Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How Standardized Education Kills Diversity of Skills


Maryam Sakeenah

It did not take me a long time as a school teacher to observe that the way we educate is fundamentally flawed. In my very first year as a teacher I was asked to take extra classes for a badly performing group of students. I was told that the objective was just to help them somehow secure a passing grade. The lessons left me drained out at the end of the day with a sense of frustration over the extremely slow progress, if at all, of the students. However, there was something else I figured out- each of these students classified as poor performers and persistent failures, had a gift of his own- one of them who had partial cerebral palsy was a brilliant calligrapher; others could draw extraordinary well, or do wonders in the sports field, while one other loved caring for animals. I realized the pointlessness of compelling these gifted children to do Math or English or History when academic pursuits were not their forte. But the tragedy was that the education system did not value what they possessed, and hence labeled them as failures for what they were not meant to do in the first place. I asked to meet the parents of these children, convincing each one of them that their children were gifted and talented in diverse skills which the parents must allow them to pursue. All of the parents scoffed at the notion, saying that whatever talent they had ‘will not get them anywhere in life’, and that they must, by any means, be forced to do well in the disciplines acknowledged by the education system.

Although I didn’t have much luck with helping these students recognize and explore their true talent owing to stiff resistance from school administrations and families, I learnt how the way we educate refuses to recognize natural human diversity and narrows down ability exclusively to academic disciplines. This is not only unjust and uninsightful, it is fundamentally perverse and limiting. It classifies human talents and abilities on a scale inconsistent with human nature,  that places academic intelligence, literacy and numeracy at the top. It is built on the fallacy that all human beings are meant to excel at reading, writing, calculating, memorizing and reproducing and those who do not, are of less ability and value.
Such a system oppresses those countless human beings that God has constructed more creatively- those who are more artistic or sporty or possess unconventional intelligence. The system discards them as worthless. There are so many real life horror stories of students giving up on themselves and developing low self esteem or other psychological problems because the school forced them to perform academically while what nature had intended for them was different. Their lack of academic interest and ability led to them being labeled as failures which in turn became a self-fulfilling prophecy as these individuals were consigned to the fringes of a system which mainstreams only a certain kind of intelligence. A simple analogy invoked in this context is quite striking… How would a fish feel about itself if it was judged for its ability to climb trees, when it was meant to swim? When we put the ability to climb trees as the only ability of worth, the birds that fly and the fish that swim and the plants that bear fruit are all trashed in one fell sweep. That is what we have been doing to millions of human beings for hundreds of years.

Not only does this stark reality we have lived with for so long need to be recognized, there needs to be a radical reformation of the way we educate. Human intelligence needs to be redefined to recognize innate diversity. It needs to accommodate and acknowledge and appreciate the many colours and shades that make up the spectrum of our humanity. Ken Robinson has done some great work to highlight the phenomenon of how schools kill creativity. In Europe and the United States, some work on revamping the system along these lines has begun, but in our part of the world we still have to recognize the problem. Our education should stop stifling human individuality and awarding success only to those who fulfill its narrow definition of ability. Education must recognize that academic ability is not the standard human trait we must pursue and develop in all human beings indiscriminately, and that success is attainable in ways other than academic achievement. The creative arts, physical education and manual labour all need to be given their due place and value not only as recognized fields of learning but also as well respected career paths. Vocational education must be given to those who are not academically oriented, and such an education should have as much prestige as a college education. We need to identify diverse talents in individuals and allow them to excel in those by not only providing opportunity but also recognition and value to non academic pursuits. Only this will help end the silent oppression that stifled natural human diversity since human beings invented standardized education.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Marketization of Education in Pakistan


Maryam Sakeenah

The sleek car that zoomed past sported a sticker telling passers-by that the owner was a ‘proud parent’ of a child at a certain institution. The pride of course was for the fact that this institution was exclusive to the privileged elite on account of its appallingly high tuition fee. My initial reaction was openmouthed disbelief. Eventually it sank in… the reason for the parent’s pride was not the child’s achievement or act of merit, but the fact that they could pay that outrageously high fee for a select, exclusive education. The distasteful sticker was issued, of course, by the school itself. The particular school happens to be top-notch within a system that metes out education according to buying power. It consists of schools varying in standards of education and resources according to the tuition fee rates. Such a system helps to perpetuate a rigid social stratification based on class, utterly ruining any semblance of meritocracy within which an education system truly delivers, making social mobility possible.

