By Fasih Zaka

Most Pakistani's will acknowledge the same; it is a country with a magnificent natural resource, people with good faculties of mind. This is what also makes Pakistan so frustrating, that a population such as this finds it so hard to get its act together as a nation.

Part of this can be traced down to education; we pay lip service to its importance but don’t find it within ourselves to get angry about its woeful state in the country. Politically our demand for it is low, we can come together in force for cheap CNG or protesting Israel, but the scandal that is the lack of education provision in this country finds no takers.

Part of this has to do with the fact that people who do have a voice that makes a difference have chosen to buy their way out of the problem through private schooling for their children rather than lobby the state to do more. So, while middle and upper classes have solved their way out of the education by purchasing good quality education, the masses who are already poorly educated see little currency in arguing for education because they have more pressing immediate needs.

The truth of the matter is that the middle and upper classes have absolved themselves of the need to argue for more equity in society. Some of the slack has been taken up by the media, so a few crusading anchors with an interest in the sector are doing what the well heeled to do should have been doing. But there is a limit to how much Talat Hussain, Hamid Mir or Fahd Hussain can achieve. Why? Because the same population of people who can afford to educate their children privately watch their TV shows. How long would they tune in on a subject they already care little about. We are lucky that these anchors continue to push for this despite the affect on ratings it has.

However, one must concede that some amazing innovation has been taking place in Pakistan. We have low cost private schools that have some remarkable outcomes given the fact they charge only Rs. 100 a month or more. In addition Shahbaz Sharif is doing some excellent, if little publicized, work in ensuring the educational machinery becomes more efficient, in the process generating excellent data on the true state of schools.

In part, one reason why there is little support for dramatically doing something about schools is despondency. But the reasons for that is suspect. People tend to presume that Pakistan has lost so much time with respect to education nothing can really be done now. They also believe that it takes too much time before the amazing social and economic returns to education can accrue. And lastly that we are too poor to afford a universally literate population.

Well, it’s never too late for starters. If we began to invest in education now we could see results in as little as two years time. There are more than 20 countries poorer than Pakistan, which have better investment in education simply because they are interested in it.

Right now it seems the world and Pakistan are coming towards an interest in education. I suppose underlying it are hopes that it will better our security outlook in the future. It’s unfair to lop this expectation on to this sector. For improvements in the general state of affairs a much broader effort is needed, for education we need to start seeing it as a right, like the way we see ID cards or voting.

Given the elections are around the corner the good news is that two parties seem serious about education, the PTI and the PML-N. Sad that they can’t see eye to eye otherwise there is potential that something good can come of it.

What we really need is a Charter of Education, pretty much like the Charter of Democracy. But why is it that we have found this consensus elusive? Partly because we get sidetracked because of the aims of an education. Should it be to produce good Muslims, better Pakistanis, kids who love the military? Everyone has a view and it seems to stall basic consensus. But we should be able to park that aside until we get the basics right, that is every child of age should be able to read, write and do basic math.

While I commend the media for doing their part and some of the aforementioned anchors, I think there is one aspect of media coverage that sometimes can be counter productive even though it is well intentioned. Every so often we see reports of children of rickshaw drivers or other economically challenged groups who do spectacularly well in exams. It erroneously leads people to presume that if they can do it everyone can, and those who don’t aren’t trying.

That’s not true. People like Abdus Salam, Einstein or a Srinivasa Ramanujan will do well wherever they are and in spite of poor educational facilities. For a society to have progress, educational facilities need to be able to help the vast majority of people with an average aptitude for education. If the system is adequate just enough not to impede the brightest, that is not success.

I spoke to a person who is a senior doctor in the Pakistani medical board that certifies post-MBBS qualifications. Initially in our conversation he disagreed with the point I make about our systems because he saw the majority of the young doctors from humble backgrounds do well in Pakistani examinations. But as our discussion moved forward he conceded that the cream were doing their fellowships abroad, not because of just ability but also because they had the means to do so.

If we are going to see an equitable society eventually, and we have a large way to move on that front, education will be the foundation. The challenge is not finding the money to do it, but to overcome our disinterest.