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Rethinking education

Education must foster critical thinking and encourage innovation

September 24, 2023


he news of students aspiring to become doctors using spy gadgets to pass the college admission examination is a symptom that our education has failed to inculcate moral values in young minds.

It’s a curious situation we find ourselves in. We seem to have produced a novel variant of artificial intelligence. How did we achieve this?

Probably by turning our prized human resource into entities that worship rituals more fervently than a computer clings to its binary code.

It appears that our education system is producing a vast number of graduates who function more like memory chips than vibrant and creative young minds. Remember the days when artificial intelligence was about machines emulating human thought and behaviour? Now comes a flip.

Our students are now trained, especially at the secondary and higher secondary levels, to improve their grades by cramming every tidbit of information without understanding its essence. This is crucial. Otherwise, they won’t secure spots on the merit lists.

It’s as if we’re preparing them for a grand Memory Olympics, where the one who spews out the most information (whether relevant or not) wins.

But this is not happening at schools alone. The CSS system, which mints bureaucrats whose mechanical wisdom is considered more enlightened than academics and research scientists, is another example. It’s like somebody comparing a basic calculator with a supercomputer and concluding, “This calculator—yes, this one that can only add and subtract—is the future.”

In our universe, these ‘calculators’ preside over symposiums across various spheres of life, policy and academic decision-making, armed only with their knowledge of addition and subtraction.

Let’s not ignore our universities, presumably the bastions of knowledge production and transfer. Many have turned into degree factories, churning out certificate after certificate. Their logic apparently goes like this: more students mean more revenue.

It’s almost like a software update where the only ‘update’ is a number change. The core software remains as glitchy as ever. Our universities thus mass-produce potential recruits for the vast army of the unemployed. Why seek alternative income streams when you can simply admit more students?

Our students are conditioned to seek jobs, not create them. They’re being prepped to fit into the cogs of a machine rather than design a machine.

Courses that should be the bedrock of any educational institute, have become laughably ‘theoretical’. The emphasis is on awarding degrees rather than imparting skills. It’s like giving someone a driver’s licence because they can name all the car parts even if they have never actually driven one. What’s the point? We’re preparing students to tackle the world with a toolkit full of outdated, irrelevant tools. It’s like trying to fix a modern spaceship using only a hammer and some duct tape. Soon, they’ll be setting forth into the world, as ill-prepared as a sailor venturing into a storm with nothing but a paper boat and a teaspoon for bailing water.

Our pedagogic paradigms have one clear message for students: strive to be an employee. Entrepreneurship? What’s that? Is that a software update we missed?

Our students are conditioned to seek jobs, not create them. They’re being prepped to fit into the cogs of a machine rather than design machines. In fact, we might soon witness the inauguration of a new course titled “Advanced Human Programming 101”, where creativity and innovation are described as ‘bugs’, not features.

It’s high time for a reboot; but not of our ‘computers’ or AI projects. We need to reboot the way we perceive education. We’re in dire need of an educational overhaul, one that places value on rationality, logic and learning rather than rote memorisation and ritualistic adherence to outdated norms.

It is quite obvious who is winning in our ‘humans vs computers’ charade. The machines, with their evolving algorithms, are becoming more human-like. The humans, especially in our educational paradigm, are becoming more machine-like.

We must foster an environment where genuine learning and critical thinking are celebrated and the education system encourages students to explore, inquire and innovate rather than channelling their energies into outsmarting the system through dubious means. They should shun the role of mere memory chips, embracing instead their capacities to be thinkers, creators and change makers, shaping a future that resonates with the boundless potential of human intellect and creativity.

Imagine a world where we are not competing with machines but collaborating with them to forge a rational ever-evolving society.

The writer holds a PhD in sociology of knowledge from the University of Paris-Saclay, France. He is an associate professor at the School of Sociology at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He can be reached at isabirqau.edu.pk