Interacting with my 8-year-old daughter’s English-medium school sometimes feels like I’m dealing with McDonalds. There is a cheerful and eager-to-please attitude. What’s more, “feedback” is welcome and the goal is to “satisfy parents”. Messages on group chats for parents and teachers are dotted with smiley faces. If you ask them why little kids have so much homework to do, you are told, it is a “market demand.” The corporate language is jarring but anyone feigning shock at the commodification of education has been asleep for the past 40 years. These bouncy and cheerful school franchises are dotted all over our cities, especially residential neighbourhoods, because the education business can literally be started from home. These schools have colourful English names because any quality business has to have an angrezi name. And, some of them are very efficient and, smoothly rolled out online schooling during the Pandemic, including my daughter’s school.
It all looks good but these school systems are entirely hollow. Teachers are not qualified with degrees in education. I was told they received 6 weeks’ training. Old-timers may have more experience but you can’t really have a deep discussion with them either. Beyond the curriculum, they cannot engage in a discussion. If you ask the teacher about an “offensive” story given to be read for homework, it will be hastily withdrawn. You will hear a child proudly proclaim he will join the Armed Forces when he grows up to “beat India” and, the teacher will nod and go on to ask the next student’s career ambitions. Even the administrators cannot respond to any serious question and will refer you to HQ. Teachers become nervous and a cheerful parent-relations officer will jump in to divert your attention. The teachers and administration simply cannot discuss anything meaningful.
Last year, when online schooling was rolled out at the start of the short-lived lockdown in Pakistan, not a single lesson in either Urdu or English was prepared around the Pandemic itself. When I asked why, I was told by the Administrator this was Pakistan. She often makes very strange, uneducated responses to why sexist stories or hyper-jingoism are given a space in the classroom. Beyond the curriculum and ensuring that it is taught robotically, teachers and administrators have no personality, ideas or passion.
Moreover, this system is entirely dependent on imported textbooks and the saddest and dullest textbook, of course, is the Urdu one, the only ‘native’ language that the Pakistani state has made official besides English.
Last year, when online schooling was rolled out at the start of the short-lived lockdown in Pakistan, not a single lesson in either Urdu or English was prepared around the Pandemic itself. When I asked why, I was told by the Administrator this was Pakistan. She often makes very strange, uneducated responses to why sexist stories or hyper-jingoism are given a space in the classroom
Imran Khan famously said Pakistan has an apartheid education system, one for the poor and one for the not-so-poor before he came to power. Instead of strengthening the public school system by giving it the dire resources it needs, the PTI government announced it was working on a single curriculum for all schools, regardless of their status as happy McDonalds schools, Madrassahs or government schools. So, the ‘apartheid’ will continue to exist. (There ought to be a ban on invoking South African history as and when it suits Pakistani politicians, by the way)
For a critique and analysis of this new standard curriculum, turn to Pervez Hoodbhoy. Since, then, PTI has also been pronounced that Arabic will be taught in schools as a compulsory language.
One must pause , even feign shock, at this cultural moment. It feels like a colossal point in history, a convergence of all the forces that have shaped Pakistan’s politics since it came into existence. Muslim nationalism and its hearty, masculine ideals of protecting elite Muslim identity ego, proposed a separate state from “Hindu India” at the end of the British Raj in India. Pakistan came into existence and Urdu and English were declared as our main official languages, depriving if not looting all other languages of a place in Pakistani officialdom. East Pakistan was lost hardly a few decades later, in part because Pakistan couldn’t give any other sub-continental language the respect and rights they demanded. Since then, we have derived our identity from Saudi Arabia, become its client state in jihad, politics and whatnot. In turn folk and Sufi religious and cultural expression has constantly been in grave danger, if not steadily eroded and destroyed.
More recently, the Prime Minister, has also declared Turkish imperial history as a source of inspiration. Pakistanis must now find their roots in Ottoman history, according to Imran Khan, while learning Arabic in school. Pretty soon, children in private English medium schools will loaded with another language or two. It will be rolled out in true franchise style.
What’s to become of Urdu? I can tell you it’s the most dry, dull and boring textbook in my 8-year old daughter’s 25-kg school bag. It’s almost as if Urdu is taught like an antique: jamun ka payd, Eid cards, Daadi and Naani Jaan, a highly formal and stylised language. My daughter has learned to tell the time, about hygiene, vertebrates and invertebrates, fractions, how to write an essay, tenses, the weather, and all that in English. I guess you are not meant to write or think about the practical world, the exciting natural world or animals in Urdu. Let Urdu be an archaic oddity to talk about how once upon a time, children used to climb a tree and pick jamun and then sit around Daadi and hear stories and then send Eid cards in the post.
I guess you are not meant to write or think about the practical world, the exciting natural world or animals in Urdu. Let Urdu be an archaic oddity to talk about how once upon a time, children used to climb a tree and pick jamun and then sit around Daadi and hear stories and then send Eid cards in the post
During the past year, thanks to online schooling, I got a closer look at how children speak in the class room. During Urdu class, children answer in English. The reverse would happen in English class. The teacher, too, often reaches for both English and Urdu references to explain something to the children. But which language does the child think in? Studies show that children learn best in their mother language. Studies show that children can learn many languages at an early age. However, which mother tongue has been given official status and is taught in educational institutions? In which language should our main primary instruction be in? Which regional languages are taught in school in different parts of Pakistan? What relationship do we have with our mother tongues? What futures do they have?
Taxi drivers, shop keepers, chaukidaar, and working class people I meet often heap praises on my daughter for speaking English so well. They ask, “Which school does she go to?”
I have never heard the reverse: that her Urdu isn’t so good. Or, that she doesn’t know Punjabi which is actually my real mother tongue and should have been passed on to her, too. There is a constant acknowledgment of the importance, value and worth of English. As a colonial legacy, we regularly salute and bow to it.
The other day, I met a very anxious mother in a local park. I learned that she switched schools because the first one, a major school system, said her son was not learning at everyone’s else’s pace. She got her child medically checked, found he was OK, and then transferred him to a smaller one near her house. As we talked, it seemed her son was just shy and did slightly better in a smaller school. She explained that children are not allowed to speak in Urdu unless it is Urdu class. Moreover, the boy struggles with Urdu but speaks Punjabi because he is close to his Dada who only speaks Punjabi, and of course, Punjabi is not taught in school. This conversation made me wonder how Pakistani children enrolled in private English schools relate to their mother tongues, grandparents and culture.
The evidence of this ‘apartheid’ system, of the enduring colonial legacy and of the deprivation of our languages and South Asian roots is all around us. TV ads spew the most nonsensical mix of English and Urdu. This same English and Urdu is now spoken by polite people seeking social mobility or not even. Even working class people mix Urdu and English. There is nothing wrong with it, I suppose. Languages are a living tool that constantly evolve to reflect changes. However, it seems Urdu remains painfully static. It is not the language of aspiration, of quality instruction, of learning science and everyday practical modes of expression. It is apparent that spoken colloquial Urdu is the one absorbing English words , even words for which Urdu already has them: window, mother, father, door, car, pollution, body, hobby, etc. It is an irony that the one ‘local’ language that was given official status is not flourishing, the language for which mass murder was carried out in East Pakistan.
I can see the seeds of this confusion and deterioration at my daughter’s class 2 level where it seems children are neither learning Urdu nor English very well. Learning a language well is critical to a good educational base, allowing you to express yourself clearly.
If we shouldn’t be eating junk food at McDonalds, should we be getting education in schools that are rolled out like franchises?