Mar 4, 2009

Education and learning

Random thoughts
Dr A Q Khan
In my last column I made some observations on the importance of stressing our culture and history in our educational system and pointed out how we were ignoring our cultural heritage. In this connection I would like to quote three examples.Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), is famous for his books Road to Makkah, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, etc. In the former of the above-mentioned books, he mentioned an important episode, which should serve as an eye-opener for our education planners. Asad had become a very close friend of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and was part of his Majlis. Being a prolific author-cum-journalist, he was writing articles in the European press highlighting the importance of King Ibn Saud for maintaining stability in the area. As an inquisitive journalist (and a converted Muslim) he travelled widely through all the Islamic countries. He had full command over German, English, Arabic and French. In his book he mentioned that, while visiting Iran, a cradle of civilization, he was pleasantly surprised to find that even ordinary people like water-carriers, butchers, people sipping tea at stalls, etc. recited poetry by Hafiz, Saadi, Jaami, Rumi etc. and enjoyed doing so. This, in contrast to Europe where many people were not familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson, Goethe, etc. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, due to his close association with King Ibn Saud, he made quite a few enemies in Saudi Arabia among people who were jealous of his relationship with the King and who started whispering against him for being a foreigner and a Jew. Asad heard about this, went to the King and asked his permission to leave the country, explaining the reason why. King Ibn Saud smiled, asked him to sit beside him, held his hand and said: "Muhammad, I have also heard these whispers, but listen carefully. Once in my dream I saw you standing in Masjid-e-Nabvi and calling the worshippers to prayers – i.e. azan. By Almighty Allah, no hypocrite, no non-Muslim could ever do it." That was the end of the jealousy and rumour-mongering. After the establishment of Pakistan, Asad took the Pakistani nationality and kept it until his death. He served Pakistan efficiently as Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN and he was a most ardent supporter of the freedom struggles of the North African Muslim countries.The second example relates to Uzbekistan, which I visited with my colleagues about 15 years ago at the invitation of Prof Dr Pulat Habibullah, Minister of Science & Technology and Head of the Thermal Physics Institute, Tashkent. He is a renowned physicist. We were taken to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, etc. and shown the universities there. Uzbekistan is the cradle of Islamic culture and is full of beautiful monuments (mosques, madressahs, tombs, etc.), which the government has renovated. One day Prof Habibullah remarked that, even though the British had ruled the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent for more than 150 years, they did not destroy their identity, culture or civilisation whereas the Russians totally destroyed the Uzbek Islamic cultural heritage and identity by changing their script from Arabic to Russian, Muslim names to Russian ones, etc. With an Arabic script, they were very close to Iran, the Arab countries, India, Sinkiang, Turkey, Azerbaijan, etc. and used to enjoy the works of the Persian and Arab poets, read the Quran, etc. At that time the Uzbek government was actively reverting to the old script and original names. The third example refers to my own experience. We were living in Nazimabad in Karachi, near Papashnagar, during my studies and, in the evenings, three or four friends and I used to walk to the Nazimabad bus stand to see off another friend to Sher Shah. On the way we passed by a butcher's shop where four or five butchers used to sit outside on charpoys, sip tea and enjoy life. One evening we saw one of them reciting Ghalib's gazal "Hamne maana ke taghafful na karage lekin – khak hojaenge hum tum ko khaber hone tak" while the others were enjoying the recital. I have never forgotten that and it immediately came to my mind when I later read Asad's book and his mention of his experiences in Iran. I wish our custodians of the education system could inculcate such a spirit and revive our cultural heritage in the young generation so that they too can enjoy and be proud of our past. Now, a few words about primary/secondary education. This, as we are all aware, is an extremely important matter as our future progress and prosperity depends on it. Before going on, I would like to comment on an observation made by a former financial "wizard" on one of my earlier columns in which I categorically stated that the progress and prosperity of a nation does not depend solely on universal education. I had quoted Sri Lanka as an example where, despite a literacy rate of almost 98%, poverty was still rampant. I then went on to stress the importance of vocational training. The gentleman in question criticised my theory but forgot to mention that, despite their "highly educated background", his past and present colleagues had not performed very well and had brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy. He himself had quoted Quaid-e-Azam's important advice: "Education does not merely mean academic education. There is an immediate and urgent need for training our people in scientific and technical education in order to build up our future economic life, and we should see that our people take to science, commerce and trade and, particularly, well-planned industries. But do not forget that we have to compete with the world which is moving very fast in this direction. Also, I must emphasize that greater attention should be paid to technical and vocational education." There have been hundreds of reports on the importance of primary or basic education. What we need is a pragmatic, down-to-earth approach, not bundles of feasibility reports and impractical recommendations requiring huge funds. Article 37 of our Constitution recognizes and protects the basic rights of each Pakistani, one of which is education. It further commits that: "The State shall remove illiteracy and provide free and compulsory secondary education within the minimum possible period". Similarly, according to article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to education. However, such declarations are merely cosmetic and a far cry from reality. Our primary educational system is defective and unable to produce motivated citizens. A British professor, Peter Tymms, pointed out that, while relative progress in each year is important, the early years are the most crucial. He said that early education is critical for a child's later cognitive development and that the first few years are the most sensitive. Furthermore, according to a World Bank report, (good) early education is beneficial to the individual in many ways. It greatly benefits personal well-being and increases productivity and earnings. Most importantly, it makes for good citizens. Furthermore, good schools play a catalytic role for girls. Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, has also emphasized the importance of good education in transforming people for jobs, gainful employment and to promote a healthy and prosperous nation. In Pakistan primary education is more important than in other countries because many people are out simply to cheat the illiterate poor. Often their thumb prints are obtained on illegal papers through devious means. Even more important, literacy will help protect them from the teachings of religious zealots who preach religious hatred and intolerance. People with some basic education would be able to read, not only the Holy Quran, but also its translation, Ahadith, Islamic history, etc. thus making them less likely to be negatively influenced by others. They will also then be able to help their own children. This brings us full circle – the defectiveness of our education system. Our corrupt system, totally lacking in a pragmatic approach, does not produce good citizens familiar with their own rich culture and history. The question is not only lack of funds, but also lack of management, dishonesty and corruption, which have deep roots in our society. What we need is commitment, honesty, devotion and hard work in order to be able to put our house in order. When I note the hopelessness of our situation, I think of the couplet of Muzaffar HanafiSiwae iske mere bus men or he bhi kiaYehi ke roney ke mouqe pe muskura dunga.

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