The sheer naiveté, or miniscule intellectual quotient, of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his elite coterie of advisors, was exposed, once again, when the Danish School project was announced, and later, operationalised, with minimal success. The basic normative ideal upon which the project design rested was half-baked, flaky and visibly reflected an unforgivable lack of understanding of the empathy of the plight of the least advantaged members of the Pakistani society. The Chief Minister publicly asserted in his signature masquerade of aggression, that he wished to see a day where every child could enjoy a chance at studying at an institute which embodied the ethos and practices of the Lahore-based elite institution, Aitchison College, as if that was the cure to all the evils that the Pakistani education system finds itself engulfed in. The project was doomed to fail from the very start. And it did, especially in terms of its performance against the “access to equitable education for all” variable. It attempted to emulate the problem – create more of the very instruments which have intentionally increased social inequality, rather than address its root causes and attempt to fix them.

As an Aitchison College alumni I would like to delve into the legacy of the institution to better problematize my argument. The sports and extracurricular facilities at Aitchison were world class, but to be fair, they were spurred on by the gargantuan fee structures that less than 1% of Pakistan’s massive population could afford. I did well academically, too, studying the GSCE O’levels and A’levels syllabi, but from a very young age, I began to feel extremely disillusioned with a very unsettling reality – all my friends in my Samanabad neighbourhood, and my extended family were studying syllabi completely different from mine, which set me apart from them, and my access to foreign languages and conventional 19th century upper class Victorian morality available on campus situated me in a qualitatively different social strata at a very young age. The school hosted another small school within its massive premises for the children of the labourers that resided within the campus which, obviously, lacked the pomp and the grandeur of the actual school. Now, I understand that this type of school was a necessity, and keeping my grand moral position aside for a while, and it was actually beneficial to the underprivileged workers on campus, some of who taught me greater lessons in life than anything Aitchison college-proper had to offer. The shameful inequality of opportunity and lack of equal access to quality education, and the acceptance of everybody of this as an inescapable fate left me rather worried, and often, guilty, at not being able to change things. The inner voice in me would tell me I was feeding off their misery, but I was probably to shy to suggest something like that in a predominantly nouveau riche social environment that celebrated outward displays of material wealth and aristocratic mannerisms as if it was their God-given right. What had I done different, individually, rather than being born in a relatively well-to-do household to enjoy the fruits of elite education while the rest, relatively, toiled away? Over time, however, the realisation struck me, that people studying in government schools were actually doing okay, if not better in most fields of life, and that it did not matter where you went to school as much as what you did with it. And that studying at Aitchison, LAS, Chueifat, or the LGSs and the Beaconhouses did not make people morally superior, or better people. In most cases, the exact opposite was true. By class 7 and 8, I had friends who would just simply buy exam papers in advance by bribing photocopiers, get into school sports teams by flaunting their father’s connections in front of the sports coaches. And that, understanding that I run the risk of generalisation while making this type of an argument, most elite school children, turned out to be arrogant, enabled by the “trappings of upper class entitlement, family connections, and high culture.” Shamus Rahman Khan, in his excellent work, In Privilege, makes a similar argument in his sociological foray into St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire which, for him, is an exclusive domain of America’s wealthiest sons. Young, rich, and generally angry boys, feed off each other, creating exclusivist circles which remain at play for life. They become the parents that once came to pick them up in fancy cars, showing off the latest chic fashion designs, and encourage their children to unhealthily participate in typical ‘my daddy’s cooler than yours’ back and forths, as conspicuous consumption dictates proceedings.

The Pakistani education system could not recover from the dents it received in the 1980’s as Zia’s opportunistic drive to win the support of the capitalist machinery meant that the old government school system got compromised as he enabled and encouraged the creation of Grammar Schools and Beacon-houses while education got privatised and commercialised with zero checks and balances or concern for the consequences. Ironic, that Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif’s estates emerged from the same reality, benefitting under Zia and his crony Governor, Ghulam Jilani, rising to power at the same time, and employing stances against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation policies of their industries as a political tool to gain mileage. From the 90s, it became an accepted reality that the children of the rich would study different syllabi and enjoy the fruits of British and American education systems, while government school standards got more and more compromised over time, as their teachers were paid less and less over time, as the state machinery succumbed in the aftermath of the Zia’s ill-fated decision to become capitalist America’s stooge in the war against socialist Russia, cynically employing a misguided Jihadist ideology, and the consequent scourge of religious extremism and the blowbacks of joining proxy wars left the nation’s economy devastated, democratic process derailed, while bloody ethnic, sectarian and racial antagonisms assumed full shape and robust forms in consequent years. Neither were the Generals equipped to deal with them, nor were most of the children that assumed positions of power, privilege and prestige, that elite educational institutions produced. The cultural and material gaps between the rich and the poor increased, as did the urban rural divide past the 1980’s. The eventual solution might lie in attempting to bridge both gaps – for Pakistan will only become truly federal and democratic, children from elite Punjabi households could safely, and would compulsorily have to migrate to government schools in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and vice-versa, to learn basic human empathy, tolerance and compassion based around norms focussed around increasing provincial, inter-faith and intra-faith harmony, and the great lessons of having the courage to be humble. Can this ideal be achieved in the next ten or twenty years? Possibly. Will the current power structure in the Punjab allow it? Highly unlikely. The solution, probably, lies elsewhere, outside of the ideological trappings of crony capitalism and a highly exploitative systemic realities.

 

The author is a freelance columnist.

@irtiza_shafaat