Language/Meaning / 11.07.2017

By Anjum Altaf The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity. So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full: There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one...

Education / 20.06.2017

By Sara Fatima This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem ('An ignoramus par excellence,' The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system. In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the...

Aid / 01.04.2017

By Anjum Altaf Leafing through the Sunday Careers section of Dawn I came across a quarter-page Position Vacant advertisement by the U.S. Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) at the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar. I am wondering if readers will find the experience as surreal as I did. The advertised position is for a driver on a contract basis with a high-school degree and a valid license. A long job description includes the following: application of knowledge of commercial driving and skills in maneuvering a vehicle at varying speeds in difficult situations, such as heavy traffic and inclement weather; the ability to sit and remain alert while driving for an aggregate period of up to 11 hours; and the ability to operate equipment in all types of weather and conditions which include going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and in and...

Education / 11.12.2016

By Anjum Altaf I wonder what the concerned students would be thinking of the government’s directive to some teachers of the Pak-Turk school system to leave the country. I guess they would consider it political interference. If so, they would be wiser than the experts who look upon education and politics as separate domains. The real lesson that the affected students need to internalize is that the incident involving their teachers is not unique. Since schools are not teaching students how to think, exploring what has been happening to schools might induce some much needed reflection. The reality is that education has always been subjected to political interventions. That may be one reason why history is no longer taught in our schools. The less one knows of the past the less likely it would be to decipher the ways in which education is manipulated to advance political...

Language/Meaning / 14.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province...

Language/Meaning / 12.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be...

Democracy/Governance / 20.04.2015

By Anjum Altaf I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics. The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance. I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one...

Education / 09.11.2014

By Anjum Altaf In September I was in the US for a month for a series of lectures and presentations. Three of them were recorded and are available for public viewing. I am linking them here for those who might be interested in any of the topics which are very varied. Most of the talks are on YouTube so a proxy would be needed for viewing them in Pakistan because of the continuing ban on YouTube. I am presuming readers are technologically adept enough to navigate their way to a solution. University of Michigan, Center for South Asian Studies April 5, 2013 POVERTY AS A HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERN http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrmP5B5b_tY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= University of California at Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies September 8, 2014 HOW TO (REALLY) FIX PAKISTAN’S EDUCATION SYSTEM https://vimeo.com/113697262 Cornell University, College of Art, Architecture and Planning September 16, 2014 PERSPECTIVES ON SMALL CITIES IN PAKISTAN https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7ZB_Lc1361BRjF5dTBFVUNaX28/view?usp=sharing (More easily viewed here in two parts): Part 1 - https://vimeo.com/113369496 Part 2 -...

Education / 15.02.2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question. And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer: Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate. Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius. On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty? Here was the answer to that question: We...

Analysis / 24.04.2013

There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste. I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education. So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah. There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country.