full weight of the state behind her, is immeasurably more powerful than a weak, devastated, poor old man. Of course to her it is simple; she knows what is right, she knows what he needs far better than he himself could. But what if Nurse Baldock could meet John Evans as her equal?  What if she could try, instead of helping him by force, to engage with him? In this light, might the shadow finally begin to fade?

Theodore Dalrymple’s article (The Welsh Chekhov) can be accessed here.
Nurse Baldock is reincarnated as Lucymemsahib in our fellow panelist, Samia Altaf’s book (So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan) forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2011.
For more on foreign aid on this blog, see:
Should Pakistan Receive More Foreign Aid?

How to Aid the Health Sector in Pakistan
Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

 

 

Education: The Myth of the Market

December 18, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

 

Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English).

I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population. (more…)