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Education, Democracy And Terrorism
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, December 19, 2002

A major national effort to increase the coverage and quality of education in Pakistan is as essential to the building of democracy as it is to the war against terrorism. Both the authoritarian State and the leader of the terrorist group rely on the tyranny of the glamorous phrase. Both prosper on the basis of citizens with narrowed minds and the inability to subject emotional slogans to logical scrutiny. Democracy by contrast is predicated on educated citizens who are able to ascertain the grounds of the political proposition offered to them and thereby form an independent opinion. The origins of the link between education and democracy can be traced to ancient Greece where Socrates trained his students to analyze the various ideological beliefs of the State, so as to identify the grounds on which they were based. The ruling elite of the time felt so threatened that they gave him the option of either death or silence. By choosing to drink the potion of hemlock, Socrates won the right of independent inquiry and thereby laid the basis of education for a democratic State.

If education is the first building block of democracy, Pakistan has a long way to go. Even after more than 50 years of independence, the literacy rate (in 1999) was only 46.4% which is significantly below even South Asian standards. It should be a cause for concern that inspite of the multi billion dollars Social Action Program (SAP), the gross primary enrolment rate during the decade of the 1990s has in fact declined from 73% in 1991 to 71% in 1999. What is worse is that the low gross enrolment rate is accompanied by a high drop out rate (15% for the 10 to 18 years age group), thereby exacerbating the problem of education coverage.

Apart from the poor coverage of education there is a serious problem with the quality of education imparted to students, not only with respect to curricula but also the quality of instruction. A study by the World Bank on the Punjab province illustrates the problem of low educational attainment even within the existing low standards. For example in 1999 only 41% of public school students in the Punjab who took the matriculation examination obtained a passing grade. In view of the fact that only 16% of the age group 15-19 years reached grade 10 at school, such a low pass percentage is disturbing. Even more disturbing is the fact that for those students who pass the matriculation exam, what they imbibe can only be called education by a considerable stretch of the imagination: The text books in most cases induce a narrowing of the mind and the rote method of learning restricts the natural spirit of inquiry of the students. The students who undergo this devastating process, in most cases would find it difficult to use their intellect and imagination to comprehend the world, let alone function creatively in it.

Given the narrow base of high school coverage, and poor quality of school and intermediate level education, it is not surprising that an overwhelming proportion of students who enter University in Pakistan are not equipped to even begin higher studies in any field. This is quite apart from the fact that, barring a few notable exceptions most universities in Pakistan do not have the standard of staff and facilities required to impart university level education. Therefore university students in most cases undergo two to four years of somnambulation, during which they face no intellectual challenge, remain oblivious to the debate and research in their respective subjects, and are either unable or afraid to pose new questions. 'University education' in Pakistan typically means memorizing selected sections of a textbook for reproduction in answer to a set of predictable examination questions. The students who graduate from such a process are manifestly not trained to independently analyze a given theoretical construct and apply it to new problems. The University should be a place where the faculty creates new knowledge and students are trained for independent research. In this sense there are precious few universities in Pakistan that qualify for this title. Therefore most students are sadly deprived of the excitement of posing a question, the pleasure of pursuing it and the joy of discovery.

Given the plight of education, it is not surprising that there is such a dearth of competent professionals in every field who can even implement, let alone formulate policies to overcome the multifaceted crisis that Pakistan faces. The majority of citizens who vote and make political choices have not had the benefit of any education at all. The task of building a modern democracy and developing a humane society will have to start with rapidly improving the coverage and quality of education at all levels. In financial terms it means that the government must spend at least one billion US dollars a year on building schools, training teachers, giving them decent salaries, and enabling at least a few universities to produce graduates at an international standard. In management terms it means building an organizational structure for translating this higher financial allocation for education into measurable results.

The objectives to be achieved through a major new initiative for education could be identified as follows: (i) Achieving a hundred percent literacy rate over the next 10 years. This would mean not only achieving full coverage of school age children but also adult literacy programs. (ii) Raise matriculation standards to the equivalent O' Levels in the U.K. At the same time career guidance facilities should be provided to the students at the matric level so that they can decide at this stage, whether they have the aptitude to pursue a university degree or go into vocational training after the intermediate level examination. (iii) Restructuring intermediate level education to create the basis for a dramatic increase in the number of skilled personnel and a sharp reduction in the intake of students at the university level. This would be necessary to improve the teacher-student ratio at the university and also to enable those who are not inclined for university education to become employable through vocational training. The academic skills imparted at the intermediate level should be carefully designed to enable the students to achieve fluency in reading and writing in the English language, and to develop the ability for critical analysis. This should be in addition to fluency in Urdu as well as a regional language. Students who complete intermediate level education and do not join university should be enabled to acquire technical training in one of a variety of vocational institutes. (iv) Restructuring public sector higher education in selected universities to hire internationally recognized faculty members, provision of international salaries to staff, and adequate facilities and funds for research. The aim would be to: (a) raise the quality of graduates from such universities to an international level and (b) create the basis for high quality research in priority areas of social and natural sciences.

Perhaps the most important dimension of overcoming the crisis of education is to build a new culture of enlightenment. A culture in which the fear to ask questions is replaced by the courage to know. Education instead of being a deadening experience of rote learning, must become the adventure that Wittgenstein referred to when he remarked: "When you pose a question who knows where it will lead."

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