EVERY TIME there is an event that shocks us – the lynching of Mashal Khan, the murders of the two brothers in Sialkot, the gruesome murder of Priyantha Kumara, and even the events that happened in Minar-i-Pakistan – l one of the first reactions people have is that we lack education.
But immediately, maybe in the same conversation, there is also a demand for education to do more. It is only through education that we can reduce, control or eliminate such behaviors. It may seem a little paradoxical. But it’s not. It is true that education is important. But its content and how that content is taught is also important. This is where we need to unpack things.
For example, the single national program includes nazra and a commitment has been made to include Seerat-un-Nabi (PBUH). Their study, it has been said, even by the Prime Minister, will help children become better human beings.
There is still debate over our decision to make Islamism and Pakistani studies compulsory a few decades ago. Was it thought that since everyone should know the basic facts about the country or the articles of faith, making these subjects compulsory would ensure that this goal would be achieved? Did our policymakers think that making these subjects compulsory would also have an impact on identity formation, making it easier for the state to mold young Pakistani minds by exposing them to a particular view of the country and religion? And that this, in turn, would make people stronger or better Pakistanis and Muslims?
If teachers teach poorly, making changes to the teaching content will not have an impact.
How should we look for empirical evidence for this? The problem is, so much has happened in other areas that it is difficult to know what should and should not be attributed to changes in education. But clearly things have not improved as policymakers might have expected. We do not have “better” Pakistanis and Muslims today than in the 1980s and 1990s. This could, however, be largely attributed to the much larger global changes that have taken place in the region in which Pakistan is located. than what could have happened in the field of education alone. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed a lot of things in Pakistan: the influx of arms and American money, the importation of ideology from Saudi Arabia, the creation of the mujahedin, the Afghan war, the trafficking drug, the decimation of Afghan society, the problem, and much more. And then came September 11 and the “war on terror”. How do you assess the exact impact of making Islamic and Pakistani studies compulsory when there are so many other factors to consider?
If an untoward incident occurs, adding an ethics course may not be the most appropriate way to resolve the issue. This observation can extend to increasing content in the topics under discussion if the moral is not where we think it should be. If Pakistani children are not “good” Muslims, “simply adding to existing content in education may not be the answer.
There are several reasons for this. It’s not that the educational content doesn’t have an impact. It’s clear. This is education. Content shapes minds, determines knowledge and understanding, and thus shapes fundamental identities and beliefs. No one denies this and it is impossible to deny the importance of education or the importance of content in education, as there is a lot of empirical evidence on learning and connections regarding content.
The stakes are different. There are limits to what a child can take: depending on their age, abilities and previous learning levels. A child’s burden, in terms of more content per subject and the number of subjects a child reads, does not necessarily improve learning, comprehension and knowledge. There is already some literature claiming that we, especially in South Asia, put too much pressure on our children. What effect will adding more content and topics have in such a situation?
The literature also shows that the teacher makes a big difference in learning. How a teacher teaches, how he or she interacts with students, makes content engaging, interacts with and encourages students, explains content or makes content relevant to the context of reality and students’ levels of understanding are crucial. If teachers teach poorly, which we know to be the case with the vast majority of schools in Pakistan, a change in content will have no impact.
We also know that student learning is best when students are more involved in content, can question things, critically examine what is being taught, etc. But many teachers would not think of a critical engagement in the subjects studied. And in most schools, they aren’t taught that way either. I remember my own experience: I learned a lot from Pakistan Studies course just so I could replicate it (rote learning) for review and be done.
So if this is what the added content is going to do, how is it going to make us better Pakistanis / Muslims and how is it going to solve the social issues that we want education to address? And I didn’t talk about content manipulation at all. But that too, when conservative and even extremist views are already part of the mainstream, can be a problem.
So without thinking, are we going to make the same mistakes that we made many times before? Presumably. But it is worse. As said, we never walk twice in the same river. Every time we fail, we raise the stakes for the next intervention and reduce the likelihood of success. Are we ready to try our luck again or is it time to rethink in depth before changing things?
The author is a senior researcher at the Institute for Development and Economic Alternatives and Associate Professor of Economics at Lums.
Posted in Dawn, le 10 December 2021