Building a tolerant Pakistan

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How the progressive lot failed us

 

In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the degree of polarisation in Pakistani society. Anything and everything divides opinion. Recent examples include the bifurcation of our public discourse on whether Malala Yousafzai is a traitor or a patriot, Mumtaz Qadri a hero or a cold-blooded murderer and Asia Bibi a blasphemer or an innocent victim. Even more alarming, however, is the intolerance, bigotry and hatred that has accompanied this polarisation.

The majority tends to blame the educational system. The argument, which has gained a strong foothold in recent years, suggests that three parallel educational systems run in Pakistan: the madrassah, government public schools, and private English-medium schools. Each system is dramatically different from the other in terms of its composition, its curriculum, and its goals. Each system aims to inculcate its students with a distinctly different set of values. As a result, we have a compartmentalised educational system where these three parallel systems are completely insulated from one another. Such a setup provides no opportunity for the cross-fertilisation of ideas. At the end of the educational process, so the argument goes, each system, which caters to a distinct social class, produces different individuals with different values and a completely different set of thinking. Furthermore, our educational system, divided along the lines of social status, contributes to class inequality. Hence, the solution is to scrap the current system and replace it with a uniform educational system.

 How many of us, who graduated from good institutions, have ever seen what a classroom in a government school looks like?

The argument is convincing and it is the viewpoint I once subscribed to. Over the last few months, however, I have come to realise that this narrative needs refinement. Firstly, the prospect of creating a uniform educational system is highly unlikely, given the current affairs of the country. Secondly, the solution is a convenient excuse for our own inaction. It singles out the government as the only entity responsible for tackling this problem, thereby ruling out any role that we, as ordinary citizens, might play.

This realisation came in December 2013, after I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on ‘Positive Pakistan’ at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences (LUMS). The discussion was a small component of a much larger Model United Nations (MUN) conference, LUMUN X. As I sat there and surveyed the audience, who were primarily MUN delegates, one thing became pretty evident: all of them came from just one of the three educational systems in the country: the private English medium schools.

So here I was, inside Pakistan’s leading university that had organised its biggest ‘national’ event of the year with representation supposedly from every region of the country and yet, the irony was, there was not a single person from either a government public school or a religious seminary. The conference was far from being national — it was as isolated from less privileged institutions as private schools are from their public counterparts.

Events such as these, or similar national competitions, serve as an excellent platform to allow less privileged students, studying in a government public school or a religious seminary, to interact with those who are more privileged in the social ladder, i.e., those who can afford the exorbitant fees of private schools. By encouraging interaction across the three parallel educational systems, such opportunities can help improve our understanding of another and facilitate the exchange of ideas.

Let us stop here and be honest with ourselves. How many of us, who graduated from good institutions, have ever seen what a classroom in a government school looks like? How many of us have actually bothered to visit a religious seminary? Conversely, how many students of a government public school have ever been invited to see what the LUMS campus looks like? How many students at a madrassah have been given the opportunity to observe a classroom at say Aitchison, KGS or LGS?

It is about time to acknowledge that we have inadvertently been guilty of discrimination

Likewise, how many private schools, as part of its annual calendar, actively encourage its students to engage and connect with others across the educational divide?

Has this absence of interaction not erected social barriers within the educational sector? Is education supposed to tear down such barriers or cement them further?

The responsibility for not utilising these events falls squarely on our shoulders. It is about time to acknowledge that we have inadvertently been guilty of discrimination. Year after year, students have weaved up a false façade of organising ‘All-Pakistan’ competitions across our respective educational institutions that legitimise the existing compartmentalisation of the educational system by completely ignoring the government run public schools and the religious seminaries.

If we really want to build a tolerant Pakistan, then we must take the first step of breaking out of our elitist bubble that has been protected and nurtured for so long. It is about time, that students at leading educational institutions take the initiative of organising events that are more diverse and competitions that are more open. It will require training newcomers from other educational systems that will consume time, energy and resources. However, at the end of the day, this exercise will be productive. Such events will (a) allow an opportunity to interact, (b) promote understanding and (c) facilitate the cross-fertilisation of ideas. This will help erode the traditional compartmentalisation of our educational system and hopefully, in the long run, it will contribute in building a more diverse and plural society that is respectful and tolerant of differing views.

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