Monday July 22, 2024

Language of instruction

By Anjum Altaf
October 09, 2020

Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled.

This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged – to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence, there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit.

This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse – none of which can bear the weight of evidence. The first pertains to the wonders that would result from packing even more religious content in the school curriculum. It cleverly manipulates societal values while ignoring evidence that religious education is not correlated at all with any indicator of development and not even with the value of goodness itself. The outcome of the Zia experiment should be sufficient to dispel the myth.

The second myth is that a single national curriculum (SNC) would yield an equal, stable, and peaceful society. There is no example in history of a mere school curriculum yielding such lofty dividends. As it is, the lack of any serious commitment to the goal of equality is evident at the outset by the retention of schools that can bypass the SNC. Add to that the fact that instability in the country is almost entirely the outcome of conflicts between elites educated in the same schools under the same curriculum. That should be enough to expose the emptiness of the claim.

While the aim of the SNC – dumbing down the population the better to perpetuate the rule of Brown Englishmen – cannot be camouflaged from any serious analyst, there are among the critics some who believe that teaching everyone in English, even under an SNC, can level the playing field and enable the masses to compete with the elite. Their efforts are thus diverted into a blind alley giving the SNC a free pass. Once again, there is no evidence from history of such an outcome from everyone learning in the same language. The US is the most striking example of the fallacy of such a belief.

On the other hand, so much evidence has accumulated over decades that the languages spoken at home are the best for a child’s early education that one must wonder what is going on in the minds of the proponents of English as the language of instruction. On what basis can they argue for the proposition in the face so much evidence, both from controlled research studies and from direct experience of countries teaching in their own languages?

All I can think of is that this is a manifestation of a perverse contrariness – because the elite’s children are taught in English, why should the common people be deprived of that privilege? This ignores completely the welfare of the child. The elite is the elite not because it can speak English but because it was either born or has bought its way into privilege.

Even a cursory probing of Pakistan’s ruling class would reveal that speaking English has no correlation with superior wisdom. The proponents of English are prepared to sacrifice the intelligence of their children to satisfy a strange sense of envy. This ‘English Revolution’ – snatching English from the aristocracy – would be our non-violent equivalent of the French Revolution. I wonder what Gandhi would have to say of this approach to gaining equality.

The other explanation relies on Khaled Ahmed’s distinction between Urdu as the language of ‘emotive walwala’ and English of ‘reasoned discourse’ on the basis of which he favours the latter as the language of instruction. Going by this hard-to-accept hypothesis, I can only conclude that the proponents of English, although educated in the language, continue, naoozubillah, to think in the vernacular.

The solution might then be to aim for native fluency in English so that everyone can actually think in it and has no need at all to be held back by the malevolent burden of native languages. What a pleasure it would be to see our ministers transforming into little Shakespeares.

The evidence on what is the best language of instruction for a child is overwhelming and considered settled. Any critical engagement that does not feel compelled to take sides would arrive at that conclusion. What remains of interest is to figure out why there are people who are still not swayed by the evidence and think it is a subject on which they can start from first principles with their prejudices as the point of departure.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social

Sciences at LUMS.