Getting it wrong
THIS year Dr No, the first film in the 007 franchise, turns 50. Meanwhile, the world gears up to greet Skyfall, the 23rd of a phenomenon.
James Bond has had many faces but amongst his fans it is generally agreed that Sean Connery, the first, is also the most enduring. He’s amongst the most instantly recognised faces in the world.
He has been voted ‘the greatest living Scot’ and ‘Scotland’s greatest living national treasure’; at the age of 69, he was voted ‘sexiest man of the century’. Today, he lives in a villa in Greece where he shares a helicopter platform with his neighbour, the Dutch crown prince.
Was it always meant to be this way? Connery’s mother was a cleaning lady and his father a lorry driver. His own first job was as a milkman in Edinburgh and before he became interested in the performing arts, he worked as a labourer, a coffin polisher and an artist’s model.
During his acceptance speech for an American Film Institute achievement award, he said that he had been born poor but that he’d got lucky when he was five years old: he’d learned to read. Education can, indeed, be the single point to which many strands of subsequent good fortune can be traced.
In terms of Pakistan, with its poor literacy and high school dropout rates, certainly there are far too few who have access to education. There are too many people who don’t have resources that stretch to putting children in school.
On the other side of the coin there aren’t enough schools; many of those that do exist don’t have enough teachers, or enough competent teachers, or sufficient facilities. In this land of ours schools attract the ire of terrorists and extremists, become
shelters for the dispossessed and mete out corporal punishment instead of challenges to the intellect.
And yet, it is generally believed that education can be that single factor that has the potential to pull a person up through the ranks of a stratified society.
Belief in this is reflected by the many millions of parents in the country who, though poor, pour money that could buy much-needed dietary essentials into the coffers of schools. You can see that hope clearly in the face of a domestic or factory worker with a child in uniform: education is what makes the difference.
Does it really?
The trouble is that what is understood as education is in many instances merely literacy with frills. And even where it is more than that, even in expensive schools that the better-off can afford, the knowledge that we should be hoping to impart to children is missing. Being educated is not the same as having knowledge. Again and again, we get it wrong. In this wasteland of missteps and lost opportunities, let us consider just two. We have just seen the passage of the 24th year since a plane exploded into flames in mid-air and took with it a man that many consider to be the chief architect of Pakistan’s current predicament. His avowed project was to ‘Islamise’ Pakistan, including through the school curricula.
Personally, I feel that education ought to be even-handed, with no greater emphasis being placed on one dimension of learning as compared to another.
All avenues of knowledge are equally important and should be treated as such. But I’m not in charge, so as an exercise in thought let us cede that the authorities felt very strongly that Pakistani students needed to be taught what it means to be a Muslim and that textbooks had to be altered in this regard.
If you think about it, this could have been an opportunity that could have been put to fairly decent use, had the decision-makers seen it fit to do so. It would even have served their agenda in a way. We could have had a generation of students who were knowledgeable about the history of Muslims worldwide.
If knowledge about Islam had to receive more attention, we could have taught students about Muslim scientists, inventors and thinkers, the politics and justice systems in Muslim empires and countries.
Instead, what we got was devotional subject matter shorn of context and nuance, painted in the broadest of brush strokes. And what we have now are legion people who have been through years upon years of compulsorily studying Islamiat, but gaining little knowledge from the exercise.
The same case can be made for Pakistan Studies, the other additional compulsory subject. I went through the whole exercise, right up to Matric and BA (mercifully, the subjects were not mandatory at the MA level).
And if I had not done any further reading, I would have been an educated person who believed that the story of Pakistan started with Mohammed Bin Qasim, skipped lightly through the British and went straight on to Partition.
The problem is not just that there aren’t enough educated Pakistanis. A more insidious problem is that even the ones who are educated are often not knowledgeable enough to help usher in a more civilised, tolerant society.
All those parents hiding their anxiety about where next month’s fees are going to come from are right — to an extent. Schooling — literacy — is indeed the difference between working as a labourer and being a carpenter with prospects, between becoming a
cleaning lady or a nurse. But it is not enough to teach a person humanity and empathy, contextual awareness or the interplay of nations.
Technicians don’t build a civilisation, thinkers do. Education is not merely the means to an end, a facilitator that will get you a job; the debate about educational reform needs to start with our attitude towards it.
The writer is a member of staff.