Education: Imran Khan's false promises won't help

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Zero attention was paid to recent news which, in many a country, would justifiably have been cause for panic. But in Memogate obsessed Pakistanno military or civilian ruler – or any normally loquacious TV anchor – has yet commented upon the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Released
one week ago, this damning indictment of Pakistan’s schools shows how badly the country is failing to teach children even the most elementary of skills. For a country with a huge youth bulge and a population growing out of control, the consequences are fearsome.

Painstakingly prepared by a professional team – and helped by 5,000 local volunteers – the ASER report covered 2,599 villages/blocks, 49,793 households, and 146,874 children. It confirms that Pakistani children find it difficult to read any language, or even to do simple arithmetic. Just 40.1 per cent of the 5-16 age group could do two-digit subtraction sums (with carry) whereas a mere 23.6 per cent were able to do three-digit division sums. Only 41.8 per cent could read a sentence in Urdu or their mother tongue (English is a far cry). Far fewer could read a story.

This saddens, but does not shock. About 25 years ago, deeply worried by the poor preparation of our incoming students, my colleagues at Quaid-e-Azam University and I sought to understand the causes and suggest remedies. Pakistan Television invited us to do a detailed 13-part TV documentary series that explored important aspects of education. In these nationally-viewed programmes, students and teachers came before our cameras, and we visually examined the curriculum, textbooks, teaching of history and science, teacher education, examinations, etc. Today, with much sadness, we learn from the ASER data that the situation has worsened over a quarter century, not improved. The question is: why?

To blame corruption and a particular government is easy but wrong. Many governments have come and gone without making much difference. Corruption, though widespread, is also not central. It has not prevented Pakistan from having reasonably good hospitals, a national airline that still manages to fly, and an ever-improving network of roads. No particular vision of the world (read, ideology) is needed for building roads. But for building
education, and its institutions, it’s a different story.

Murray Gell-Mann, the famous physicist, described education as the “cultural DNA” which is transmitted between generations. As such, schooling is all about building minds for a future society. That society would, of course, have to have the desired normative values. So, here is the rub: the modern education needed for modern times cannot do without the ideology of progress. Pakistan’s failure to create a viable education system is not primarily because of poor administrative practices or corruption, but an idea system unsuited for modernisation. So when Imran Khan and the PTI proclaim that they are going to revolutionise education after rolling into power, one must first ask what they mean by “education”.

My first exposure to Khan’s vision was in 1996 when he convened a private meeting at his Lahore residence. He said he wanted our help to bring about
an “education revolution” in Pakistan. Three of his six invitees were bearded maulanas. They agreed with the need for revolution, but declared that it could only happen through mosque schools and madrassas. During our noisy three-hour meeting, they ranted against the existing education system as a western conspiracy to secularise Pakistan. One maulana insisted that literacy was worthless without teaching “alif-se-Allah, bay-se-bandooq, jeem-se-jihad”.

The meeting was a total disaster. I was shocked that Mr Khan thought that such primitive views were worthy of discussion. He told me that it was
necessary because we need to have these people on board for the greater good. Years later, one of his invitees, Maulana Ghulam Murtaza Malik, known for extreme sectarian views, was gunned down along with his armed guards by opponents when his Land Cruiser stopped at a traffic light.

One hopes that Chairman Khan has travelled some way since those days. But the signs are not reassuring. His recent autobiography tells us of an evangelical born-again, furiously raging against his “pukka brown sahib” education at Aitchison College and Oxford University. Like most repentant sinners, he is frequently inchoate and contradictory. For example, even as Khan calls for more technology he vehemently assaults the foundations of science and the scientific method. But pragmatism reigns in other places: somehow “seeing the light” did not stop him from sending his children to those very elite schools which,he says, he now despises.

A public can learn to live with leaders with some personal contradictions, provided there are not too many. But what is one to make of Khan’s principal claim that he will introduce one standard curriculum and language for all Pakistani schools? This certainly appeals to all equalitarian sensibilities, and to a country split by an educational apartheid.

But, short of a miracle, this is impossible because Pakistanis live in non-overlapping parallel universes. Just how does Chairman Khan plan to
get agreement on a single religious curriculum in an avowedly ideological state engulfed by bloody religious strife? Fix a single language of instruction in communities fiercely divided along ethnic and linguistic lines? Or make Beaconhouse school students in Karachi study the same materials as those in tribal Waziristan and rural Sindh? Now that Beaconhouse, a chain of high-end schools, is solidly represented in the PTI through Mr Khurshid Kasuri, this will be interesting to watch.

