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Learning Curve | Azam Gill

Learning Curve | Azam Gill

ISLAM enshrines a love for knowledge probably unmatched by any other belief system. Popular Muslim belief subscribes to a search for knowledge even unto the ends of the earth: just governance is considered knowledge-dependent. To be learned, then, is a cardinal virtue and ignorance, a sin of omission. The intellectual strength of flourishing Muslim empires was based on fine scholars produced by their madressahs. Pakistan needs to acquire such a body of theoreticians to whisper words of wisdom into its politicians’ ears.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony and the power struggle through ideas has influenced all political schools of thought. Ideological factions seek to customise mindsets by designing curricula.

This article will bypass the polemical curricula battlefield and seek to draw attention to access to education and the national talent pool.

Reforming education requires a rethink of policy.

Generally speaking, education is a state-administered fundamental right of citizens. It is supposed to guarantee full access to learning and training, thereby ensuring that the largest possible national talent pool provides quality recruits to serve a nation.

Pakistan’s Muslim heritage of venerating learning has become hostage to overlapping rich-poor and urban-rural disparities, the general state of the economy and corruption practiced as a recreational sport.

The overlap makes it difficult to tackle a single component of what are multiple problems. For example, even consensually streamlined curricula can reach a dead end when there are either no schools, or students cannot reach them, or teachers on the payroll do not exist, or diplomas are on a promotional sale.

As long as Pakistan remains an under-construction civil society in which corruption is strong and the economy weak, most education reforms will only generate good press.

Legislating solutions to these problems is slow, arduous and risky, giving birth to further challenges. Inaction is even worse, silently condoning dishonesty, incompetence and impotence.

The situation was not very different in France when Napoleon Bonaparte decided to streamline the unwieldy French education system. His nation’s talent was mired in multi-faceted disparity, stifling socio-economic mobility to stagnate the talent pool. Consequently, Bonaparte redressed state education to be what it is today, based on clear budget allocations, inspections, competitive exams and a hierarchy of educational institutions. The system went through its birthing pains, teenage and maturity, though it is currently considered as needing further reform.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried his hand at nationalising education which is why it had to be de-nationalised. Quality education today in Pakistan, hotly competing with the erstwhile near-monopoly of Christian institutions, is mainly private, whereas in France the state institutions encapsulate quality. Private institutions are only considered worthy of well-heeled duffers.

State or private educational institutions in France are allowed to receive financial support from business enterprises benefitting from a tax break. A company can choose to give all or part of its business tax to the state or an educational institution. Businesses are also required to spend 2pc of their gross payroll on their personnel’s training and continuing education. Many of the contracts are accorded to local educational institutions, an added financial benefit.

Although superimposing a system onto another culture is a recipe for disaster, an adaptation may be considered for Pakistan.

All or a percentage of the seats of quality institutions should be accessible by district, provincial or national competitive exams. There will be a need here to guard stringently against corruption and cheating in the make-up, mentoring, and administration of these tests. This may be a bit of a tall order whilst waiting for Pakistan to improve its place on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but there can be little doubt that the need is there.

The potential for corrupting such a system is ever-present. A company colluding with dishonest educational institutions to embezzle taxes is an alarming scenario but transparency can be helpful. These transactions posted on the internet with public access would submit to the direct scrutiny of taxmen, concerned parents, teachers and the press. The business tax thus received by educational institutions should comfortably finance grants for those successful candidates of the competitive exams whose family incomes justify them.

This could relieve the pressure on the educational system while waiting for other, national problems to be successfully tackled — obstacles which the educational system may effectively bypass.

Allowed to function with liberty, the Muslim veneration of learning is a counter-force to parameters that have made Pakistan’s learners hostage to corruption, incompetence and the curricula war.

The writer is a novelist and lecturer in English at the University of Toulouse II, France.

Learning Curve | Azam Gill

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2015

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