This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the
International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the
Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT.
The questions are
intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the
listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the
generic issues common to the two countries.
The Big Questions
1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?
The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is
not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for
governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is
necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies
based on oppression.
2. Can NGOs fill the gap?
The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is
important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the
capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only
effective solution is reform of the public education system.
3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?
All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and
it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance
or the callousness of the literate.
4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?
The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and
need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and
prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person.
There is a difference between education and indoctrination.
5. What is the problem with the content?
In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological
objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly
information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical
thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is
either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very
competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.
6. What is the problem with pedagogy?
The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking.
This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution,
or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.
7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?
NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in
five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no
relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal
societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for
effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be
charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.
8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?
NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the
resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy,
incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public
education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to
raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models
for reform of the public education system.
9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?
The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and
the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to
succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is
needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low
incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the
magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By
2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone
and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is
not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.
10. What is the bottom line?
Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as
social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs
and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance,
capacity constraints and income limitations.
Anjum Altaf, Ph.D.