Education – tool for oppression

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN its recently released State of Human Rights 2008 report the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has devoted considerable space — the most number of pages — to the education sector in the country.

It is not a coincidence that the most backward, underprivileged and impoverished people who are denied their basic rights also happen to be illiterate and uneducated.

Not that the rights of educated people are not abused in Pakistan given the autocratic dispensation of the state. But the educated have avenues to seek redress. The uneducated don`t and the mere fact that they have been denied education itself proves how vulnerable they are.

The HRCP has been publishing these reports since 1990 without fail and it has drawn public attention to the state of education in Pakistan and its impact on human rights. Although Pakistan`s constitution and all other human rights instruments recognise education as a basic right of every citizen, people are not getting what is their due.

From the information collected mainly from the media and the reports of UN agencies, the HRCP report tells us that Pakistan spends only 2.3 per cent of its GDP on education and 6.5 million children five to nine years of age are out of school with the drop-out rate being a high 50 per cent.

The HRCP`s focus is — and quite rightly so — on the expansion of education and its accessibility to all children in keeping with the education-for-all concept. A state that recognises the right to education of all its citizens also universalises primary education.

The absence of political will is reflected in the limited resources allocated to this sector, the inadequacy of facilities and the failure to formulate an appropriate education policy to provide this basic right to the people of Pakistan. The HRCP has highlighted these deficiencies and its recommendations also attempt to address the issues it has focused on.

There is, however, a vital dimension of education that the HRCP report has failed to note. This is the inequity that characterises education in Pakistan today and that has emerged as a tool of oppression. It promotes the class divide and perpetuates economic disparity in society. The easiest method of subjugating people is to deny them an education.

If that is found to be too brazen, governments adopt the next best method. They deny the people education of good quality and thus marginalise them effectively.

So serious is this problem that Unesco`s Global Monitoring Report for 2009 is titled `Overcoming Inequalities`. It observes, “The distribution of educational opportunity plays a key role in shaping human development prospects. Unequal opportunities for education are linked to inequalities in income, health and wider life chances.”

Our education system is blatantly a two-tier one. On one side is the state-of-the-art education for children of the privileged elite. On the other is the decaying system that provides no education at all. On which side will one land depends on the accident of birth and inheritance. The fault line lies along the economic divide. Public-sector school education is free but of deplorable quality. Private schools are allowed to charge fees that touch the skies and thus exclude the majority from their fold. And it is the state which connives in perpetuating this barrier.

To further ensure that educational excellence doesn`t touch the poor, our curricula, textbooks, exams and pedagogy are so tailored that a student from a public-sector school can never hope to benefit. Students of the `five-star` educational institutions get the best books and the best teachers while their examinations are conducted from London/Cambridge.

The unkindest cut comes in the form of the language of instruction. After having prevaricated for decades, our educational planners have in their profound wisdom now reached the conclusion that since English is the international language of the day our children must also be taught English. If it was to be taught as a second language one would not have quarrelled with the approach — though inflicting a foreign tongue on the child as the medium of instruction from class one is the worst kind of cruelty he can be subjected to.

How can young children be taught the concepts of mathematics, science or even history and geography in a strange language they cannot even understand? Yet our policymakers insist that English it will be — and right from class one. Obviously the elite`s children benefit for they are familiar with the language which they have heard their parents speak at home.

As a result the poor who cannot understand or speak English — the clever ones memorise it — gain no proficiency in it or in the subject they are being taught. Had their mother tongue been the medium of instruction they would have at least comprehended the subject they were being taught. And had they been taught English as a second language they would have been fluent in it too.

But then they would have been in a position to compete with the children of the rich which is not acceptable to the privileged elite. As Dr Tariq Rahman, the educationist and linguist, says, English is the language of power in Pakistan. And power is not to be shared. It has to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Hence the need to exclude the majority from the system. That is why the language of governance is English. Court documents are in English. Bills and ordinances are in English. Trade and economic activity is documented in English.

Since the poor have not been taught the English language as they should have been, they are denied access to political power. The economic turf, especially the employment market, also has to be kept as the rich man`s preserve. A low standard of education ensures that. By holding on to these two key areas of power, the elite perpetuate the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.

Thus education becomes a tool of oppression for the rich to subjugate the poor. The HRCP should note this as it is the most blatant violation of human rights we are witness to.