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Missing Out on Science

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Arif Ali—AFP

Noam Chomsky’s lament on Pakistan’s educational system raises valid concerns about the country’s future

On Dec. 7, 2020, world-renowned academician Noam Chomsky delivered, via video-link, the 6th Yohsin Lecture organized by Pakistan’s Habib University in Karachi. He said something that shocks no rational person: he regretted the disappearance of science from Pakistan’s educational system. “Pakistan, which used to have advanced science, technology, etc, and produced Nobel laureates, has no future in the free world as it has embraced religious superstition, extremism, religious intolerance, isolationism, and its educational standards have plummeted to unbelievable levels.”

Everybody knows that Pakistan has missed out on transfer of technology despite its possession of nuclear weapons, in contrast with India where cars are not assembled as in Pakistan but manufactured. Being an ideological state, it leans on education for indoctrination and it is no surprise that “independent” thinking doesn’t appeal to an ideological state where outdated madrassas remain an acceptable medium of imparting information. The education budget in Pakistan is minuscule but the state has bought expensive weapons, sustained a large Army with luxurious living conditions for its officers, and has tested six nuclear devices while it was about to default on loans.

Mishandling modern education

Public-sector education has languished with massive dropouts, and schools where no one teaches and no one learns: ghost schools. The state is ducking education as a right by free-marketing it but controlling the textbooks that still do a lot of brainwash. On the margins, religious seminaries are mushrooming because they educate while also feeding and ensuring future jobs in jihad or local mosques that may start as illegal constructions. Opposed to this model is the one South Korea has adopted where education is completely non-ideological and completely linked to the job market. South Korea has trained people for the jobs needed in different periods of the growth of the economy. It concentrated its education budgets on primary education, which was made a base for technical education reforms.

For many years Pakistan kept announcing a 60 percent dropout in primary schools but did nothing about it. Pakistan was too big, and since the national budget was consumed in servicing debts and paying for the Army, nothing was left for development. Consequently education received very little attention. Discouragement came from the fact that when the grassroots schools were given options to spend on their own they abstained for fear of keeping accounts that could be challenged by the accounts department. The system collapsed as state funds still bled through dysfunctional schools.

Science ‘alien’ to ideology

Pakistan has retreated into dangerous territory with its Islamic curriculum. It has not been able to bring the seminaries into mainstream education although it is trying hard to achieve this objective under Prime Minister Imran Khan. The seminaries are nurseries of a poisoned worldview called jihad. In a recent survey done by language historian Dr. Tariq Rehman the seminarians had a worldview that negated human rights while the Urdu medium schools expressed moderate prejudice.

It is the “alien” English medium schools where the children express the humane worldview the U.N. wants under its Universal Declaration. But the English medium schools remain under attack from politicians and by the religious parties in particular. Such inspirational leaders as Imran Khan are critical of the “alien” system. Khan is currently trying to force them to teach the sciences in Urdu on the basis of the theory that best learning is “through the mother tongue.” If the religious parties ever come to power they will abolish the more liberal schools although their announced plans some years ago to oust the English-medium system in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have not fructified due to interference from Islamabad. Pakistan has thus developed as a state where no educational model is expected to succeed. The state will violate all models by abusing them and the reason is that Pakistani citizens are completely at sea about what kind of system they want.

Shunning ‘connectivity’

The world is far more “connected” today than it once was, despite being packaged in “national” languages. There is a language of knowledge today called the English language from where the sciences are learned. It was always so even in the Dark Ages when a language was approached for its “new knowledge.” Once upon a time Arabic was the language of knowledge and anyone experimenting with laws of nature was compelled to learn it and write in it. Abu Abdullah Ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi (780-847), the first great mathematician of the Islamic world, was also the founder of Algebra. He lived on the historic Silk Road; and books about the philosophy of mathematics and the history of mathematics today refer to his study of the Indian math genius Aryabhat.

The name Khwarizmi points to where he was born. He is referred to as “Persian” but the place where he was born—Khwarizm—is today in Uzbekistan where people speak a Turkic linguistic offshoot called Uzbek. But when he wrote his treatise it had to be in Arabic—and his knowledge was directed at the revival of knowledge in Baghdad under Caliph Mamun. He is immortalized in the scientific term “algorism” today. Later, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) stands as another example whose Arabic tracts, after translation, triggered European Enlightenment.

