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Is Education Really the Answer?

Posted: 08/01/11 04:30 PM ET

A recent Pakistani voice in America once again brought my attention to the state of education in Pakistan. In every street of the country, there are stories of children from poor, serving class families attempting to gain education and improve themselves against all odds. Meanwhile government funding and foreign aid is going to non-existent education for the public. The plague of 'ghost schools' has drawn a great amount of media attention over the years, but continues to gnaw at our economy.

Teachers and social workers in Pakistan frequently stress the importance of educating our population. The Prime Minister and the Education Task Force have declared an 'education emergency' and 2011 is being celebrated as the year of education. It is safe to say that education is being viewed as the first and foremost solution to Pakistan's problems.

I am hesitant to agree with this view. I do not feel that spreading our current education will be as magical as we are led to believe. Before I raise my concerns, let me clarify a few things so that I am not misunderstood. I completely agree with and support the right of every human being to improve themselves and strive for a better, happier life. I also understand and appreciate the sentiments of charitable people who help educate the serving class. I condemn the bleeding of our resources via ghost schools and phantom publishers and agree that this must stop.

Having said all this, I do not believe that achieving the said objectives will rid us of intolerance, extremism, racism, or poverty. A closer look at our textbooks and teachers suggests that there is a predisposition in existing curriculum to cultivate and promote partisan, divisive and intolerant thinking. According to UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011, textbook content and production in Pakistan is negatively influenced by political and elite actors (p. 5).

It also stresses the importance of each individual teacher's method of instruction and resulting political or religious undertones. The curriculum was revised after 2001 for being intolerant and glorifying war and Jihad, focusing on identity conflicts such as those between Shia and Sunni or Hindu and Muslim. While this reform means that future generations will be subjected to comparatively less venom, it does indicate that parents and teachers who graduated more than 10 years ago were victims of miss-education. One can hope that most elders have evolved their thinking enough to break free of all the propaganda based education system, but the persistence of identity-based stereotypes and targeted violence indicate otherwise.

Even the current curriculum is far from perfect and needs to be made further conducive to critical thinking and tolerance. This is elaborated by the way much of our educated youth still buys into the "they are all out to destroy Pakistan" mentality blaming even internal failures on foreign agencies.

So before we attempt to mass-market our product, we must refine it, or else enhance it. Mohammad Ziauddin, executive editor of The Express Tribune, suggests that tolerance be taught as a separate subject. Wise words of a wise man.

Yet, even if we were able to achieve this utopia of an educated Pakistan, would that really be the best state of affairs? If we got one magical wish, would we really wish for every Pakistani to be educated? Or would it be smarter to wish for a smaller population? Our economy has a large and abundant service sector. Cheap servants are a norm, a luxury and an addiction for most urban households. Our exported products sell in the global arena because we produce at lower costs. Abundant and cheap labor is our competitive edge.

Now imagine that each and every person was technically skilled and educated. Would we be able to provide them with enough deserving jobs? Or would we be a nation of underemployed graduates with unhealthy self-images? According to the CEO of a local bank, "We simply do not have the resources to provide 170million citizens with basics like electricity, clean water and gas, let alone a quality lifestyle." Perhaps entrepreneurship is the answer, but until and unless investor confidence is restored in the country that harbored Osama Bin Laden, this too remains a limited outlet.

The day we have reformed our education system and permanently silenced the expression "Khuda ulaad deta hai to rizak bhi deta hai" (When God gives a child, he also provides the relevant food/income) will be the day I dare to dream again for a developing Pakistan. Until then, with the prevailing policies, the best you can hope for is an underpaid servant with a PhD in hospitality.