Instead of asking for the moon, Chairman Khan could serve the genuine interests of Pakistan were he to demand that its school system stop spreading sectarian and religious hatreds; stop viewing the people of other countries as their enemies; stop telling lies about our history; stop using wretchedly bad locally-written science and math textbooks; stop rewarding parrot-like memorisation in examinations; and stop tolerating widespread teacher absenteeism.

The PTI’s self-proclaimed “education tsunami” is just a stomach rumble. It shall pass, but not without leaving a bad odor. Its youthful supporters, idealistic but naieve, are being led by the Pied Piper towards disillusionment and disappointment.

Pakistan desperately needs education that produces socially responsible, thoughtful, and well-informed individuals equipped with a mindset that can readily accept the country’s diversity of languages, cultures, and religions. The goal must include imparting a sufficient skill and knowledge level to enable employability and participation in a modern society. Imran Khan’s demagoguery will not deliver this.


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  3 comments for “Education: Imran Khan's false promises won't help

    February 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Seriously … This tsunami thing is getting quite lame now. Except for massive jalsa what the hell is happening … Nothing at all. Its said the civil disobedience was not considered due to the current status of the nation, for crying out loud youll do agitation when everything is hunky dory – this is the time rather it has passed and Mr IK has been played well by the old hogs who want status quo. I am disappointed- dont know about u !

    Mohammad Saif
    February 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Quite True…

    Nothing much happening expect for the fake slogans. The so called public sessions are becoming more crowded, but one reason for this can also be the inclusion of more and famous singers, who provide the warmth to sessions before the speeches start.

    Now that he has some seasoned educationist like Mr. Kasuri with him, he can give an attractive slogan of single education system. But what can when the business strategy of Mr. Kasuri, itself is exactly opposite to it. The best example of it, the curriculum of their one chain Beconhouse and the other one for those who can not afford the Beconhouse i.e The Educators, the Frenchised Chain owned & managed by Mr. Kasuri…..

    One good example of that we can see around us is, of course, of India, where in the southern states e.g. Kerala and Tamil Nadu etc. the government after failing to introduce Hindi as language for education agreed to use local languages and English as medium of instruction. The results are very encouraging which includes a literacy rate of over 90% and numerous good universities in the field of IT, Engineering and Business etc. There is a huge number of these professionals, who are here now in Middle East and earning a big foreign exchange and reputation for their country. In fact, it is said like a joke here that if there was democracy here, then the President of UAE will be from Kerala and PM from Tamil State….

    If we just look back, in 70s and till early 80’s in Middle Eastern countries Pakistanis were known mostly as doctors, engineers or business specialists. If it was told to some of the local here that I’m from Pakistan, they would mostly presume that you are either a doctor, engineer or a business specialist. Sadly now, in the space of one generation, 60% or more who now come here from Pakistan, can hardly even answer the questions, if at times asked by immigration in simple English.

    It is sad that, in his autobiography, Mr. Khan has not talked about one of first speeches, which he made in his home town Mianwali. But people who were present there still remember it and even now sometimes they discuss about it in evening tea meetings, whenever there is news about his new speeches. In short, comparing to size lots of people came in speech. The speech, was not much different from now after 15 years. Afer a 2+ hours of speech, he requested for the cooperation from those present during the meeting. To his misfortune, he asked those present there to say some questions, if any. An old man stood up and asked him, what are your plans for the country and also specially for our town..?? There was silence there for a while and then Mr. Khan replied ” Don’t Worry Baba jee, I’ll make everything right, in a very short period of time, you will see in I made Pakistan World Champion in Cricket, same way I will make Pakistan one of the Best Country in the World.”
    The Old man got real angry on this baseless answer and said ” What you think, being leader of 15 persons and managing a cricket team and leading a country of Crores of people and managing a country is same ? Go away from and don’t come back next time, till you good answer for it.” Mr. Khan was speechless and that was his last speech in Mianwali for quite sometime, till he again earned a reputation by making the SKMT Cancer Hospital and a school in Mianwali.

    We can obviously take good examples from our neighbours, exchange views which can help in none, our coming generations.


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