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July 7, 2015

Neglecting education, hastening decline

Opinion

July 7, 2015

If we pause and consider the pace and nature of Pakistan’s journey into decline, we cannot help but be amazed in the manner our rulers, over the last 50 years, have coupled insatiable appetites for serving personal interests with a cunning contempt for the mass of people they have sought to control, exploit, cheat and mislead – but never truly govern.
The statistics have been thrown in our faces year after year, of imbalanced budgets, wasteful expenditures, disproportionate allocations of the national exchequer, deliberate neglect of key sectors of the economy and entire provinces.
All of this we have witnessed in mute silence along with deteriorating standards of law and order, with increasing incidences of murder, mayhem and thuggery, of naked injustice being exacted on innocent men, women and children. Along this journey, on countless occasions, we have done only what the dispossessed and the powerless can naturally do to survive: we have turned a blind eye to the rot around us, we have abandoned the country, or we have become complicit with the powerful to suit our advantage.
It is only natural that a cold unwavering apathy has finally set in, turning the hearts of most to stone, and which therefore allows us to shrug off murder, violence and social injustice as unavoidable, and to simultaneously indulge in a lunatic optimism of Pakistan’s imminent revival and miraculous progress, beckoning always, it seems, from around the corner, for we are, after all, the chosen people of a chosen land.
If one wishes to understand how this decline has come about, there is no need to look far or search for complex socio-political answers, but only to consider the state of education in our country over the last 50 years. If Pakistan’s rulers, civil or military, have had anything in common it is their unwavering commitment to ensure that national standards of education remain abysmal, with only the minority in the affluent classes capable of accessing

quality education; a minority who, it is certain, will eventually emigrate to escape the vortex of descent that defines our national journey’s end. This commitment to destroy the foundations of education began with Ziaul Haq, through that dictator’s deliberate and systemic decimation of the standards of public education
Zia began first with a silent campaign aimed at reducing Urdu, the language of the masses, to the status of a mere tool for daily personal and transactional communication. He did this by expunging the creative and artistic elements of the language – that embody its literary pantheon and which provide a portal into the shared history of the people of the Subcontinent – from the curricula of public schools. Urdu remained the medium of instruction for science, history and geography and other technical subjects. But with the severe limitations placed on its poetry and prose, history and culture were entirely falsely reconstructed to present a medieval, intolerant and overly religious world-view as our tradition; and owing to the generally insignificant budget allocations to education, technical and vocational subjects taught in Urdu suffered from poor scholarship, dated content and outmoded styles of teaching, as they do to this day.
English, regarded as the language of power owing to our colonial past, was thus the language of government and of business. But it was a poorly taught and neglected subject in the public school system, resulting in the mass of people being deprived of higher education – owing to poor speaking and writing abilities – and therefore being rendered ineligible for the skilled job market. Quality instruction in the English language became the exclusive domain of private schools, which catered only to the middle classes. While these were still approachable by the common man for enrolment till the 80s, over the course of the last two decades private schools are now accessible only by the affluent middle and upper classes. This is not just the product of inflation as most are deceived into thinking, and bears instead the semblance of a deeper conspiracy to limit and confine access to quality education.
Consider that at the time of Partition the University of the Punjab was regarded as the finest institution of learning in all of India. And it was complemented by such other quality educational institutes as the Government and FC colleges in Lahore, and Gordon College in Rawalpindi to name a few. At the primary and secondary level the standard of education was equally high, enabling school graduates to easily qualify for enrolment in the aforementioned colleges and universities.
Learning in all institutions was imparted by the finest scholars of the land at the cheapest cost and was, therefore, accessible by the poorest, both before and immediately after Partition. In comparison even the lower middle classes dare not step within the confines of private schools today, which are primarily business vehicles formed more for profit maximisation, than for any genuine commitment to education; consider in this regard that as a student of the Advanced Levels, my monthly fee in 1992 was a mere Rs1500; I pay ten times that amount per month now for my children who are still in primary school.
Again in the case of private schools, while quality instruction was offered in technical subjects in the English language, Urdu, through years of neglect, began to be regarded as a mere formality by school faculties and as an unnecessary irritant by parents and students. State approved curricula for Pakistan Studies in the English language continued the distortion of the country’s history as taught in private schools, imbuing it with religious overtones, and deceiving the young reader with state propaganda, aimed at cultivating an Islamist, anti-west, anti-minority outlook and in particular, a jingoistic nationalism regarding the events of Partition and our ensuing relations with India.
The decline extended to institutions of higher learning. Today there are only a limited number of universities that offer instruction in specialised fields, and which can boast of standards that would at least enable graduates to access higher education in the west; and these are primarily engineering, accountancy and medical colleges. There are no more than one or two quality liberal arts colleges, and there are certainly no institutions that specialise in history, geography, philosophy, mathematics, economics and the pure sciences that are capable of producing scholars who could compete at the international level. The quality of our scholars at the doctoral level is pathetic, with most having to hire the services of private individuals to not only edit but entirely rewrite and convert basic précis into full form theses.
Investments in education have been reactive and selective at the state level from the 80s to the present day with the only degrees that have been capable of mass access being those in law, economics, engineering, accountancy, IT, business administration, medicine and the civil service. Again the quality of scholarship – barring medicine, engineering, accountancy and perhaps civil service – in each of these professions, owing to the originally weak foundations of basic education, is mediocre.
Perhaps the worst that has come out of all this deliberate neglect in education is the steady erosion in the spirit of critical inquiry, in the eagerness to learn, in understanding the importance of developing an informed opinion through research and study. These qualities remain only with the very young in our country now, and are methodically purged from their personalities by the time they reach adolescence, whereupon they seek only short-cuts to knowledge, success, fame and fortune. It is no wonder then that apathy and ignorance, bigotry and intolerance, superstition and dogma are rampant.
The late Khushwant Singh once commented that an individual’s scholarship is doubtful, unless he can demonstrate a complete command over his nation’s history, its language, its literature and its religion. Having established himself as a journalist, and enjoying material success in that occupation, he nevertheless proceeded in the early 1960s, to validate his scholarship by penning a two-volume history of the Sikhs, regarded by many as a singularly accurate and authoritative scholarly account on the subject, and the equally magnificent biography of Ranjit Singh.
Today most of us fail Khuswhant Singh’s test of scholarship. If dreams of revival and progress are, however, to be realised, if Pakistan is indeed to be rescued from the quagmire it is trapped in, then the powers that be can only be wisely cautioned to take immediate tangible measures to ensure that our coming generations do not continue to fail that test.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kmushir

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