Why the silence?

Zubeida Mustafa

RECENTLY, at a history conference on academic freedom held at SZABIST, a session was devoted to analysing the culture of silence that has come to prevail in our academia. It was attributed to the penchant of the powers that be to clamp down on the free expression of opinion by scholars who want to expose the unpleasant truths of our history. If they choose to defy censorship guidelines, the consequences can be dire for them.

It was also pointed out correctly by a speaker that traditionally our society silences children; they are discouraged from asking questions and are not permitted to speak up before their elders. Another panellist blamed the teachers for failing to create interest in the students in what was being taught in the classroom. As a result, the students had no desire to acquire knowledge.

Unfortunately, no one spoke of the self-imposed culture of silence created by the government’s language policy in the education system. There is overemphasis on the use of the English language, despite the teachers’ lack of proficiency in it. The government’s decision to make English compulsory for all schoolchildren and also allow its use as the medium of instruction in private schools has created a dichotomy. Worse is the recent — not publicly announced — move of the Sindh government to introduce English as the medium of instruction in all public-sector schools in Karachi’s District South.

These unwise policies are destroying education in Pakistan while creating fissures in our already class-ridden society. Inequality and injustice are on the rise driven by a fractured education system. All this is shaping social attitudes. English is ‘good’. Urdu (or any local language) is ‘bad’.

Our language policy is depriving students of the confidence to speak up.

Those who study in ‘English-medium schools’ are good and get jobs. Those who go to a school that does not claim to use English as the medium of instruction are scum of the earth, worthy of marginalisation. Is it then surprising that all are now chasing English for their survival and, paradoxically, self-destruction?

How does this phenomenon create a culture of silence? It robs the youth of their confidence. I experienced this a fortnight ago when invited by the Urban Resource Centre to distribute certificates to some students who had completed the 18th Community Architect Training Course. This is a valuable service the URC renders to communities by training young men and women to map their dwellings and improve ventilation and sanitation, while arranging their visits to various localities where they meet the denizens of the real Pakistan. Nearly 292 people have been trained so far.

I was asked to give a lecture on double standards in education. Instead, I decided to have a discourse based on the participants’ own school experiences. Each of them gave an identical account of their school education. They had all studied in a school that claimed to be ‘English medium’. The teachers spoke in Urdu but the students had to read, write and learn from textbooks that were in English. After they had introduced themselves they fell silent. They appeared smart but no one questioned this hybrid style of pedagogy that is accepted by all concerned with education in Pakistan.

This bizarre pedagogy produces tragic results. The children do not learn English. Neither do they learn the subjects they are taught in it. Yet it is foolishly believed that a dual purpose is served. This absurd pedagogy, a post-colonial product, has five results. 1) It does not teach a student how to express his own thoughts in any language. 2) The child resorts to rote learning. 3) The conce­p­­ts are not clear­­ly understood by the child. 4) In the process, the children forget their own language and 5) they are dumbed.

When they see children from elite schools speaking “fur fur in English” (the dream of a child from Lyari in Karachi, herself struggling with the language), they internalise the loss of self-esteem they suffer.

A few days later, I telephoned a number of these certificate holders to ask them why they didn’t speak up when I had wanted them to. It was then — after they had listened to my talk — that they became vocal. One said that the silence I witnessed was a normal pattern at such events. Another said that once she had an argument with someone on the language issue and had been humiliated by the speaker (not at the URC). As a result, she chooses silence.

The culture of silence is so deeply ingrained in children that even in the comfort zone of the URC, where there are no language restrictions, students fail to shed the inhibitions they imbibed in early childhood. It actually affects their psyche. Their sense of dignity is violated and they develop an inferiority complex. Should good education be doing that?

Published in Dawn, By Zubeida Mustafa December 29th, 2023