Opinion: Musings on schooling and education in Pakistan

What we lack is not talent. What we lack is an education system equipped to teach us how to seek knowledge…

SHAUKAT QADIR– In 1925, Paul Scopes, a Tennessee school teacher was convicted of violating the state’s laws. Yet all he had done was to teach “any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”. Scopes had, of course, been dabbling in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Just over twenty-five years later, Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” found its way into a television serial as part of a discussion on that other forbidden fruit, McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy is, naturally, best known for his targeting of suspected communists and accusing them of treason. Indeed, many an individual and career were destroyed according to his fancy. Moreover, any attempt to question McCarthy was also considered treason. Which perhaps explains the eagerness to discuss the subject vicariously. In 1988, Inherit the Wind took its place in the ongoing conversation. It is indeed a most powerful film. And to those who may have missed it, I urge you all to put that right as soon as you can.

But what prompted this trip down memory lane? It was the weekend I recently spent with my daughter. My son-in-law, who is like a son, and I were talking about the education of children. It was then that I made a rather ordinary observation. Something to the effect that all children have hidden talents but the system merely ‘schools’ them in equal colors; whereas humankind is born unequal, in different colors. After I left, he later found and sent me a film of another mock trial, this time with schools in the dock. It was an extremely powerful rendition in verse of a criminal indictment of the latter for failing to make children think; and for treating them as if they were of equal hue. I was tremendously moved.

I tend to stick to Merriam-Webster’s when it comes to words and their meanings. Therein schooling is defined, among others, as: “instruction in school; training, guidance, or discipline derived from experience; and, the training of a horse for service . . .”. Which says it all, no? Education, however, is: “the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process”; as well as: “the field of study which deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning (in schools)”.

Thus, whereas schooling is inherently the simple process of learning and discipline, which suggests a more or less structured regimen — education, by contrast, is supposed to comprise a vaster, all-encompassing process; one that helps liberate the mind. And, according to Webster’s it is also aimed at instructing teachers how to teach. I wish they did; I wish they would; oh how I wish…

We, as a people, are bound by our psycho-socio-cultural milieu built over hundreds of generations and shaped, among other things, most significantly by geography (a subject I hope to return to and discuss at length), but also by religion, which is inherently dogma; to my mind at least. Yet whatever ‘wiggle’ room the latter might provide, this is denied to us by the cleric, the Aalim. Regretfully, no education does what it should and educates.

In my view, education should and, very much could, teach one thing alone and be happy at a job well done: to question and then to question some more; until one is questioning every single thing on God’s green earth. And just when you think you can question no more, turn your attention to the questions of Life and Death; subjects that every great thinker throughout history has addressed. Question your very existence; is it dream or reality; and only then will you have entered into the realm of the philosopher.

We are not wanting when it comes to brilliant children. Rather, they continue to amaze us with their unbelievable academic performances every single year. Some Pakistani teen, a few years back, secured a place in the Guinness Book of World Records due to his exceptional computer proficiency.

A nine-year-old broke that record; and today, a five-year-old holds the current title. All Pakistani, the lot of them. I recall reading in the papers that one of these gifted souls was the child of a Nanbai, a baker of local bread in a Tandoor; among the lowest of the lower middle-class.

What we lack is not talent. What we lack is an education system equipped to teach us how to seek knowledge; a desire expressed by the Prophet (PBUH) himself. Tragically, even our languages let us down, so intent are they in venerating education. We have the word, shagird, usually translated to mean student. Except that it doesn’t. It means, “He learnt (from)?” The opposite is Ustad, a word normally used for teacher. Except that this, too, is inaccurate. It is meant to convey the far higher status of a mentor. Ironically, the only country where it still holds the same meaning is Afghanistan. You should have witnessed how Burhanuddin Rabbani was revered, across ethnicities.

Our final word here is Talib-e-Ilm; one who thirsts for knowledge. A distortion of which is Taliban. Centuries ago, at a UN funded seminar — which was both my first and my last — on “Small Arms Proliferation”, I startled the audience by beginning with, ‘Assalaam o Alaikum’ (may Peace be upon you). And then just to startle them some more, I added: “I wish I was a Taliban”. I did; I still do. I really, honestly wish I could say that I had a thirst for knowledge. The best I can say is that I am happy to remain an eternal student.

It was back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was officially thought of as a student. Yet here we are today and I am still learning that, “matter can neither be created nor destroyed”. Mankind had created matter and destroyed it. Years ago. So, where do we go? We are trapped within ourselves. And have to break free. I wish they would?

Please help. Someone?

The writer is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)

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