This is marketized education at its worst; education reduced to a commodity. It defies the idea that education is a universal birthright to better the lives of all human beings, and is an affront to egalitarian social ideals. And yet this marketization of education in urban Pakistan has been subtly under way since years, and no one batted an eyelid. Its consequences which are only beginning to show up, are nightmarish, privileging the financial elite by education, enabling them to be at the helm of positions of power and influence in the bureaucracy and industry, media and education. Those denied the privilege for their financial inability are forever condemned to menial working class positions demanding clerical servility to perpetuate the system made by and for the financial elite.

This has largely been made possible through the rise of the business executive as educator and policymaker. Graduates in business, marketing and management run administrations of educational institutions, equipped with all the clever arts of moneymaking, profiteering, competing and selling. They have never stood on the giving end of a classroom, are completely ignorant of human psychology and educational philosophy, unaware of the nuances of the complex process of learning. Trained in the art of selling for profit, they lack the vision to educate for the sake of education. They educate for business, and so function as indispensable, core elements of the commercialized private schooling system.

The great irony is when this system places the average business graduate as educational administrator over the academic, making and dictating educational policy. Such policy then is driven primarily by the profit motive. In this commercialized milieu, the educator, teacher and giver of knowledge is a worker in the system serving a clientele that generates the money. Hence the client is cosseted to perfect satisfaction for his money, and the educator slavedriven to provide that to impossible perfection. Teachers in Pakistan’s private schools continue to be heavily overworked and perpetually underpaid.    

The subjugation of the academic to the professional businessman is at the core of the marketization of education. Business graduates trained to keep up the utilitarian-capitalist economy administer the system, making policy that utterly lacks any understanding of the functions and nature of education as well as any genuine concern for social uplift, human empowerment and liberation through education. In my experience as a teacher, I have come across among most urban English-medium private schools a systematic and deliberate trend discouraging value education and traditional disciplines like oriental languages or religious studies because they have little material worth in a cutthroat economy. Students graduate with the ruinous notion that a spattering of accented English gives them the right to social superiority and is enough to sweep anyone off their feet; or that a skill at gadgetry is of highest value in landing oneself a high paying job. Their years of education often fail to humanize, enlighten and enrich them with wisdom, compassion or humility even as they sport all the paraphernalia of wealth and good taste. They are perfectly finished products of the system- cogs in the machine, and yet unable to truly live the enervating yet edifying epic struggles of human life.

In the private education system, the business graduate not only takes the fattest cheque home, he helps to keep in place the system that created him and put him over the educator, visionary and academic. The human products of marketized education are a tawdry triumph of this system that privileges a particular social class over the rest.   

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On the Legalization of Homosexual Marriage in the United States


Maryam Sakeenah

An interesting clash ensued in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing homosexual marriage. While the supporters of the cause celebrated having finally broken free from the bondage to regressive conservatism, there was on the other end of the spectrum, anger and bitterness over the mainstreaming of what is seen as a violation of God’s law and the ‘natural’ order of things.

Pakistan’s vibrant social media also reflected these divergent trends with a furious melee between those sporting rainbow coloured profiles and those invoking the wrath of God over the supporters of the new law.

The anger on both sides is quite misplaced and irrational. The clash between secular liberalism and conservative religion is inevitable and there to stay. The verdict coming from secular USA which prides itself in its liberal values is not surprising or outrageous. It is also understandable that those who subscribe to traditional religious faith would have a different opinion. It is all a matter of what one believes and how one looks at society and the wider world.

The problem, however, is with the attitude of moral superiority by the secular liberals. The twitter hashtag ‘#Lovewins’ for the sexual equality movement reeks of it, among other things. As if those who hold a different opinion do so out of hate; as if believing in traditional values and holding on to religious convictions is anti-love and against all that is humane and compassionate and egalitarian.

This presumption of moral superiority by the secular liberals at home and abroad is based on the idea that the conservative dissenters merely hold on with blind and ignorant stubbornness to outmoded and archaic religious convictions that pull humanity back from its path to progress laid out by the liberal reformist programme. This presumption is based on the widespread inability (even among Muslims) to understand the rationality of religious sexual ethics.