In Educational Leadership in Pakistan: Ideals and Realities, edited by Jan-e-Alam Khaki and Qamar Safdar (OUP 2010), the problem of language with Muslims is thus stated: “Muslims in India were divided into at least three groups with regards to their education: one favoring the age-old madrassa, another favoring the English system and the third trying to forge a way between the two.” This cleavage continues to this day in Pakistan. While the formal schooling system prospered and developed under the auspices of the state, the madrassa now relies on charity and philanthropy.

The quality of the “Muslim man” in the wake of the end of the Raj was understandably lower than the quality of Hindus of India. The Raj had “liberated” the Hindus from Muslim rule; their long years of living outside the power base and engaging in trade had raised their intellectual level in comparison to the “alienated” Muslims who resisted the “fatal” charm of English and resented the efforts made by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to introduce “new knowledge” through “modern” or “rational” education at the Aligarh University.

Value-neutral discipline

Today science is difficult to learn because of the fast pace of its development and terminological variety. For an “ideological” Pakistani, it is difficult to imbibe something that is value-neutral and demands evidence for all precepts held as part of the value system. A child put through tough indoctrination—some scholars like Javed Ghamidi think religion should be kept away from teens—will find it difficult to learn something that is value-neutral. In Pakistan’s past, we have students of the Engineering University of Lahore kidnapping politicians for Al Qaeda while learning engineering under Pakistan’s most notorious Al Qaeda-connected terrorist Hafiz Saeed—head of the University’s Islamiat Department in the ‘90s—now undergoing a 10-year sentence in jail.

The singular way in which Pakistan defines “unity” is by equating it with “uniformity”. But as proved by history, if you want unity, teach yourself to tolerate diversity, which means you have to tame ideology and tolerate different religions and sects and take another look at criticism of diversity in our traditional education. It should be interesting to examine this passion. A quick diagnosis says: we are leaning on intense isolationism to preserve the righteousness of a cause that doesn’t appeal to the world. English-medium education—called Boko Haram in xenophobic Muslim Nigeria—is our opening to a world that we actually want to say goodbye to.

Imran Khan has been saying there should be a uniform system of education in Pakistan. Instead, there are three: state sector, private sector and madrassa. Someone has applied a gloss to his thinking: we are producing three types of educated individuals who tend not to agree in their attitudes. Somehow, uniformity of thinking is the criterion; and Pakistan will be better off if everybody thought the same and did not differ.

For some, it is wrong that the private sector stream is where only the privileged are educated. It offends their egalitarian view to see the poor remain outside the ambit of good-quality education. But the private stream of education is not only for the rich; some low-grade English-medium schools cater to the middle and lower middle classes as well. That’s the way it has always been in Islam’s historic madrassas too.

Three nations under Raj

Those who point to “three nations” being nurtured by the trifurcated system remain too scared of the non-state actors to criticize the madrassa system. Given that Pakistan’s ideology continues to converge to stringency of faith, the madrassa may be the utopian locus to aspire to. Currently, the mind is focused on how to reduce the salience of the “unbridled” private sector education, which makes its pupils take “foreign exams.”

The state-run system is either dead or dying because of the declining outreach capacity of the provinces and a derelict teaching community. Research shows that the private sector English-medium institutions—where all subjects are taught in English—have better teachers. Circumstances have pushed parents to lean on this system to make their children more suitable for the job market which, in turn, interfaces more than ever before with the global job market.

One critic of the “three streams” could not hide his offense at the English medium schools “aspiring to multinationals instead of state employment.” (It is true that universities such as LUMS have lowered the quality of civil service by attracting the good graduates to the private sector; but this has happened in India too.) Normally, anyone would think of upgrading the state sector instead of punishing the private sector.

Pakistan has often been called a “state without a nation” meaning that it is a geographic unit without much cohesion among the people who live in it. Pakistan first became conscious of it after 1947, and soon found its cure in One Unit, which wiped out the provinces and their regional identities. After that, ideology was roped in to create the unity the state lacked. Today, Pakistan remains nation-less. We tried unity. Let us give diversity a chance and align ourselves with the globally accepted norm of scientific knowledge pointed out by Noam Chomsky.

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