Education as a Political Issue? (2)


This post continues the conversation started in a previous post on the topic of education as a political issue. In the last post, I had referred to Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen who lamented the absence of education from the political domain–or let us say the public domain. This post is about the rhetoric of reform in Pakistan. It raises, and also attempts to respond, to the question of why it is that slogans such as ‘education emergency’ etc. evoke only a lacklustre response from both the segments of population most affected most by the lack of education as well as the political elites in Pakistan.

Usually, the solutions for the problems of education reform in Pakistan are presented in technical terms. But there are also times when some half-hearted political rhetoric of ‘emergency’ is invoked but only to disappear just as quickly as it appears. My reference here is to the recent calls for ‘education emergency’ by the Pakistan Education Task Force which were quickly reduced, more or less, to a mere website. Clearly, the language of emergency when associated with education did not evoke the same kind of response as when it was associated with political actions of military dictators.

So why is it that phrases like ‘education emergency’ fall on deaf ears in Pakistan? I would like to first point out that its not that people do not care about education. In fact education does figure very prominently in the narrative of individual success and social mobility. Education is taken very seriously, especially by individuals in the so-called middle socio economic strata, who fully expect future economic returns from a good education. This is not necessarily true for the poorer segments of Pakistani society. Many of them, when asked might say that they send their children to schools not because of the jobs waiting for them after graduation–there aren’t any and they know it–but because they want their children to learn to respect their parents and to follow religion.

So while the middle class sends their children to schools for returns in this world [thus for secular reasons], the lower socio-economic strata perhaps send their children to schools less for economic returns but more for other reasons. While there may be different expectation and forms of returns to education, they are nevertheless an important consideration. In fact Amartya Sen refers to this particular difference in expectations to ground his objections to the ‘utility calculus.’ As he puts it:

The utility calculus can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived:…The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambiguously see as feasible. The mental metric of pleasure or desire is just too malleable to be a firm guide to deprivation and disadvantage.

So the language of ‘education emergency’ may appear strangely irrelevant to a great majority of people suffering from deprivation in Pakistan. But what about the middle and upper classes? They would be indifferent to an ‘education emergency’ too, but for other reasons. Like the deprived, many from the middle and upper classes will also find the talk of education emergency irrelevant. Their apathy toward the talk of an education crisis in Pakistan is captured well by the following incident. It was shared with me by a friend:

While on board a flight from Karachi to Islamabad, I sat next to a woman who was in Pakistan foreign service. She was talking about how high the Pakistanis score on the Cambridge exams and how that bode well for Pakistan’s future. I replied that it was great to have those kinds of results, but unfortunately it was only a very small number of students who were performing at that level, and that countries need a critical mass of well-educated people, not just an elite. I don’t think she was too happy with me saying that.

To cut to the chase, the rhetoric of education emergency does not seem to evoke much of a response from Pakistanis. The problem of educating everyone in the society does not mean much to both deprived and affluent.

Talk of education reforms leading to common schools for all children is not part of a narrative of impending doom [without mass education] and promised salvation [with mass education]. Will the state be doomed if it does not take steps to provide a decent education to all children? Yes or No! Pakistani politicians and elite will say yes, but behave as if their response was no! Education has never been central to the political rhetoric in Pakistan. This is not to say that education does not figure in the social imaginary of Pakistani elite. It does, but mostly as a charitable act.

People commonly use the term sadqa-e-jaria —the ongoing charity—for their contributions to the education of other people’s children. Setting up a school is sadqa-e-jaria inasmuch as it will benefit some children who will mostly likely benefit other lives and so on, setting in motion a kind of benefits stream. Unlike taxation, charity, however, is not an obligation. Thus, those well meaning rich people who have the intent, and can afford it, support it. I don’t have data but I suspect that the number of charities and philanthropies actually running the schools, sometimes even chains of schools, is a lot higher in Pakistan than in, say, the US or UK [I wrote this in an earlier post as well]. While these charities should be praised for their services to the poor, it is only as much that they can do. They do not have the capacity to educate all children.

In the US, UK, and many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, charities do a lot of other good things, and many of them are perhaps similar to sadqa-e-jaria but running free schools is typically not one of those things. Perhaps, the need doesn’t register on their do-good-to-the-world agendas because the state has already taken upon itself to educate everyone through taxation. Some economists looking at Pakistani education scene are quick to bundle all non-state schools as private, which I think is a category mistake. Perhaps finer distinctions within this overarching category of private are needed, but that is a topic for another post perhaps.

In this post I just wanted to say that provision of educational services to poorer sections of society in Pakistan is articulated more as an act of charity and ‘ehsan’ than much else.  This is supported with reference to Islamic injunctions (Sadqa-e-jaria) and not to statecraft. Both the rich and the poor have little real incentive to turn public education into a political issue.  The children of the former are not served by it and the latter has been politically numbed in large part due to deprivation and lack of opportunity. As far as the elite who already send their children to private schools are concerned, clearly it would cost them a whole lot more if the state were to ask them to pay for the education of other people’s children. So there is not much of an incentive for them to support any change in the current order of things.

