Imran Khan’s Education Policy – By A.A.Minai
Imran Khan wants to educate Pakistan. In a country where literacy is actually declining, that is an ambitious and important goal. Ostensibly, more than 25% of Pakistanis are literate, but true literacy is probably well below 10%. In rural areas, it is below 5%. And among rural women, it is less than 1%. In every sense, this is a tragedy. In one sense, it is also an opportunity. Here is virgin soil, ready to burst forth with new ideas, new insights, new modes of thinking. Here is the pristine folk wisdom of centuries ready to express itself in art, literature and thought beyond the jaded sensibilities of the habitually literate. Here, in other words, are new possibilities. Or are there?
The question is: Are we going to educate or are we just going to teach? In our part of the world, the two are almost synonymous, and that is a measure of our decline. Too many of us think of education as the teaching of facts, of values, of rules, and of other such banalities. Our current educational system is a purveyor of certainties. It is consumed by the twin imperatives of stuffing information and ideology down the throats of its victims. It does not tell them anything of discovery, of contemplation, or of doubt. It brings to the squalid masses of third-world swamps the glorious wisdom of great Western sages, and to the sinful denizens of these wicked times the pure values of an earlier age. It makes no contact with humanity, with the essential ebb-and-flow of ideas, with the strife and argument that accompanies each scientific advance and every new ideology. It does not raise the possibility that new facts and new ideologies may arise from the old; that today’s truth is tomorrow’s trash; and that to find something new, one must first question the old. Our educational system is not out to produce thinkers; it is geared to producing competent slaves — which is what it was designed for.
Given all this, it should be welcome news that point number 6 in Imran Khan’s new agenda is to discard the current educational system. What gives one pause, though, is the rationale that accompanies this prescription. The current system, it is said, creates “uncertainty” in the minds of youth. In other words, we need to “cleanse” our youth of the last few shreds of doubt that survive their passage through the current system. Like Sparta, we need a race of people that ask no questions, have no independent ideas, and follow the certainties they were taught in school like good boys and girls. As with all previous educational “reforms” in our history, this has the mark of a solution imposed from the top. This is hardly surprising, given that our inherited traditions value devotion above independence , discipline above initiative, and certainty above doubt. The way we have interpreted our socio-religious heritage glorifies the mainstream and denigrates the unusual. We elevate the orthodox and hunt down the heretic, never realizing that all new ideas were heresy in their time. Or perhaps realizing it too well. Those of us who have a vested interest in preserving the old order, the old animosities and alliances, will not come easily to a truly liberating educational agenda — one that teaches our youth that tradition is merely the raw material of future construction, and should be treated like raw material; that the possibility of discovery requires the will to doubt; that to question the sacred is not to profane it but to elevate it above dogma; that a truth that does not spawn new truths eventually withers away; and that wisdom does grow on trees if one has eyes to see.
Like Imran Khan, many Pakistanis these days are sincerely concerned about our educational system, but most of us think that all we need is more schools, more teachers, more books and more money. It is time we realized that we need more than that. We need a system that tells our youth that they have the power to discover, to create, to be everything that a human being can be. And for that, we must educate them in constructive doubt, not in lifeless certainty. We must raise in their young minds the possibility of independent thought so that they can create their own realities. And instead of giving them answers derived from yesterday’s dogmas, we must give them the desire to ask tomorrow’s questions.
At first sight, this might look like a prescription for promoting “Western style” free-thinking. What we need to realize is that freedom of thought was present in our societies well before the sahibs came. Those great works of our Arab, Persian, Indian and Turkish ancestors which are so proudly trotted out as evidence of our former achievement were not the fruits of dogma. We have a long tradition of heterodoxy and original thought — seen most notably in our literary and mystical heritage. We do not need to look towards the West for inspiration. However, it is also true that, having snuffed out most creative thinking over the last several centuries, we must now learn from the experience of those who have recently been at its forefront — the intellectuals, thinkers and scientists of the West. Ideas are neither Eastern nor Western, and we should take care lest, in our desire to repudiate Western “immorality,” we also discard the healthy intellectual dynamism that has characterized Western society since the Renaissance, and which is in large measure responsible for its current dominance. In other words, there IS a baby in this bathwater, and it is ours too.
So far, our educational system has assaulted our young minds in four ways:
1) It has lied about our history, creating simplistic myths of good and evil from complex events; 2) It has portrayed human progress selectively as the work of a few intellectually inaccessible individuals, obscuring the participation of normal human beings in this great enterprise; 3) It has suppressed individuality by making it the prerogative only of the truly heroic few and pre-emptively denying most people the right to high aspirations; and 4) It has censored thought and promoted prejudice by establishing an orthodoxy of ideas.
Any educational reform must address these four issues by including the following features:
- History must be taught in a way that gives more than one officially sanctioned view of events, with an emphasis on understanding different points of view. Historical figures should not be sanctified or demonized out of their normal humanity, but should be seen in the context of their times and their situations. And change should be seen not only in its political, ethnic or religious aspect, but also in the socio-economic aspect, which often overrides all others.
- Scientific, technological and political achievement should be presented in a way that increases a young person’s sense of participation, raising the real possibility of aspiring to such achievement. Chronicles of kings and famous people play a part in this, but the student must be able to see his or her own face among the protagonists of history.
- Individual, non-conformist, and creative thinking should be encouraged rather than penalized during education. The tradition of “correct” and “incorrect” answers must be replaced by a deeper, more flexible attitude that recognizes truth and error but also does not deny the continuum between them and keeps open the possibility that tomorrow’s profound truths may emerge from today’s errors. This is not an argument for a values-free educational system, but for one that recognizes the richness of human existence.
We have tried too long to impose simplicity on the mind. Now let us celebrate its inherent complexity.
The Author is an academic at Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio