Education and inequality

September 15, 2019

Among the myriad challenges Pakistan is facing, inequality is one of the most daunting

Education and inequality

That inequalities in Pakistan have been increasing by the day is undeniable. The Institute of Development Research and Corresponding Capabilities (IDRCC) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have done a timely producing a report focusing on inequalities in education sector. It is not only economically unprivileged citizens who face inequalities in education. Even those who are financially well off may face inequality if they happen to belong to ethnic, religious, or sectarian minorities. Among the myriad challenges Pakistan is facing, the challenge of inequality is one of the most daunting.

Amjad Nazeer of the IDRCC is a fighter against inequalities. He has been at the forefront in many a battle for human rights in Pakistan. He is the lead researcher and author of this study titled Education and Inequality: Discerning the foundation of citizenry, published this year. The study is a good addition to the meagre material available on this topic in the country. The foreword has been written by human rights campaigner, IA Rehman. He sets the tone by highlighting that a primary inequality in education is between the affluent and the indignant, resulting in an education system that produces two nations.

Even more disturbing is the inequality on the grounds of belief. This faith-based inequality emanates from our inability or unwillingness to develop shared and non-controversial courses at various levels of education. For example, most textbooks of religious studies foster serious discrimination against non-Muslim students and teachers. To a great extent, education in Pakistan has become a tool to promote parochialism and ethno-religious biases that have created deep fissures in society. Somehow, our curriculum developers and textbook writers have failed to realise that Pakistan is diverse in its ethnic and religious composition.

This diversity calls for a concerted effort to eliminate -- or at least reduce --the increasing polarisation in society. Social conflicts and tensions cannot be resolved unless education is intelligently imparted with a clear purpose to inculcate among students a positive attitude towards minority communities. The narrower ideological base we have in education, the more myths and stereotypes our students and teachers are likely to cherish. Be it Pakistan or another country, the strength of its social fabric will be directly dependent on how the decision makers are willing to accommodate diversity and allow a plural democracy to flourish.

Social justice is perhaps the only mechanism that can enhance our capacity to fight extremism, and create a stable and violence-free society. Promotion of understanding among communities -- both majority and minority -- is likely to reduce divisions and foster love for others. At present the education system does exactly the opposite by fanning hatred and stoking antagonisms rather than promoting mutual regard and collaboration. The worst aspect of inequality is that some of those who abhor it cannot be candid enough for fear of reprisals often. Those who try to present an objective picture of the situation on the ground are shouted down.

Many students and teachers belonging to the so-called minority communities are victims of various forms of discrimination. They are unable to voice their concerns openly because society appears to be unconscious of this discrimination. Some minority leaders too keep repeating the mantra that they are safe and sound and face no discrimination at all. At times their praise for the Pakistani establishment gets highly exaggerated. The report under discussion rightly points out that flawed choices of curriculum content and bias in selection of teachers have led to a situation where the whole society has to bear an incalculable cost.

Data for the research was collected only from the Punjab. The statistics are alarming, to say the least. For example, 60 percent of non-Muslim students experience discrimination or feel they are being discriminated against and disrespected. Nearly 70 percent of the teachers endure exclusion on account of not being Muslims. As many as 72 percent of the parents report that their children are ill-treated in schools and colleges, for being Christians, Hindus, or belonging to another faith minority.

The study appears to have been well-planned. It triangulated the data by using three methods i.e. case studies, key-informant interviews (KIIs), and focus group discussions (FGDs). The study also looked at the academic environment and found a severe lack of analytical skills, critical thinking, impartiality and objectivity. There appears to be a total absence of empirical principles and scientific thought especially in the social arena. The curriculum content is full of predominant religious ideas and teaching of nearly all social sciences is overwhelmed by it.

Disproportionate religiosity affects not only students’ behaviours but also influences teachers, who in most cases become promoters of intolerance. If a teacher does not belong to the predominant religious lobby, he or she is likely to be targeted by students and teachers alike; such example are too many to cite here. Since the time of General Ziaul Haq, the recruitment of teachers -- or other government servants for that matter -- has been greatly influenced by religious considerations. This mechanism has recruited hordes of teachers whose outlook has in built biases against followers of other religions.

Most non-Muslim students complain that they are forced to study Islamiyat, though they have a constitutional right not to study it. On paper, they are entitled to study ethics instead of Islamiyat but there are no teachers of ethics at most schools and textbooks on ethics are not easily available. Head teachers excuse themselves by saying that it is not possible to arrange separate classes on ethics for a few non-Muslim students or hold separate exams for them. On this pretext, all students are forced to study Islamiyat. If they refuse, they lose their marks in exams resulting in lower grades in comparison with Muslim students.

From this study, we learn that all other identities are neglected and only faith-based identities are taken into consideration in our education system on a practical level, though theoretically all education policies promise equal treatment for all. In educational institutions, the only denominator of one’s existence is her or his religious identity; whereas other identities such as cultural and linguistic ones are rarely acknowledged or respected.

Professional excellence of a teacher or academic achievements of a student are often overshadowed by their religious affiliations, particularly if they are non-Muslims. The study found that values like empathy, equality, and respect rarely feature in academic and educational curricula. Disappointingly, nearly all curricula are devoid of lessons on citizenship, equality, fraternity, interfaith harmony and social justice.

The study reports that most Muslim students appear to confuse ‘the west’ with local Christians and India with local Hindus and Sikhs. This behavior results from a curriculum that talks disproportionately about non-Muslim conspiracies against Muslims.

Education and inequality