Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I really mean by education

Remember those hypotheticals that your seventh grade school teacher asked you when she didn't have a teaching plan: "If there was one thing you could change about Pakistan, what would it be?" The twelve-year-old me's answer was invariably education: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be educated." Today, I would answer more specifically: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be able to read, write and think for themselves."

The Garage School (TGS) is an NGO that is working to make the twelve-year-old me's wish come true. TGS runs two primary schools in DHA, Karachi – one literally out of a garage – and provides free education to young boys and girls from the low-income Neelum and Shah Rasool Colonies. Excellent, excellent work, the twelve-year-old me would say, but after visiting TGS the 22-year-old me was only dismayed at the kind of education TGS is imparting to its students.

The emphasis of the school is entirely on discipline and rote learning. To impress me, a teacher asked the brightest student in her class to tell us what he knew about Pakistan. What followed was a verbatim recital of a passage from some textbook on Pakistan. In a breathless monologue, the boy quoted, "As a Pakistani, it is our duty to worship God, respect our parents and love our countrymen. Pakistan is a great nation that was formed in 1947. It has four provinces. The first province is Punjab. Its capital is Lahore..." So on and so forth. Later, the entire class parroted, with some assistance from the science teacher, slogans against smoking cigarettes and chewing paan. The children were basically being mass-programmed to follow the values that the school thought appropriate.

I know, this happens here at the best private schools too. Schools like to produce obedient and disciplined students, who have just enough brainpower to regurgitate all the axioms they want to feed them but not enough to think independently or question anything, least of all the schools and their axioms.

But that isn't the kind of students that schools should be producing. It won't give us a population that can innovate and revolutionize or engage in rational debate, tolerate a diversity of opinions and adapt quickly to change. It will simply produce people who can read and write and at most hold a low level white collar job. Students deserve more than that; and we as a country need more than that. Much, much more.

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