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En route to literacy

Pakistan literacy March, 2008: One would get the shock of his life after finding out the literacy rate of Zimbabwe. It's 90.7 per cent according to the CIA Fact Book, 2003 estimate. But wait a minute ... this is Zimbabwe, a socially and economically deprived African country with just over 12 million inhabitants, and not China or Japan, world's economic giants that we are talking about here.
And Pakistan's? A vibrant nation consisting of more than 160 million souls and of course with much better sets of social and economic resources than those possessed by Zimbabwe at least, it's 49.9 (2005). Believe it or not, it's the ground reality. Statistical figures can be misleading though but sometimes they do signal many facts, direct and indirect.

Education is not just about the paper and the pen. It concerns gaining and utilising correct, up-to-date knowledge besides developing one's character, all for helping humanity reach new heights of intellect and morality in different fields of human interest. Education distinguishes human beings from the rest of the creatures in many ways. It's helpful in almost every walk of life, individually as well as collectively. For a nation it's a matter of life and death, to put it in a nutshell.

More than 60 years since gaining independence, if our nation has less than 50 per cent literate heads, then naturally the burning question is: what are the reasons, fundamental reasons?

Right from the preschool stage through to primary, secondary, higher-secondary, graduation, masters level and beyond, there are numerous-cum-compound problems of every kind. Heaps of pages can be consumed.

And therefore to cover all the areas related to the difficulties faced by Pakistan's education system in a limited space, I will try to address the imperative subject by dividing it into five key segments - students, parents, teachers, private sector and government.

Primarily, my piece revolves around school and college-related setbacks which are generally faced here in Pakistan, and which are regarded as the leading factors in steering a learner to higher studies or impelling him to go off track, sometimes irrevocably.

Starting from students, the most affected ones. An amorphous bifurcation of the education system (government, matric/private, O/A Levels) coupled with language medium barrier, lack of proper facilities particularly at government institutions/rural areas, scarcity of practical knowledge (which they don't get from teachers), effects of media distractions, non-existence of cohesion among fellow students due to the "class-conscious" stance fed into some of them by society and what not. A majority of them don't even have set education goals.

Recently, a few incidents of reportedly intolerable corporal penalties given to students, also resulting in a learner's death in a school in Sindh, have cropped up as the latest hurdle for juvenile minds as to what they should expect in the near future.

In fact, one feels our pupils don't have any specific direction to follow and therefore what to talk of them being aware of their education goals. And whose fault is this anyway? Needless to say, not the students'.

According to the UN Common Database (2004) Pakistan's youth literacy rate (15-24 age group) is 53.9 per cent - 72nd in the world. If one believes in the number and that there were 12 million Internet users in Pakistan in 2006 then why are we lagging behind in overall education development? No matter how many young heads are operating Internet in Pakistan, it can't reflect the true state of the country's education, which is based on awareness in every nook and cranny and not by just using a technology haphazardly with no proper aim.

Then the highly unstable political and economic situations, with the aforementioned obstacles already in the students' way turn out to be a nail in the coffin for many who tend to switch their thoughts and actions very quickly, running wild before ultimately falling as soft victims to anti-social activities like burglary, illegal immigration, drugs addiction and gangsterism.

So if our youth are not inclined towards gaining education then it needs collective, sincere and swift attention at every level - from institutions, parents and undoubtedly the people at the helm of education affairs.

Parents (or guardians), with whom students spend around two-thirds of their time, apart from the duration at education spots, naturally bear the brunt in the attempt to see their children well-trained both academically and morally.

After speaking to some parents on this very subject, three things emerged very prominently: education rapidly getting expensive, moral values diminishing at learning centres and sub-standard quality of education quite rampant.

An experienced school directress, recently witnessed an educated but dejected lady in Karachi burst into tears because she was compelled to put two of her five children into the Cambridge system while the rest into the Matric (usually considered inferior to Cambridge) due to the extreme costs. Forced divide between one's own children? A shocker indeed.

There is the stationery, tuition fees, transportation, uniform besides the ever-present annual charges to tackle. What should the guardians do? It's a mind-boggling situation. Think about a government-private school split for a parent with six children.

" If character is lost nothing remains behind", very truly said.

Due to an obvious lack of moral guidance at our current schools and colleges, the parents are faced with yet another predicament.