This distinction between education as charity and education as statecraft is critical in understanding the failure of public education. When politicians–like for example Mr. Shahbaz Sharif who recently announced a grand scheme to build state of the art schools for the poor–do something for schools and education, they are at pains to make it appear as an act of magnanimity of their party’s government.  The schools for poor are either an ‘ehsan’ [a favor] or an act of ‘charity’ aimed at securing a place in paradise.

But this has not been the case in places where education is seen as central to statecraft. For a more recent example, see this paper on the connection of statecraft and moral and citizenship education in Singapore.

A similar storyline for the United States of America! There, the early revolutionaries did not, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book On Revolution, see education as means to change the social structure or provide social mobility to individuals. To them education was critical, not “in order to enable every citizen to rise on the so-called ladder but because the welfare of the country and the functioning of its political institutions hinged upon education of all citizens.” (p.62).

The idea of education reforms in the case of America always came sandwiched between impending damnation and promised salvation. The reforms occupied, and continue to do so, an ever-present space between a never-fully-prevented damnation and an ever-elusive salvation. The education historians Tyack and Cuban captured this dialectic of damnation and salvation well in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia: “In the 1840s Horace Mann took his audience to the edge of the precipice to see the social hell that lay before them if they did not achieve salvation through the common school.” (p.1) In the case of Horace Mann, the common school would bring salvation by turning ‘a rough and divided collection of peoples into a self-governing political community. This discourse constituted self-governing political community as explicitly absent from the society and a promised fruit of education.

So the upshot of this very brief note is that in Pakistan, perhaps in a lot of other countries as well, the political rhetoric associated with delivery of education is very different from one in which education is part of the statecraft. Where education was—and is—viewed as part of the statecraft, the state robustly asserts its stakes (Also take a look at the case of Singapore).

In Pakistan education service delivery to the poor is articulated as a favour and a charity a lot more than a means to produce a citizenry. At times though, the public funds are used for education as a certain kind of concession to a limited elite. The examples of such concessions are the elite divisional and district public schools, the super-elite public schools such as the Aitchison college, and cadet colleges sprinkled over the entire country. Speaking of the cadet colleges, there are perhaps more of them in Pakistan than in any other country of the world. A cadet college was recently announced by the current government to the town of WANA in South Waziristan Agency. These institutions run partly or fully on public funds, in cash or in kind.

Arguably the spending on elite public education institutions could be seen as the ways in which Pakistani state uses education as statecraft. But if that is the case then the buck had already stopped here before independence. As Lord Macaulay had famously said in his minutes of 1937:

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern…

The current logic, if there is any, of spending public funds on institutions for the children of elite seems to be similar to that which underpinned Macaulay’s argument in the mid 19th century.

Can constitutional amendments such as 25-A that declare education to be free and compulsory up to age 16 be seen as signs of a shift in this logic. Probably not! especially since they are arrived not as a result of debates in the public domain and thus do not represent a hammered out consensus. Given this, we should not be surprised that this amendment has not generated much of a debate in the parliament on how this constitutional requirement will be operationalised.

What then should be the strategic question that well meaning reformers ought to be posing for education in Pakistan? One possible response comes from Drèze and Sen, who suggest that the critical question before Indian reformers was how to turn education into a political issue.

Do let me know what you think?

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

One Response to “Education as a Political Issue? (2)”

  1. We have seen many reforms initiatives in the past which ended up without showing any significant overall change. The reason for this no-win situation was obvious, i.e. poor practices were enforced through poor teaching for poor children—in the name of reforms. I see this in the light of Sen’s arguments for stressing the need of education (as a political will) for social change and in the pursuit of equity and justice. The kind of education that is currently being offered in typically low cost and Public schools does not make much sense and brings little or no advantage to those who receive it. Unfortunately those, who have spoken of right of education/ desire of education/ importance of education, have not ever explained what they actually meant by education.

    In this discussion, I personally admire and agree with what Ejaz Haider wrote once in one of his column in daily times:
    “Education in and of itself means nothing. For instance, it is not likely to save mankind from itself and mankind has only one enemy: itself; neither is it likely to improve things whether in politics or any other sphere of life (a trade secret, I am letting it out).
    There then. If anyone tells you that education is important because it allows us to help mankind and address its problems…social, political, economic etcetera…the correct response would be to laugh in that person’s face and move on.” http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=20084\20\story_20-4-2008_pg3_6

    Here I intend to pose this question to our educators to consider other way round:
    Is education merely getting children into school and conventional schooling considered to be the only way to get the desirous result of social change?

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