Dr. Tariq Rehman is an academician and an expert on linguistics in Pakistan. This piece, originally published in Ibtidah blog (old) in 2o14, is being re-published here for the purpose of sharing knowledge and trends in education (old and new) in Pakistan’s socio-economic and political contexts. We hope that this piece can help develop a better understanding on how education has been treated, politically and economically, in Pakistan.
The Pakistani state embarked upon a number of policies ever since the birth of the country. These were: expansion of education and literacy (modernization); dissemination of Urdu (vernacularization); ideological socialization and privatization. Let us take them turn by turn.
All education policy documents of the state emphasize the link between modernization and an educated work force. Thus achieving hundred per cent literacy was an avowed aim of all governments. This aim has not been achieved even now though literacy increased from 16 per cent in 1951 to 54 per cent of the population in 2013. The provinces which now control education continue this major policy but results are still disappointing owing to disproportionate population growth, the elite investing in private education and far less spending on state education than adequate.
The Pakistani state embarked upon a policy of disseminating Urdu as it was considered an identity symbol, next only in significance to Islam itself, of the Muslims of India during the movement for the creation of Pakistan. Official thinking was that Urdu would be an antidote for language-based ethnic movements which could break up the new state. However, Urdu was opposed in this anti-ethnic role by ethno-nationalists, seeking identity through their indigenous languages. However, despite this opposition people have learned Urdu for pragmatic reasons all over Pakistan as it is the language of wider communication within the country. As all literate and many illiterate people (over 50 per cent of the population) understand and speak it, it is much more widely known than the percentage of its native speakers (7.57) would suggest. It is disseminated through the government schools, the government colleges and universities which teach all except technical and scientific subjects in Urdu, the print media, radio and the television. Even illiterates who come in contact with urban people for providing services as well as all city dwellers know Urdu.
Though it is only recently that the Ministry of Education has officially recognized the trend towards the privatization of education at all levels, there have been private, expensive, elitist schools in the country ever since its inception. When controlled by the Christian missionaries they were said to be necessary in the name of religious tolerance (though they catered more for the Pakistani Muslim elite’s children than for Christians), while those administered or controlled by the armed forces (Public Schools and Cadet Colleges) were said to be necessary for a modernizing country since they prepared leaders. The armed forces now control or influence—through senior military officers who are on their boards of governors or principals – most of the cadet colleges and elitist public schools in the country. While the education policy documents declare that these institutions are financed by the fees paid by their pupils, the state subsidizes the elitist cadet colleges. The armed forces also control federal government educational institutions in cantonments and garrisons, run their own schools, colleges and universities as well as a huge educational network through their philanthropic services run mostly by retired military officers.
Besides the armed forces, elitist schools are owned as business empires with campuses in most big cities of Pakistan. These schools charge exorbitant tuition fees and prepare their students for the British O’ and A’ level examinations. There are also a large number of non-elitist English-medium schools in all cities and even small towns of the country. They cater to those who cannot afford the elitist schools but want to give their children better chances in life by teaching them English. Their fees, though far less than those of their elitist counterparts, is still forbidding for their impecunious clientele. Ironically, they do not teach good English as efficiency in that language is a product of exposure to it at home and in the peer group which are available only to the Westernized, urban elite.
The state uses education to create a cohesive national identity transcending ethnic identities in which Urdu and Islam are used as unifying symbols. Textbooks of social studies, history and languages are informed by this theme. The other major theme informing them is that of creating support for the garrison state, which involves glorification of war and the military. Islam, the history of Muslim conquests and rulers as well as the Pakistan movement are pressed into legitimating these concerns. Although General Zia ul Haq’s eleven year rule strengthened Islamization of the curricula, these trends were manifested in the early fifties when the first educational policies were created. The textbooks of government schools, and especially the subject of Pakistan Studies, carry the major part of the ideological burden.
The pedagogic side of education is also divided according to socio-economic class and medium of instruction. The madrassas follow a modified form of the traditional, eighteenth century curriculum called the Dars-I Nizami in which the canonical Arabic texts, which are memorized, are symbolic of valorized cultural memory and continuity. They also have polemical texts in Urdu to refute what they see as heresy and Western ideas. The emphasis on bellum justum (Jihad), which is blamed for terrorism in the press, does not come from the traditional texts but from extra-curricular pamphlets in Urdu and, even more importantly, from warriors back from Afghanistan, Kashmir or other battlefields in the Islamic world.
Education is subordinated to the class interests of the urban, professional, English-using elite in Pakistan. For its political interests this elite has been using the name of Islam, and has strengthened the religious lobby, in the process. It has also strengthened the hold of capitalist entrepreneurs on education making for its commodification, importing corporate governance into education and devaluing the state system of education further. Yet another trend may be to strengthen the power of the military in Pakistan. As more and more elitist schools and universities pass into the hands of the military, the number of teachers, administrators and business concerns under the patronage of the military will increase. More students will also be influenced by them. This will probably privilege the military’s views about national interest, the future of the country and economic priorities. This, in turn, may further dilute ideas of civilian supremacy which underpin democracies and jeopardize the chances of lasting peace in South Asia.
Most of these possibilities do not bode well for the future of the country but it is only by recognizing them that potentially negative language and educational policies may be reversed.