Posts Tagged ‘Instruction’

Is More Religion the Answer?

April 28, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Religion is always ticking away in the background of almost every issue in Pakistan but there has been a decided uptick in the intensity of instructional fervour in recent days. The thrust is a desperate effort to make Pakistanis more pious in order to achieve the fast disappearing better society of our dreams.

To start off, a committee of the National Assembly passed a bill to make teaching the Quran compulsory in grades 1 through 12 in all federal educational institutions. According the committee chair “the bill is one of the good steps and will benefit students.” The education minister added that “this bill was moved because it was the people’s demand and because it was the need of the hour.” The text of the bill states that “it will make the divine message understood; ensure the repose of society; peace and tranquillity; Promote the supreme human values of truth, honesty, integrity, character building, tolerance, understanding others’ point of view and way of life. It will lead towards spreading goodness and auspiciousness and towards ending chaos and uncertainty.”

Not to be upstaged, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the KPK government placed a front-page announcement in national newspapers that it was ahead of the game as the only province to have already implemented such an initiative. “We are ever-committed to harvesting all-rounder children to fully contribute to our society,” it claimed proudly (Dawn, page 1, March 18, 2017).

The Punjab government, never one to be left behind in matters of righteousness, chimed in with a more modest suggestion. The minister for higher education lamented “We are leaving our religion behind, we are forgetting our culture and ethics. Hence, I have made the hijab compulsory for our women and sisters in colleges.” He added it was his duty to take the step “as it is the duty of every Muslim.” He had also thought through an operational plan: “I have also made a policy for it, if your attendance falls below 60 pc then we will give 5 pc attendance to those girls who wear a hijab.” When the government had second thoughts on the idea, the public prosecutor stepped in to salvage the prestige of the province. He offered to guarantee the acquittal of 42 Christians accused of a crime if they agreed to embrace Islam.

Soon thereafter, the newly-appointed Chief Justice of the AJK Supreme Court announced that prayers had been made mandatory and that the annual increment for court employees would be conditional on the regular offering of prayers, which, he said, would be secretly checked. No doubt we will be hearing soon from the laggard governments of Sindh and Balochistan but the trends seem fairly clear about the direction in which we are headed to make the country more pious.

No one would fail to applaud the desire to improve society. Things are so abysmal that it is difficult to think of a single governmental transaction that is free of fraud and graft. And the state of general morality is so degraded that few are willing to engage in market transactions without first securing a trusted personal connection with the transacting party.

There are two concerns, however. The first is that those pushing for piety are among the more impious. Not even the ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs is spotless. And how transparent is the KPK department of education in appointing people to its own sub-departments? When the dishonest begin pushing honesty, the red flags go up automatically. This could be just another distraction while the loot continues uninterrupted.

Second, we live simultaneously in the age of religion and of science. Where, one wonders, is the evidence on which all these policy proposals are based? On what basis is it argued that Quranic teaching from grades 1 through 12 or wearing the hijab in college would make us more pious? If this is only the belief of some individuals why is that belief getting privileged without any empirical support?

What there is by way of evidence might suggest quite contrary conclusions. At least since Zia ul Haq there has been an exponential increase in religiosity as well as nationalism with the infusion of Islamic and Pakistan studies throughout education but Pakistan has only declined on the corruption index of Transparency International.

The number of mosques per square kilometer has risen steeply to the point that simultaneous broadcasts have rendered azaans cacophonous. The number of mentions of God per hundred words spoken in Pakistani languages is now perhaps higher than in any other language in the world. The number of madrassas has multiplied without any increase in peace or tranquility. Rather, the growth in strife and intra-religious bigotry is there for all to observe.

This evidence suggests that more religion is unlikely to reverse the trends. The reason might be that most people have compartmentalized their behavior into separate compartments for  religion and practical life. This is best exemplified by the apocryphal story of the Pakistani importer visiting China who requested his host to give him spurious merchandise at inflated prices but not to serve him any pork. We see the equivalent at home everyday when bureaucrats and shopkeepers suspend all activities at prayer times only to resume fleecing clients and customers once they return from the mosques.

If this characterization is correct, pumping more religion into the religious compartment will have little impact on behavior in this world. That is because the social system we have validated is one in which all that matters is how rich one is no matter how one has accumulated the wealth. Wisdom, integrity and simplicity have all become the hallmarks of fools and the unworldly.

Religious education with a focus on belief divorced from action is not the same as an emphasis on ethics that guide actions independent of belief. Ghalib articulated this clearly long ago:

nahiiN kuchh subbha-o zunnaar ke phanday meN giiraaii
vafaadaarii meN shaykh-o barhamin kii aazmaa’ish hai

(there is no staying-power in the snare of prayer-beads and sacred-thread
the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin is in faithfulness to principles)

An edited version of this opinion was published in the Express Tribune on 27 April, 2017. The original text is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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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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