Fixing Pakistan's Schools
Badar Alam is the Lahore bureau chief of the Herald, one of Pakistan’s leading current affairs magazines. He talks with FRONTLINE/World’s Joe Rubin about Pakistan’s education problems and answers questions sent in from readers. Read the full transcript of the interview here.
BROWSE WHAT VIEWERS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT FIXING PAKISTAN'S SCHOOLS
Interview with Badar Alam
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted over webcam with Alam in Lahore on February 22, 2010.
Joe Rubin: David Montero, in his documentary The Lost Generation, presents a pretty grim picture of the situation there. Is it as grim as it seems?
Badar Alam: Actually, it is very, very grim. The situation is extremely horrible. In terms of our administration, we see no initiative. In terms of finances, we have hardly any money available for education. In terms of curriculum, we have a curriculum that is very biased, extremely out-dated, and there are no serious efforts to revise it according to the needs of the age. And lastly, we have an education system that deprives people of their political, social, cultural, and economic contexts and turns them into something other than what they should be.
That must be very sad for people like you, just seeing the results of that situation. Do you have kids yourself?
I have three kids. Two of them are going to school.
"The situation is extremely horrible. In terms of our administration,
we see no initiative. In terms of finances, we have hardly any money
available for education. In terms of curriculum, we have a curriculum
that is very biased, extremely out-dated." -- Badar Alam
And how's that going?
It's going pretty well. But there were a number of concerns when I was trying to find a suitable school for my kids as they were growing up. For instance, at one of the schools where I initially sent my little girl, I had a problem with the teachers, who would always object to the way she dressed. They would always say that her clothes are too short. Or sometimes they would say that her clothes are not appropriate for the school. We are talking about a girl who was only three years old at that time. And then I sent them to another school where, one day, my son came back and he asked me, "Father do we have the fighting capability to destroy the Indian Air Force?" At home, we had never talked about India and Pakistan fighting. It was at school that he learned all of this. So it's a continuous worry for parents who want their children to be open-minded, to be liberal, to be peaceful, to learn about the rest of the world as they learn about themselves and their own country. It's a struggle.
You're a renowned journalist and intellectual in Pakistan, yet it's been a struggle for you. For the parents who don't have the same kind of resources or the time to put into the system, it must be really tough.
You're absolutely right. There are a lot of problems. And, in fact, most parents just send their kids to school, and they just stop worrying about the kind of education that they get. I think that this is one major gap in the educational system that a little amount of political, administrative, and economic reform could address. It needs to come from the community itself. People need to be concerned about the education that the younger generations are getting in Pakistan.
"There has been no serious effort at the government level or
at the college and school-administration levels to get a revision
of that curriculum, which is not just biased but poisonous
against a number of people." -- Badar Alam
As you know, we really want to reach out to people in Pakistan and people who are passionate about the problems in Pakistan's education system as well as potential solutions. Through a partnership with the Dawn Media Group in Pakistan, we put out the word that we wanted to get peoples’ reactions, and they sent us video questions and comments.
The first one we wanted to talk about came from Hamsad Masood. He is a college student now at Princeton University, but in high school, he and other students set out to analyze the education situation in Pakistan. He was very concerned about the bias and prejudice he saw in textbooks and curriculums across the education system. Is that something that you're seeing there?
I think the man has hit the nail right on its head. There is a lot of bias in our textbooks. A lot of rewriting of Pakistan's national history has happened. There has been no serious effort at the government level or at the college and school-administration levels to get a revision of that curriculum, which is not just biased but poisonous against a number of people -- not just those living outside of Pakistan but those inside of Pakistan as well. For instance, there are a lot of people living in Pakistan who do not adhere to the majority faith, which is Islam. And most of the time, they have been at the receiving end of what the curriculum is teaching students at the schools and colleges. There have been some horrible incidents in which some very deadly violence was perpetrated against the members of the minorities, only because of the situation at the schools.
