Good for what?

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Faisal Bari

AK­BAR Khan, who I have known for two decades at least, has, quite lit­er­ally, worked him­self to the bone to get his chil­dren ed­u­cated. He worked in the con­struc­tion sec­tor, car­ry­ing bricks, for about a decade, as a ma­son for another decade and when he was no longer able to man­age the hard labour de­manded by the above oc­cu­pa­tions, he be­came a night watch­man. He must be ap­proach­ing his 70s by now. But he is still work­ing.

Some months back Ak­bar came to me and asked me to get a job for one of his sons who, Ak­bar proudly said, had just passed his FA. I told Ak­bar that I would need to meet the young man to find out what he wanted and get a bet­ter idea of his ca­pa­bil­i­ties be­fore I could try to find a job for him. Am­jad came round the next morn­ing.

Am­jad is a very nice young man. He is a hard worker and has got­ten rea­son­able grades through­out his ed­u­ca­tional ca­reer. He went to the vil­lage public pri­mary/mid­dle schools.

Even af­ter 12 years of ed­u­ca­tion, Am­jad was barely lit­er­ate. When Ak­bar saw that Am­jad was in­ter­ested in his stud­ies and had done well at school, he brought him to the city where Am­jad at­tended low-fee pri­vate high/higher sec­ondary schools to com­plete his FA.

Am­jad was not able to have a con­ver­sa­tion with me in English. Try­ing to gauge his lan­guage skills, I asked him to write a para­graph or two in English on a topic of his choice. When I came back af­ter 15 min­utes, he had not penned a sin­gle word. He said he had 'for­got­ten' the es­says he had learned when he was pre­par­ing for his FA.

When I asked him if he could write a cou­ple of para­graphs in Urdu. He did. But what he pro­duced was barely even co­her­ent, let alone an es­say with an ar­gu­ment and struc­ture.

When I asked him for some def­i­ni­tions of con­cepts he had learned in his course work, he could re­peat def­i­ni­tions but he could not go be­yond and use the con­cepts to make sense of the world around him. Rote learn­ing is what he had been made to do and he had be­come good at it, but his ed­u­ca­tion did not equip him to go be­yond that.

I asked Am­jad what sort of a job he wanted. He said he wants an of­fice job, prefer­ably a gov­ern­ment job. I asked him why he did not want to learn some skill and be­come a self­em­ployed per­son or a skilled tech­ni­cian/worker. Am­jad, it turned out, had a lot of con­tempt for skill-based jobs/pro­fes­sions. In the hi­er­ar­chy of things he could be do­ing, he placed skill-based jobs at about the same level as be­ing un­em­ployed or even worse.

I could not right away bring my­self to tell Am­jad or Ak­bar Khan that it was very un­likely that he could se­cure a gov­ern­ment or desk job. FA was not enough for most jobs. But, more im­por­tantly, the qual­ity of his ed­u­ca­tion was very poor: it was not even clear how ed­u­cated he ac­tu­ally was. He could read and write, but, and es­pe­cially in English, his fa­cil­ity in read­ing and writ­ing was rather ele­men­tary. He had no skills that any of­fice could have use for.

What kind of jobs could be open to him? It was heart­break­ing to see that though Ak­bar Khan had sac­ri­ficed so much and worked so hard, and Am­jad had also done all he had been told to and well, it was go­ing to be very hard for the young man to break out of the cy­cle of poverty his fam­ily was caught in. Even af­ter 12 years of ed­u­ca­tion, Am­jad was barely lit­er­ate.

And he had, over that time, ac­quired no skills at any­thing, not even in­ter­per­sonal skills, and, in fact, pos­sessed a dis­tinct and strong aver­sion to skill-based pro­fes­sions. It was not Ak­bar Khan or Am­jad who had failed. They have done all they could and more. We, the state and so­ci­ety of Pak­istan, have failed them. And they are the ones who are go­ing to be pay­ing most of the price of our fail­ure.

Am­jad went to a de­cent and func­tional school in his vil­lage and then in La­hore. So, this is not a story of non­func­tional schools mess­ing things up. And Am­jad is not alone.

An ac­quain­tance do­ing BA in English, some years back, asked me for help in pre­par­ing for her English­language pa­per. Even at BA level she could only 'learn' es­says and then re­pro­duce them. The big­gest hur­dle, for her, was to some­how man­age the pré­cis ques­tion in her pa­per: she had to make a sum­mary of an un­seen pas­sage and since she could not pre­pare for that through rote learn­ing, it was an is­sue. She passed her BA and is now a teacher in a low-fee pri­vate school. I shud­der to think what she must be teach­ing her stu­dents.

We have plenty of data that shows that ed­u­ca­tion qual­ity, even when mea­sured in the nar­row sense of learn­ing out­comes in lan­guages and math­e­mat­ics, is quite poor in public and lowfee pri­vate schools.

Rote learn­ing fur­ther erodes such achieve­ment claims. As for skills - oc­cu­pa­tion-spe­cific or life skills - our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem does not even at­tempt to pro­vide any to our chil­dren.

We have been too fo­cused on ac­cess is­sues in our tra­di­tional ad­vo­cacy ef­forts for ed­u­ca­tion: ar­gu­ing for im­ple­men­ta­tion of Ar­ti­cle 25A, say­ing that some 25 mil­lion-odd school­go­ing age chil­dren are out of schools, and ar­gu­ing for more schools and fa­cil­i­ties. These is­sues are im­por­tant, but we need to fo­cus on qual­ity of learn­ing as well: gen­er­a­tions of Am­jads are not only tragic for these chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, they will have a huge cost for us as an econ­omy and so­ci­ety too.

The writer is a se­nior re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute of De­vel­op­ment and Eco­nomic Al­ter­na­tives and an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at LUMS, La­hore.

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