Human civilization has not always entertained the idea of universal education. Indeed, it has only been in the last three hundred years or so that some societies undergoing substantive social and political changes developed an imperative to put all children into schools and keep them there for a stipulated period. This decision to educate everyone was not taken lightly and involved protracted debates and political struggles. The development of common schools was part of a fundamental change in the ways in which those societies were governed.
However, in most postcolonial countries, including Pakistan, the idea of common education was not an indigenous development. Rather, it was a by-product of the changes taking place in the Western societies. Education in the postcolonial countries assumed some of the features of western education enterprise but not its purposes.
The crash landing of Pakistan, in particular, into the club of nation-states did not allow enough time to properly shape itself up as a state that relied on education instead of crude coercive power to govern its population. It inherited a political and social elite with a fairly narrow conception of the purposes of education. So what we routinely call the failure of public education in Pakistan is hardly that. It is, in fact, successful maintenance of a centenarian status quo. Let us attempt to understand this point with reference to the historical development of education elsewhere.
The advent of modernity involved development of a different type of state in which the power was cut loose from its traditional concentration in the body of the sovereign and diffused into several formal institutions. The development and preservation of this new state were dependent on the production of a whole new type of human subject, the so-called citizen.
Through very historically specific processes in modernizing societies, citizen came to be defined as more or less a religiously neutral category. An individual could have a religious or racial identity, but his or her rights and obligations as a citizen of the state, in theory at least, were the same as any other citizen. Another feature of citizenship followed from a sharp distinction between the public and private spheres. Almost everything that had to do with citizenship was in the public sphere. When people acted as citizens, they acted in the public sphere, in public spaces, using public processes and mechanisms, and toward public ends.
Education was supposed to inculcate and nurture the faculties to act usefully in both public and private spheres. Thus, it was to develop as both a public and a private good.
The citizenship, in particular, was not a natural endowment. People are not born with a clear sense of their political and social associations with a larger community. They are educated into these bonds. Look around for insurgencies against the states across the world and you will not fail to notice the absence of functional citizenship education in those states.
The 19th century American advocate for common education, Horace Mann, was right on the dot when he said: "The mobs, the riots, the burnings, the lynching, perpetrated by the men of the present day, are perpetrated, because of their vicious or defective education, when children…If we permit the vulture’s eggs to be incubated and hatched, it will then be too late to take care of the lambs."
Common education was seen by its advocates as indispensable for stability, security, and, hence, preservation of the society. Thus, the purposes of state for assuring a common education were anything but charitable. Children did not have the right to education. It was a parental obligation to enroll children in schools. This element of coercion in common education is one reason the rights-based approach does not fit very well in the discourse on universal education.
Citizenship had to be carefully nurtured through the process of education. The state had a stake in the production of citizens. It, therefore, also had a stake in the processes responsible for the production of citizens.
In developing an understanding of the purposes of education, we should also consider the ideas related to economics of national progress and competition between the nation-states. The emerging nation-states were not just political entities. They were also seen as independent but interrelated economies. In other words, they were political economies. They had a political system to be preserved and an economy to be expanded indefinitely. As such, they needed more than merely a citizen participant in the political life of the state.
Therefore, education focused on production of citizen-workers equipped with the knowledge and skills to participate in the political and economic lives of the society. The idea of a modern curriculum responded to these needs by creating a wide range of school subjects.
Efficient production of citizen-workers also entailed development of knowledge about the children. Some scholars argue that the development of modernity involved reconceiving childhood with its various stages together with the methods of intervening in those stages in order to develop a child into a desirable adult. It became the task of the budding psychological and educational sciences in the 19th century to understand and manipulate the human mind. The schools were the sites where knowledge about children and learning was applied to act on children, to chisel and mould their subjectivity, in order to achieve curricular aims.
To cut to the chase, in the societies where modernity was an organic growth of sorts resulting from internal struggles, and where the idea of nation-state and citizen developed in tandem with each other, common or universal education had a much more substantive basis. Education was seen as vital to the development and preservation of modern nation-states. This state exercised its power on the populations through education. It produced its writ through education. A vast system of institutions came into being to support the process of education. Contrast this with educational developments in Pakistan and you will find yourself reflecting on the very assumptions about the nature of state in our country. Let us take the clock back to British India. Public education in British India was introduced to serve a different set of objectives than the one’s mentioned earlier in this article.
While maintenance of stability and security was an objective of education in British India, it was not to be achieved through constitution of citizens but subjects of British Empire. While there may have been differing motivations for its public provision, the one that has been acknowledged as the most dominant was the instrumental use of a highly differentiated education system to facilitate the colonial government of a disparate polity.
Different kinds of education(s) targeted different social classes in British India, reinforcing distinctions between people along linguistic and socio-economic lines. An important way in which power differential was experienced in India was through linguistic exclusion. This was accomplished by immersing Indian elites in English. Education in the "vernacular" became the preserve of the commoners. British government subsidies, for education of the elite, were welcomed by segments of the population that benefited from such support.
Colonial state borrowed some features of modern education. However, public education was not designed to serve the same purposes as education at home. In the colonies, modernity touched the lives of only a few and it did so mainly through linguistic exclusion. Governing the population in the colonies did not need to depend on mass education as much as it was on symbolic and actual use of force and coercion.
The independence from British rule did not result in the arrival of a nation state created perfectly in the image of an ideal nation-state. The rhetoric of the new state was in perfect correspondence to its aspirations as a nation-state. But its practice was far from it. Its technology of government continued to depend on a policy of linguistic exclusion. In theory, it was made up of citizens. In practice, it continued to maintain the relationship that subjects had with the representatives of the Empire.
The status quo has been successfully preserved to this date. None of the existing techniques of government in Pakistan requires production of citizens who are aware of their rights and responsibilities. In fact, such aware citizens are anything but a nuisance to the state.
The recent trend of complaining about declining public schools and eulogizing the private sector schools do not factor in these basic facts of our history. Education workers keep making flawed assumptions about our country’s nature as a state when complaining about declining public schools.
Little do we realise that reforms of public sector schools require robust political voice and engagement. But when our political elite speaks of reforms in public education it is to merely repeat to an international gallery of observers that they are political representatives of a modern nation-state. When it comes to doing something about improving our schools they have always been more than eager to leave them at the mercy of the "invisible hand of the market."