In the documentary and in this gentleman's comments, you hear about demonizing India and America and England. Is that something that's being addressed or is it still a big problem?
Over the last 15 or 20 years, there have been some half measures to address the problem. But I think the basic problem remains the very idea of what kind of education we want to give to our students. Do we want to make them better Muslims? Do we want to make them better Pakistanis? Or do we want them to turn out to be better human beings and better citizens? I think we are trying to create Muslims. We are trying to create Pakistanis. But we are not giving them any sense of being good citizens and human beings.
The documentary makes the point, or seems to make the point, that public schools are as radicalizing as madrassas. And we've heard a lot about madrassas being a breeding ground for terrorists. Do you agree with that?
I absolutely agree with that, because if you look at the leadership of radical Islam in Pakistan, you will find very few madrassa graduates. Yes, the madrassas have provided the large majority of foot soldiers. But the leadership -- the ideological leadership and the political leadership -- of the entire radical Islam movement in Pakistan has come from the mainstream educational institution. And some of these graduates of mainstream education have not just come from ordinary public sector schools, but prestigious privately run institutions.
One of the main leaders who was involved in the murder of [Wall Street Journal reporter] Daniel Pearl, the man who actually masterminded Pearl’s murder [Omar Sheikh] was a graduate of Aitchison College [an elite private college in Lahore]. So we cannot say that all the people involved in radical Islamism in Pakistan are just madrassa students. Many of them and, most important, their leaders have come from the mainstream educational system.
"There's a lot of rote learning in Pakistan that encourages following
authority without challenging it. It has a lot to do with the political
and the religious system that we have, in which challenging the
authority is not seen as something very noble." -- Badar Alam
The documentary also talks about a problem reporter David Montero describes as "shelterless" schools -- schools with no walls. Is this new for Pakistan? What was it like when you went to school? Did you go to public school or private school?
I went to a public school; and it's very interesting that the school I went to did not have any building at all. It did not have any rooms. We used to study in a graveyard where my family, my ancestors are buried. It had absolutely no infrastructure at all. And we just had one teacher. And I think [what made it work] was the dedication of the teacher along with the active and very helpful community supporting her in everything that she wanted. But when it got the rooms and it got the walls, it lost the community support.
So you’re saying it's the sense of community that matters most?
The school went as far as the dedication of the teacher and the community support. At a certain stage, because the teacher was retired and the community had lost its interest in keeping the school going, the level of education and the standard of education being imparted went drastically down. So I think it's a combination of the administrative ability of the state, the financial apparatus of the state as well as the community spirit and the dedication of the teacher that makes a good school.
Let's look at another comment that came in from one of the readers of Dawn. This gentleman mentions Three Cups of Tea [the best-selling book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver] and what a profound influence it had on him in terms of demonstrating the passion that people can have for education in Pakistan. He also says that he feels people are learning in a system that just teaches by rote. What's your comment on that?
I think he's absolutely right. There's a lot of rote learning in Pakistan that encourages following authority without challenging it. It has a lot to do with the political and the religious system that we have, in which challenging the authority is not seen as something very noble. Unfortunately, our education system, by emphasizing rote learning and not allowing the students to learn with an open mind and ask questions with an open mind, perpetuates that system of authority. So, yes, he is absolutely right.
But on another level, he's also right in the sense that people have a lot of passion and desire to educate their younger generations. But I personally feel that this desire and passion need to be contextualized. If you educate the son of a farmer until the tenth grade, in 99 percent of the cases, he's not going to take up the profession that his father has taken up, because the education system does not educate him in his own context, which is agriculture.
It trains him in something else. It trains him to become a good clerk, for instance. It trains him to become a good teacher, maybe. But it doesn't provide enough learning, enough training to carry on the profession his father has been doing. As a result, there has been a lot of social displacement and a lot of physical displacement of the graduates who come out of the schools and colleges; they leave their ancestral places and their ancestral professions to move out to the cities and to other professions. It definitely leaves the original inhabitants at a disadvantage, because there's a lot of brain drain from the villages and the far-flung areas. It concentrates the entire brainpower and professional power in a few big cities.
