Monday May 20, 2024

Dos and don’ts of uniform education - Part II

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
August 10, 2020

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

In the first part of this article we discussed some of the ‘dos’ that are necessary for a sound and uniform education system such as: do clarify your ‘why’ of education, and develop a rationale about where you want to take your new generations and why.

To recap: do allocate five to ten percent of your GDP to education so that you can spend the required resources to lift up government schools to the level of some of the best private schools. Do furnish your government schools with all the wherewithal on the premises so that your learners have a conducive environment to develop their abilities. Do draft a curriculum that is creative, flexible, and nurtures critical capacity of students. Do equip your schools with properly qualified and trained cadre in education that is enlightened in outlook. But, all this requires resources.

Now, we have a look at some of the ‘don’ts’ that must be avoided if you want to offer a uniform education system. First, don’t eschew some philosophical discussion about what you can count as knowledge and what you discard as the relics of the past. Of course, archaic ideas like archeological sites have their own educational value, but if our educational system ends up producing adults who are overwhelmed by obsolete thinking patterns and their steps in life make us a laughing stock around the world, we must reconsider our priorities; and rather than increase, we must reduce the relics.

This is less about the duration of time students spend on memorization of scriptures or traditions, and more about the plumes of prejudices, religiosity, and sectarianism that hover around in the entire education system. Don’t downplay the threat of toxicity by arguing that it is just a little potion prescribed by some medicine men, and apparently it has remedial effects. Medicine men have also recommended other concoctions and personal totems that cast a shadow over the possibility of having a good education system, be it uniform or diverse.

Don’t think that you can offer a sound education system by developing a single national curriculum, even if it is developed with the help of hundreds of educationists who claim to possess dozens of years of experience in teaching. When an educator says ‘I have 20 years of experience in education’, don’t take it at its face value; ask if it is actually 20 years of experience or just one year experience repeated 20 times. Don’t consider the education system as a monolith and don’t try to plant it without considering the long-term ramifications of what you are doing now.

After 70 years of independence, around half of our population cannot even read or write with ease, and our education system has a lot to do with it. If there is intolerance in our society, that is the result of decades of education in illiberal ideas. If illiberal policies limit freedom of expression at societal level, a single curriculum cannot change that. Don’t promote behaviours that are intolerant and thoughts that are detrimental to a permissive society. Essentially, these are economic and social injustices that blight not only our education system but also our lives and society. Don’t pretend that education has nothing to do with it.

Don’t be reluctant to acknowledge the fact that factions on the right exploit divisions as political, religious and sectarian tools that directly affect education. Even if some educationists studied at Cambridge or Harvard but stand on the wrong side of history, work in tandem with a machinery that is regressive, and think that by making some cosmetic changes education can be revamped, they need to revisit their education. It is the philosophy and sociology of education that can rejig your orientation, just by studying curriculum development you can still have some blind spots; don’t cherish them.

If you want a better education system, don’t inflame a culture of war centred on belligerence and based on chauvinism. It can cancel all the good points that we want to have in our uniform education system. Don’t count on the vigour of your research in education policymaking, if each new policy regurgitates the old one and you are afraid to ask some fundamental questions for fear of annoying the powers that be. If I am unable to point out the basic contradictions in an education system and leave it to constitutional experts, I am more interested in being on the panel rather than calling a spade a spade.

Arguments like these may deprive you of your chance to sit on an exalted seat, but then what is the point of being there and supporting an exercise that is essentially flawed. We have seen too many foreign qualified technocrats in various fields from banking, economics, and education to finance and law who are ever ready to buttress the battlement of an authoritarian system. If you want a better education system, don’t push society towards their vision of inequality of opportunity sugarcoated as uniformity. Don’t duck the question about fairness without which we have a system that rots.

Don’t control or suppress your justified anger over the killing of curiosity in our education system. A rival approach has to emerge from somewhere – albeit not from educational institutions that are a little quiet for obvious reasons. If you want a better education system, don’t reject the culturally and socially liberal notion of progress, even if it has not many buyers in society at present. Don’t forget that our system tends to define everyone by their caste, colour, or creed. Increasingly, our actions are veering towards dogmas propagated through our education system.

If you want a better education system, don’t promote the dominant narrative; rather, encourage dynamic and relentless debates and discussions that may sometimes dispense with the niceties of a harmless discourse. Some arguments supporting the system may appear innocuous but are in fact poisonous. Don’t overlook the fact that bigotry is spreading out of the academy – from both mainstream and seminary – into everyday life. It is supplanting whatever socially liberal and tolerant values we have had in our societies. It promotes intimidation and chokes debate, no matter if you have a modern computer education.

Even if you gather thousands of educationists from Gilgit to Gwadar, don’t be impervious to some valid insights that challenge unjust institutions and practices. In most cases, dominant ideologies do take wrong turns in authoritarian regimes disguised as democracies. Don’t side with those who advance a worldview where everything and everyone is seen through the prism of ideologies steeped in nationalism and religion. The spread of terms such as ‘apostates, blasphemers, heretics, infidels’ promotes fanaticism that overrides all good material in say mathematics and science. Now these terms have entered our boardrooms, classrooms, drawing rooms, and newsrooms.

If you understand this, don’t take a middle way by beating about the bush, rather get to the point. Don’t digress by being indirect and evasive. Circumlocution may help you get a cushy job in education, but you will end up leading research agendas that are warped. Don’t compromise on freely analyzing causes and questioning orthodoxies. Don’t feel ashamed of throwing a tantrum when you see that your government is pumping cash not in uniform education but in trying to do something very well which it should not be doing at all.

To sum up the discussion, we can offer a uniform education to all children by paring back dauntingly expensive policies that have nothing to do with quality education but result in a long-term dampening of children’s creativity and critical thinking. If you keep allowing authoritarianism and conservatism to elbow their way through your education system, they will keep scoring tactical successes which is actually evidence of strategic failure in education.