Lan­guage and think­ing

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zubeida Mustafa

ED­U­CA­TION is a much talked about is­sue in to­day’s Pak­istan. Un­for­tu­nately it pro­vokes lit­tle se­ri­ous think­ing and even less ac­tion. I keep hop­ing that this talk will turn into ac­tion sooner than later. Un­til that hap­pens we need to con­tinue talk­ing to keep the mat­ter alive.

At the Karachi Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val re­cently the ses­sion on ed­u­ca­tion which brought a num­ber of top- rank­ing ed­u­ca­tion­ists to­gether was, there­fore, a pos­i­tive move. As could have been ex­pected, the speak­ers could only touch the tip of the ice­berg.

One is­sue that came up in the course of the dis­cus­sion that fol­lowed was that of crit­i­cal think­ing. Dr Pervez Hoodb­hoy, a very ar­tic­u­late ex­am­ple of a crit­i­cal thinker, was spot on when he said that no school was teach­ing its stu­dents how to think — be it an elit­ist ex­pen­sive in­sti­tu­tion or a low-fee com­mu­nity school.

One may well ask why. It is be­cause ed­u­ca­tion­ists have cre­ated a com­fort zone for them­selves and do not want it to be chal­lenged by “cheeky” stu­dents ask­ing un­com­fort­able ques­tions, which they are bound to do if they are prod­ded into think­ing and analysing is­sues.

Con­form­ity is highly val­ued in our so­ci­ety. Since we are still con­fused about the goals of ed­u­ca­tion in Pak­istan — apart from mak­ing peo­ple good Mus­lims and em­ploy­able — the need for in­still­ing crit­i­cal think­ing in our youth is not recog­nised. Pass­ing ex­am­i­na­tions by rote learn­ing or re­sort­ing to un­fair means seems to be the fore­most aim of all stu­dents. Ac­tu­ally one doesn’t have to teach crit­i­cal think­ing. It is a fac­ulty ev­ery child is born with. What we man­age to do very ef­fec­tively is to sup­press it. This act of de­struc­tion is first car­ried out by the par­ents — the mother, if the fa­ther does not re­gard par­ent­ing to be his duty — and then the teach­ers. This feat has been ac­com­plished by the time the child reaches his teens.

The child’s nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity is the first man­i­fes­ta­tion of his abil­ity to think. When he asks ques­tions — many of them seem­ingly mean­ing­less — he is try­ing to reach the depth of what­ever is ag­i­tat­ing his mind. If this process is in­ter­rupted be­cause the adult does not have the time or the pa­tience or the in­cli­na­tion to an­swer th­ese ques­tions, the mes­sage con­veyed to the child is a sim­ple one: “shut up”. The prac­tice of us­ing the tele­vi­sion as a babysit­ter also dumbs the child’s mind. TV im­ages may con­vey a lot of in­for­ma­tion to the viewer but they do not make him think.

The teacher car­ries the process fur­ther when he sup­presses his stu­dents’ cre­ativ­ity by dis­cour­ag­ing in­no­va­tion. The high­est marks go to the stu­dent who re­pro­duces an­swers faith­fully from his text­book.

Even if this ap­proach to crit­i­cal think­ing were to change, no success is pos­si­ble if the lan­guage is­sue is not ad­dressed con­cur­rently. Many educators con­cede that it is a well-es­tab­lished fact that chil­dren learn best in their mother tongue. Yet the em­pha­sis on English — and even Urdu in com­mu­ni­ties where this is not the home lan­guage — con­tin­ues un­abashedly.

What is most wor­ry­ing is the fail­ure to use the home lan­guage at the ele­men­tary and pri­mary level. Ed­u­ca­tion be­gins from bot­tom up­wards. It is there­fore im­por­tant that more at­ten­tion is paid to child psychology when a stu­dent starts school. The best lan­guage strate­gies at the higher level of ed­u­ca­tion can­not undo the dam­age that has al­ready been wrought. World­wide re­search has now clearly es­tab­lished that lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion is a bi­o­log­i­cal process which has a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with the devel­op­ment of the brain and cog­ni­tive growth. As the child’s lan­guage skills grow his ca­pac­ity to think also in­creases and this in turn pro­motes his lan­guage. Af­ter all, one needs a lan­guage to think.

That ex­plains why a child with poor lan­guage skills — due to lack of “moth­erese” and be­ing de­nied enough hu­man con­tact — also has weak cog­ni­tive skills. While he is still pass­ing through this phase, if an un­fa­mil­iar lan­guage is forced on him which he doesn’t read­ily un­der­stand and which cuts him off from his home lan­guage, his cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment is bound to suf­fer. New re­search on the hu­man brain which has be­come pos­si­ble with the devel­op­ment of

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