"I would say that creating islands of excellence, which a lot of international aid has already created in Pakistan, has not helped. We need to address the sea of mediocrity that is surrounding those islands of excellence" -- Badar Alam
In the documentary, the reporter talked to school administrators about physical buildings, which were either in a shabby condition or didn't exist at all. But the administrators seemed reluctant to acknowledge this fact and also the fact that that the textbooks were biased. They would say, "That's not our area. I can't comment on that. I'm not an expert on that." It suggested there is a lack of critical thinking, not just with teachers but through the whole system.
You are absolutely right. There is no critical thinking that is encouraged and promoted through the educational system in Pakistan. And, as I said earlier, this is mainly because of the political and religious culture that we have, in which challenging any authority is not always thought of as a very good thing. But on another level, when it comes to devising a curriculum that creates good citizens and good human beings -- definitely [that needs] people with critical minds, people with the ability to ask questions, people with the ability to have open minds toward basic concepts of education. But it is easier to shift responsibility to those who do not want to criticize or critically analyze anything in the name of education in Pakistan.
Let's look at another comment that came in. This reader points out that there are some serious efforts at reforming education in Pakistan, and he's part of one of those efforts. He talks about a project called the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) in the rural areas of Pakistan. Do you know about this? Is it effective? And are we not hearing enough about success stories like this?
Unfortunately, it is one of those false revolutions that the biggest political governments promise the people of Pakistan every now and then. The National Commission for Human Development, or NCHD as it is called, was the brainchild of the administration of Pervez Musharraf, who was the military dictator ruling Pakistan until 2008. It was basically aimed at improving the physical infrastructure for the health and education departments. But during the four or five years that the program ran under his administration, it did not create the results that it aimed at. There was a lot of corruption, and there were a number of cases of misadministration in running its projects. And some of its projects were not in the far-flung areas but in the areas where some political strongmen in Musharraf’s administration came from.
Is this linked to the whole issue of ghost schools [schools that mainly exist only on paper]?
It is, but this one is an effort that does not really try to improve the existing mainstream educational infrastructure. It tries to build another alternative public-sector educational system, which is theoretically aimed at providing education to the less privileged far-flung areas. But, practically speaking, it has turned out to be another white elephant that the people of Pakistan are financing. And it is not producing the results that its proponents say that it is producing.
I would say that there is a revamping of the program under the current elected government. I think it's very early to comment on its success or failure. But definitely it is not creating the kind of revolution that this gentleman is speaking about.
I want to close by asking you about the fact there is international concern about the cycle of violence and war in Pakistan and Afghanistan and how it has been linked to education. The Obama administration, the United Nations, and much of the world are concerned with this problem. Do you have any advice for President Obama or for people in the outside world who want to come in and help tackle the problem of education in Pakistan?
I have only two small pieces of advice. I am not an expert on education, so I cannot give any technical advice. But as a journalist who has watched the educational system in Pakistan for a number of years, I would say that creating islands of excellence, which a lot of international aid has already created in Pakistan, has not helped. We need to address the sea of mediocrity that is surrounding those islands of excellence.
So the second part of the advice is that we cannot rebuild education by rebuilding walls around schools. We need to take a comprehensive approach that addresses a number of problems at the same time: the physical infrastructure problem, the administrative problems, and the problems of the curriculum. It also needs to look into and revise and reform the examination system.
Then, of course, we need to look into what kind of a political, social, and cultural context this education is providing and how that is relevant to Pakistan. Is the mainstream educational system depriving students of knowledge of their existing context? Is it a good thing? Is it is a bad thing? I think all these things need to be taken into consideration in a comprehensive manner before we are able to launch a successful program for education reform in Pakistan.
If you would like to leave comments about the interview or the documentary "Lost Generation," join the discussion here.