Education: demand & supply


By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributorWE much discuss what education should be giving/bringing society; but seldom dwell on what society is feeding into education.

Far too many dedicated and obviously competent, if not gifted—for teaching is indeed a vocation—feel a decline in the calibre of their students and an alteration in the expectations and orientation of parents. The nature of personal commitment to education has changed. It is perceived as a commodity— there is less love of learning than love of the fruits thereof.

Irrespective of how primary and middle education helped or thwarted a child’s learning curve and attitudes; at the higher secondary level its conscious approach is transitional. Students are less focused on what they are learning than why they are learning: it’s to get grades that are competitively high enough to procure admission into one of the colleges that more or less ensure profitable employment opportunity to their alumni. Consequently, information on topics not listed as part of the core exam syllabus remains un-clicked within the computer. Knowledge and facts are lodged within that transiently accessible miracle of technology: at the student’s fingertips rather than in his head. Macbeth is not on the syllabus; Hamlet is: Ignore and forgo the off-course delights of Shakespeare. Clarity on that law of maths/physics/bio/chem is not needed this semester, glide past it. Concepts, synthesis and analysis are replaced by search, cut, jiggle and paste. Plagiarism is averted, but so is unbounded creative intellectual curiosity.

There are ugly corollaries to the commodity approach. Often, what lies underneath the individual’s educated gloss is merely raw material for shallowness rather than deep scholarship or professional involvement. Conversely, much human potential remains untapped and unsought because the individual missed out on appropriate packaging. Colonial gifts to local culture and education remain intact. The young are unacquainted with the classic. They rediscover their heritage as guided global tourists rather than experience it within native traditions: Cultural dislocation is the matrix for the building blocks of our educational construct.

Those at the top set standards. Presently, Pakistan’s elite—political, financial, bureaucratic—establishes itself and is acknowledged on the bases of money and manifest clout. Such are the hallmarks, the exemplars of success for our teenagers. In Pakistan’s earlier years, display was unforgivable vulgarity; parental clout was not appropriated for use by children. Wealth and position were not in the child’s value scheme—but now all is forgiven the wealthy and powerful: even crass ignorance and delinquency. The child’s goals and incentives are not found within schoolbooks. The mental focus is on material gain: moving on in the world.

Pakistan’s growing population, coupled with the healthy extension of the concept of the right and access to education, has ironically resulted in its becoming less available. There are simply not enough schools or teachers to deliver at the quintessential formative primary level. Also, many students embark on the secondary stage—critically determinant for them in terms of personal destiny—with not just a weak foundation but a malformed one.

I am not talking of the madressa segment and sphere. There are other, more pervasive, secular warps in our educational orientations. Such is our political culture that Pakistan’s history is selectively refashioned and doctored periodically. Small wonder if students lose interest in the national narrative or turn cynical and reject History’s value altogether. You find students who have indeed heard of Napoleon and Alexander (they even ‘know’ one of them was a dictator who never lost a battle, and that Nelson won the battle of Waterloo!) but who came first and where from doesn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t in the book and teacher never thought of expounding. Small wonder they are impatient with exposition around a ‘core’ subject at the higher secondary levels.

Once the sound concept but pathetic execution of Pakistan Studies takes over, basic world geography also moves off the globe. There is confusion about continents and countries: Is Africa a continent or a place? The true teacher delights if the student in the desire to know overcomes the fear of revealing ignorance, but weeps at the poverty of what the system offers.

Bright students from prestige schools are sent abroad by affluent parents to take their Bachelor’s degree after A-levels. Those who do graduate from centres of excellence here in professions like medicine; architecture; engineering, rely on further professional qualification and training overseas for improved prospects. Their excellence is not always fed back into replenishing and rejuvenating the system—nor can we chide the young researcher or professional for seeking more stimulating, cleaner, better-paid environments away from home. Would you condemn graduates who would rather be ethical international civil servants than frustrated or conniving public civil servants locally? If your child lands an enviable job in international corporate cadres or is a highly paid competent cog in well-oiled working machines in Canada or the Gulf it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Foreign remittances do not just take the form of cash. Away from the heat of it all, well-placed expats strut and sermonize, instruct and judge.  Assumption of superior perspective and understanding enhances the social and cultural divides society feeds into our education system and which the student’s passage through our educational process leaves untreated at best, or aggravates at the worst.

So what can Pakistan’s many socially committed, well-informed, miraculously dedicated selfless educationists do to help?

Official focus is on updating curricula; emphasizing the Sciences (the eroded present state is not likely to nurture another Nobel for us); resolving the Urdu-English-Mother tongue anomalies concerning the very medium—the vehicle and tool of all instruction. Other avowed aims are eliminating bigotry and fanaticism.

All of that is essential. Yet it doesn’t matter that it remains largely paper work and good intention. For what impacts the actualities of the educational process much much more is the kind of atmosphere and value system a child senses and experiences at home and outside school: School is just for learning to get those pesky indispensable degrees.