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February 26, 2020

Educating the next generation?

Opinion

February 26, 2020

A TV ad this week seeking students to enter a ‘seven star’ school network in the Punjab highlighted the heart of one of Pakistan’s acutest challenges – the decline of education in favour of material value.

In this background, Sunday’s discussions at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) included a timely one on ‘How to make students read more’. The LLF, now in its eight year, makes a rich annual contribution to the promotion of literacy and knowledge in what is after all the cultural heart of Pakistan – the historic city of Lahore. Entrance to the towering Alhamra complex was free of charge, allowing visitors to engage with some of the world’s most sought after writers.

The cause of widening education and literacy to the grassroots of Pakistan however remains an elusive challenge. Many speakers and participants at the LLF noted Pakistan’s departure from a country with a commitment to knowledge to practically a barren state on matters of education.

It was left to Syed Babar Ali, one of Pakistan’s most respected philanthropists to deliver a timely message; “We depend on the government too much. We have to take responsibility”. His own contributions to the cause of education stand out in the form of a pioneering role to create well known institutions such as the Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) and the Ali Institute of Education in Lahore. Such towering institutions exist in parallel with other world class educational entities across Pakistan such as the Lahore School of Economics, and the Aga Khan University and Habib University, both in Karachi.

But messages for the cause of education have coincided with an ongoing crisis in the quality of government provided social services across Pakistan. The cause of education, as Syed Babar Ali recalled, once saw a network of libraries and book collections thrive even across smaller towns and villages of Pakistan. Clearly, that era has gone by leaving behind a crying need for a robust revival. In this background, at least three principal trends

that have driven down the cause of Pakistan’s education must be urgently reversed.

First, government after government has abdicated its responsibility to the cause of social services including education. This has taken place both in material terms as witnessed by falling budgets and in policy terms as seen with shrinking debates in the national arena on these vital subjects, central to human well being.

Second, Pakistanis across the board appear to have become immune to the sliding standards of education across the country. The seven-star school ad on the TV channel itself bore testimony to the transition, from keeping the spirit of education central to any discussion to material values surrounding physical structures.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that students leaving high school from well-endowed institutions look forward to career entries in Pakistan or entry to colleges outside the country as opposed to graduates of un-endowed schools with few prospects for their future. Meanwhile, declining standards in the shape of many a dismal result following matriculation examinations often fail to impress the mainstream to debate the malaise and collectively demand corrective action.

Finally, the shrinking space for civil society organisations following the application of tough new standards for operations in recent years has clearly caused a dent in their ability to operate across Pakistan. Successive governments have been right in seeking to regulate such entities. But they appear to have endangered the very existence of such structures and their ability to serve at the grassroots of Pakistan.

Going forward, it is important to revive education as an essential plank for reclaiming Pakistan as envisioned by the country’s founding fathers notably Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Unless a robust revival takes place, Pakistan’s ability to emerge from its lacklustre economic performance to a more promising trajectory will clearly fall in doubt.

It’s hardly surprising that the long repeated ambition under one ruling structure after another to lead progress with a sustained high national economic growth has come to naught.

To cite the case of the Asean(Association of South East Asian Nations) countries seen widely as a model of economic success in the developing world, their rise could not have materialized without decent rates of literacy translating in to a wider spread of knowledge. And that success would have certainly not come about through networks of seven-star schools alone.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]