Monday April 22, 2024

Education: a proposal

By Anjum Altaf
August 23, 2020

Frankly, the Single New Curriculum is so absurd that one would have to be a masochist to wade through its details. Trust our governments to come up with ridiculous things that are completely without merit but that consume so much time that could be better spent resolving the real issues of real people.

Nevertheless, education is a matter of vital importance and one has to engage if only to prevent our children having done to them in spades what Ziaul Haq did to their parents. That, indirectly, should also tell you where this curriculum is coming from and how brilliant Ziaul Haq’s children have turned out to be.

Let us begin from the beginning and try and figure out what ought to be the concerns of an education policy.

First, and this should be obvious, there is a need to raise the horribly awful standard of school education in the country. In case you doubt my word, ask why Pakistan does not participate in any of the international comparisons of the quality of education across countries? Where do you think it would rank if someone could convince our government to put their system to an open test? Who do you think would rank lower? Want to bet?

Second, and this should also be obvious, there is a need to provide equal access to quality education for all students. It is just preposterous how privilege is transmitted from generation to generation in this country. People fortunate enough to be affluent, by hook or by crook, have been sending their children to the few good schools in the country and, no matter how mediocre, the latter, with the help of quotas when nothing else works, have been filling the positions of power and authority over generations. If in doubt, just look at the calibre of the people in our parliaments and in our cabinets.

Meanwhile, in a country of 220 million people, there are thousands of really brilliant children, many of whom do not even get to go to school. Some I can vouch for as I have personally worked with them. One sat for the CSS twice and failed English each time. There we have it: the biggest single barrier to entry that keeps out the truly talented and lets in the mediocre who have had the money to go to an English-medium school.

You are not going to tell me we have to wait to benefit from all this latent wasted talent till our Single New Curriculum can raise everyone’s standard of English to the point where there will be a level playing field. I will answer that you are either being stupid or dishonest or both.

Do we have to use English as the screen to admit the best candidates or can we not admit the best candidates and give a year-long intensive course in English to those who need it? Don’t we send our Foreign Service inductees to other counties to learn their languages in a year? Why can’t we do the same for English? The answer obviously depends on the definition of ‘best.’ If the best are those who can speak English, then you are happy to adopt that absurd stand because it protects your privilege.

Better yet, why not see language as a means not an end and have all entrance examinations in the language of choice and then see who gets in and who gets left out. What is likely to happen to the quality of the entering cohorts? At the same time, what is likely to happen to the hierarchy of privilege that exists undisturbed in this country in which Independence has only meant the replacement of the White Englishman with the Brown Englishman who, sadly, is not half as good.

And, please, don’t give me all that rubbish about English being the global language and that we will be left behind if we don’t know it. You just reveal your dismal IQ by making that argument. First, we have already been left way behind, despite all the fluent Oxbridge luminaries in our governments and brilliant decision-making bodies that produce documents like the Single National Curriculum.

Second, the Koreans and the Chinese know much less English than we do, teach in their own languages, and are now vying for global leadership. They teach their students English later when they need it. Third, to know English one doesn’t need to emerge speaking it from the mother’s womb. In fact, there is a huge amount of evidence that children do better learning English later if their first language is not English.

But evidence is always ignored when privilege is at stake and all sorts of weird arguments show up when dependence has to be maintained and when contenders to the limited seats of power are to be kept out. Recall that in the American South during slavery, it was a crime for a slave to learn and for a non-slave to even attempt to teach a slave. Our rulers can’t go that far for education as a right is conceded in the constitution and they need the votes but they can do the next worst thing to the serfs – make sure no one learns anything by starving the school system of all resources and, to boot, using the appointments of teachers and principals for distributing patronage.

Are you telling me that our brilliant rulers really do not know how to improve schooling and need to invite Sir Michael Barber on some huge fee to tell them? If they don’t know even this, should they be in charge of the entire country in the first place?

So, what is to be done – given that no one really wants to do anything except divert attention from real issues by letting loose red herrings like the Single New Curriculum? If you really want me to tell you, I would be happy to do so. And I will not charge a fee either because it is not rocket science.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.