View Full Version : The liberal’s education myth - S Akbar Zaidi - 29th May 2015

29th May 2015, 01:30 PM
Of all the myths the Pakistani liberal spews most ardently, the one regarding education reform stands out the most. Liberals argue that they (or we, when they decide to speak for all Pakistanis) need to ‘educate’ everyone in Pakistan, and this will take care of the ‘problem’ of radicalisation/talibanisation/militancy in Pakistan. One hears this at every conversation table one passes by, in every column by every morally upright overly-earnest ‘liberal’ contributor one reads in the English press, on TV talk shows – everywhere.

There is no escaping the frame that the ‘lack of education’ is our main problem. Donors have pumped millions of dollars and pounds into educating Pakistanis, even in trying to undertake curriculum reform, making the assumption that it is Pakistan’s curriculum, full of biases and hate-speech that creates the radical militant-jihadi ‘mind-set’ And of course, there is the issue of madressah reform as well. Just make the madressah’s curriculum more ‘scientific’, and all will be well. If only it were so simple.

Such proposals reveal the innocent naivety of all such well-meaning liberals, who fail to locate education and its embeddedness into a holistic, social, context. No matter how much one educates Pakistanis or liberalises their curricula, they will always return and live in a much larger environment which gives rise to jihadism, radicalisation and militancy. It is not the curriculum or the lack of education that gives rise to radicalisation but other factors which most people are familiar with, but are afraid to name.

The fact that a supposedly ‘liberal’, ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ even, business school – of all things – can produce a killer of many innocent people in Karachi should not come as a surprise, simply because it is not the business school or its environment that educates the student alone. It is the broader social milieu in which students live, talk, chat and become radicalised which has far greater influence on them. It is not uncommon over the world, for even ‘decent’ schools to produce fascists or rebels, individuals who are radicalised and educated by numerous other influences.

Perhaps never in the history of our world have people, young people especially, had access to numerous easily available sources of information, belief systems, and radical ideas. Every young person is open to multiple and contradictory sources, senses and ideologies and can be swayed by accessing such information. For us teachers to even think that a few liberal or radical teachers, or an institute of business or social science, will change the destiny of our students in the few hours we engage with them, with all the modern curricula available to us, is the greatest and most dangerous hubris. Teachers do matter, as does the curriculum, but perhaps more importantly, so does the larger world in which the student lives.

The radicalisation/jihadi narrative in our society dominates even the classroom. I don’t think many people who are eager to reform education and curriculum in Pakistan are unaware of the causes and reasons for Talibanisation in Pakistan. Even the ‘common woman’, whoever she is, is aware of the reasons why the Taliban emerged in Pakistan and which institution and which political parties and actors protected and supported them.

People with access to the news and to information are better informed and have formed an opinion about the causes of militancy in Pakistan. They now even know the solution, hence their enthusiastic support for Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the army with its more recent ideological reformation.

Those liberal middle-class Pakistanis who support those political parties that are soft on the Taliban or other militant Islamic groups may parrot the need for curriculum reform, but unless they expose their parties’ connivance, they too are guilty of avoiding the central issue related to Talibanisation. Moreover, even some of these conservative political parties have people within them who would probably be classified broadly as ‘liberal’, yet these political actors, many of whom are in parliament, are also responsible for such criminal silences.

The argument here is not to deny the well-meaning attempts to reform education, for it requires serious reform and transformation. Not just for radicalisation or religious and ethnic stereotyping and bigotry, but also simply to correct the gender imbalance in our texts, but the reform that is needed in education requires many decades before it takes shape and has influence, if ever. The easier solutions to radicalisation and jihadism lie in factors outside our schools, colleges and curricula, and probably even outside the madressah.

For liberals to really have an effective voice and strategy in defeating militancy and terror in the name of religion, they need to be brave (and honest) enough to restate the causes for the growth of such Talibanisation and militancy and, to be braver still, to say what needs to be done. The solutions to jihadism, militancy and radicalisation lie outside the classroom.

The writer is a political economist.