Mere imparting of worldly facts and figures, and negligible or no ethical training has been producing money-making individuals and not 'humane humans' who would embrace and spread virtue sincerely besides earning their living.

A common observation is that it's often the abusive-cum-vulgar behaviour that triggers an altercation between students (or even between the student and teacher) at school, college or even university, and that leads to something very ominous in many cases. Therefore if institutions start playing their role consistently to help develop well-bred academically viable individuals, then we can surely dream of a better social setup for the future.

Now a word on quality, a rare commodity in our present-day academic system at various stages. Though again one finds the space here to write, or rather cover all its aspects, on this grave matter quite short, it can be opined with full conviction that neither the guardians nor the learners themselves are satisfied with the worth of education they get in most educational organisations owing to some sound reasons.

A lack of facilities (at times even basic), all theoretical stuff and scarce practical knowledge, unqualified/unprofessional teachers (both private and public), absence of a government-regulated body to assess institutions' performances on a constant basis and inadequate educational trips have hindered us in developing a genuinely competitive and subsequently productive learning environment.

Guardians having their due rights also have some responsibilities individually. Being the closest to their young ones, they need to direct them as frank and true friends in their academic endeavours besides directing them judiciously on the subject of character-building.

The teacher, due to many reasons, is the most significant factor in determining the value of education passed on to the pupils, and if an educator treats a study-related point as a matter of ego, something which happened at one of Pakistan's renowned universities, then one doesn't need rocket science to figure out the general mindset of the instructors employed across the country. "The best teachers are those who remain students forever", goes the saying.

The question is: How many instructors are willing to learn themselves? While acknowledging the fact that it's always a two-way process, i.e., the positive reaction of students to the efforts of teachers and vice versa, being more mature than their students, the teachers are duly expected to play a major part by using their prudence, knowledge and experience to make the younger heads realise the complete meaning of education.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that teachers are not so well taken care of at many private and public organisations. Basic issues such as insufficient pay, non-existent social protection, random and politically-motivated appointments, massive workload and dearth of progress opportunities are all asking for solutions. Long-term success can only be an illusive dream without much incentive for teachers.

In fact, investment in developing and fulfilling the valid requirements of teachers can bring a huge difference, both academically as well as socially.

As education has become just a 'profitable business' in our cities whereas rural areas remain deserted in this connection, as an experienced teacher working at a private school in Karachi cautioned that perhaps the nation is not yet fully aware of the actual merit of education, a common Pakistani citizen with a spirit for honesty and nation building has the right to ask: who is responsible for this yawning discrepancy? Common sense points towards the government.

And why not? Actually, apart from the fundamental anomalies such as snail-paced upgrade of syllabi (specifically science-related), quota system, the various mafias' involvement in numerous institutions, absence of a comprehensive implementation of education policies, unequal opportunities due to the uneven distribution of wealth in society, acute shortage of polytechnic institutions and the fragile link between engineering universities and the manufacturing industry, the government also faces a colossal challenge of convincing Pakistan's heartfelt citizens as to whether the public sector is doing its utmost to advance education, both in numbers and standard.

Education spending utilised during the fiscal 2006-07, according to a civil organisation named Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), was 33 per cent of the total budgetary sum allocated by the government. And during the first quarter of 2007-08 (July-Sept), it was only 7.6 per cent, signalling that a lot has to be done for putting things back on track.

And above all, spending a scanty 2-2.5 per cent of the GDP on education cannot be justified in any way.

A society (both government and public) that can forfeit a gigantic amount of Rs112 billion, as revealed in a latest press report, due to the improper and insufficient sanitation procedures in the country, we, with an organised and combined effort can also spend a bit more on education, the most profitable venture.

Considering all of this, one can form an opinion that as a nation we must prioritise our goals immediately, rising above all minor differences that we may have, to secure the future generations. Students, teachers, parents, government and the private sector will all have to work, and work hard, keeping in mind a common goal: to gain and spread education, i.e., 'knowledge and morals' throughout Pakistan to attain new heights of understanding and goodness as an optimistic person rightly said: "No one can go back and change a bad beginning, we can start now and create a successful ending." For Pakistan, I replace "anyone" by "everyone".

We all need to toil and talk less, as less as possible maybe. And firmly anticipate a big change that will surely come, one day.

By S.M. Ibrahim Farooqi (Dawn)
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