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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Miseducation Of Pakistan

The Miseducation of Pakistan

Fits of the state have ill served our schools.

By Sabiha Mansoor | From the Nov. 22 & 29, 2010, issue  

Marwan Naamani / AFP
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani agrees that the state seizure of schools by his party's government in 1972 was wrong. "We cannot move forward without [first] admitting our mistake," he said of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's nationalization drive. This is a welcome acknowledgement, but is there finally going to be any moving forward?
In the early days of Pakistan, most schools were either run privately or by local governments. But the state has always controlled the national curriculum. Every state tries to mold public opinion and attitudes to suit its agenda. Pakistan is no different. With varying degrees of devotion, the dissemination of ideology has been part of every national education policy since the first policy conference was held in 1947. It is this aspect of Pakistani education that has become the real challenge to our state and society.
In 1962, Pakistan's first military ruler, Gen. Ayub Khan, began centralization of control making it easier for the state under successive regimes to indoctrinate the unsuspecting. When he came to power, the populist Bhutto nationalized schools, colleges, and universities in keeping with the radical, socialist spirit of his Pakistan Peoples Party.
Bhutto had an ambitious education reforms plan. Quick nationalization would show he meant business. Between 1972 and 1974, some 3,000 schools and 175 colleges, including those run by Christian missionaries, were taken over by the state. His avowed intentions were noble: nationalization was supposed to improve access to quality education at subsidized fees or for free. But this was also a political project: staffing decisions and administrative mechanisms turned on constituency considerations; and powerful students' and teachers' unions could be co-opted and deployed to great effect in the streets, if the need ever arose. Fresh from losing East Pakistan to independence, Bhutto also introduced war studies as a high school subject.
Large bureaucracies resist change and are difficult to reform. Bhutto's nationalization of schools created a bureaucratic behemoth. The lumbering giant grew larger and presented more opportunities for corruption in the decades that followed. Today, Pakistan has one of the highest public sector nonteaching-to-teaching staff ratios in the world. State control also meant that the character of schools would change with the character of the regime in power.
After Bhutto was overthrown and hanged on trumped up charges by his Army chief, these institutions went into overdrive spewing out hate material and outrageously revisionist accounts of history. The pro-Islamist Gen. Zia-ul-Haq wanted students to know that India was the enemy. He also wanted to make better Muslims of all of Pakistan's students. Briefly during the Haq years, Arabic was introduced as a compulsory language in schools in a bid to rewrite our South Asian heritage as a purely Middle Eastern one.
But strongman Haq also allowed the private sector back into education, and encouraged investment in the sector. He was probably less concerned about state-run educational institutions having been transformed into fortresses of mediocrity, and seats of hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism than with sharing the burden. In 1968, the private sector enrolled 42 percent and 55 percent of secondary and intermediate students, respectively. With a much heavier post-nationalization burden, the state struggled to prevent schooling standards from plummeting.
All governments since Haq's have promoted private sector participation in education. In 2003, the last military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, even denationalized institutions like Lahore's Kinnaird College for Women and the Forman Christian College. Private sector enrollment is back up to over a third of the total. The World Bank's 2009 study on Pakistani education found that students in the private sector were doing better on tests, and that the schools were enrolling more students because competition had driven down tuition fees.
As Pakistan experiments with public-private partnerships and encourages investment, the balance between the public and private sectors seems to be recovering. A recent report by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., confirms that the Pakistani state lacks the capacity to provide universal education, and understood this soon after Bhutto. Nationalization was a mistake. What needs to change now is what we teach.
Mansoor is a dean at the Beaconhouse National University and a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

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