Parallels with the animal kingdom in which sporadic homosexual behaviour can be observed is often invoked to prove that homosexuality occurs in nature hence the religious idea that it is a violation of God’s order is incorrect. This comparison with the animal kingdom fails to understand the fundamental premise of religion: that human existence has a Divinely ordained purpose and goal, and that human civilization is to be ordered on values and principles to facilitate the individual and collective pursuit of the purpose of human life. A number of patterns exist in the animal kingdom which, if mainstreamed in human society on the pretext that they are ‘natural’ in the jungle, can lead to chaos and perhaps extermination of human civilization.

According to the religious understanding, man has been endowed with the sexual instinct for several purposes- the most obvious is of course procreation and the continuation of the human race. However, it is also the sexual instinct that forms the most basic of human relationships which is the foundation of the human family. The family unit is the fundamental building block of human society, the oldest and most universal pattern of the human community; it is a means to engender and socialize individuals, a support system and a natural means to provide a number of vital social functions. Daniel Haqiqatjou writes, “Before modernity, family organization was the primary communal structure upon which people relied. Everything went through the extended family, e.g., business and one’s livelihood, education, health care, dispute mediation, and much more. Today, all these areas of life fall under the purview of the nation state and its corporate extensions, so we lose this sense of the importance of family cohesion and, correspondingly, how dangerous and disruptive a violation of it really is and was for past societies.” 

The human family is sustained on the concept of masculine and feminine complementarity. This means that the individual characteristics, roles and responsibilities of the male and the female gel together the marital bond and become the basis for the family to flourish. As parents, both men and women have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and the children they give birth to, benefit from both in specific ways.

Homosexuality and adulterous heterosexuality do not fulfil any of these purposes why Allah has created the sexual impulse in human beings. This leaves only a single purpose behind such sexual behaviours: sexual expression, indulgence and adventurism. Islam does not recognize this as an unconditional human right to be freely carried out in society, because human beings are capable of functioning on a level higher than a mere pursuit of the carnal drives. Even heterosexuals cannot express their sexual instinct except in a relationship of marriage with all the responsibilities it entails. Islam envisions an ordered society in which moral behaviour is regulated for the well being of all. Homosexuality and all other sexual behaviour which does not fulfill the purpose why Allah has put the sexual instinct in us is therefore discouraged.

The problem with legalizing homosexual relationships is that such recognition and acceptance of this sexual practice facilitates and encourages it. The soaring rates of homosexuality in some societies are largely because social acceptance of this incites many to experiment with it and indulge in it.

If a human being is put in a trial by Allah through an abnormal sexual orientation or through absence of opportunity to establish a legitimate sexual relationship, they are required to be patient through finding strength in faith. Self restraint and self control of our animal drives is something Islam requires from all Muslims. Some people are tested harder with this, and homosexuals fall in that category. A believer who is faced with this must direct his focus to other aspects of human life and develop himself spiritually and otherwise to live a fulfilling, productive life. In order to make this easy for them, psychological counselling, rehabilitation and support should be provided in Islamic societies. However, those who refuse to restrain themselves and pursue their carnal instincts (hetero or homo sexual) go against the spirit and teachings of Islam. If such behaviour is indulged in openly and shamelessly without restraint, then it is punishable by Islamic law as well.

The ethics of sexuality in Islam prescribe limits even for heterosexual relationships within marriage. Not only do these conform to Islamic standards of hygiene, health, safety and physical well being, but also uphold human dignity and a minimal standard of modesty. As homosexuality is not the typical sexual behaviour for which the human body is designed, it often involves methods and means which fall short of Islamic sexual ethics and regulations. It is scientifically proven that homosexuality (just as promiscuity) is a primary cause of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Homosexuality being a natural urge to someone is no justification in Islam for permitting it. Sadism can be natural to some people; so can serial killing or kleptomania, and these urges can only be recognized as a basic human right to the detriment of human society.

True freedom entails mutual respect of divergent views, which is quite ironically, absent in the sneering condescension with which secular liberals view the religious position on homosexuality. Believers in religion in this day and age are challenged with holding on to their convictions in a secular milieu which betrays its own ideals of liberty and tolerance of difference. The challenge is to refuse to be part of the melee, accept that the difference exists and is there to stay and yet being firmly poised in a profound conviction in the ‘hikmah’ of the Divine scheme of things.