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Time To Stand Up Against The Coercive Model Of Education

Ali Madeeh Hashmi writes about the state of affairs in Pakistan’s colleges and universities where students are not given space to freely express themselves. The model of education currently in place is a coercive one, and this needs to change.

We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves-Galileo Galilei

A few weeks ago, a Facebook post by one of my students caught my attention. In it, she lamented the attitude of most of her teachers at our elite medical university towards their students. How they always complained about students being apathetic and indifferent while themselves never showing any interest in the lives of their students beyond ‘the bare minimum of showing up and reading boring slides to the generation that will replace you…You can either have your obedient donkey labor, or you can have your prize winning, out of the box thinking students who do you proud. The two are, and have always been, mutually exclusive.’

I shared the post because it was painfully accurate and reflected one of my pet peeves about being a teacher at one of the best medical institutions in Pakistan: the maddeningly indifferent, at times callous, attitude of most of the teachers at my university towards our students who are the most brilliant young people in Pakistan. An incident a few days later served to underline my frustration.

A new batch of medical students had just been admitted into our university. As the top merit institution in the Punjab, every one of these 300 plus young people (divided almost equally between boys and girls) had achieved a cumulative academic score of over 94%! The range of their scores was between 94 and 97%. You would think that our university would lay out the red carpet for all these near geniuses; have a party (a series of parties!) to welcome them to our campus; make them feel as special as they actually are and tell them that we were ecstatic to have them with us. Instead, at their week long orientation (a tradition that I, with the help of my colleagues at the department of Psychiatry had started a few years ago), they were given ominous, vaguely threatening lectures about ‘discipline’, ‘ethics’, ‘monitoring (of their activities)’, ‘attendance’, ‘grades’ and the like.

Only one professor, a close friend of mine and much loved by his students actually said ‘Have fun’ at their initial meeting with faculty. They then had two days to spend with other departments and when they came to our department on their third day, we talked to them, fed them samosas and soft drinks, laughed and joked around with them and tried to make them feel as welcome as possible.

We also learned from them that another department had told them quite openly that they should all expect to fail at least some of their exams and a couple of other departments had spent a few minutes each with them before sending them on their way. It was almost as if these bright, idealistic young people were a bother to our university teachers and staff members.

Sadly, having been a student at this same university some 25+ years ago, I can say with some confidence that this is, in fact, just a preview of how they will be treated for the next five years. Being ‘taught’ by ‘teachers’ who have no interest in teaching them anything or inculcating in them a love or learning for the sake of learning; even less an interest in them as people with their own minds and a desire to help them explore their interests, their dreams and develop goals which reflect their deepest desires.

Coincidentally, a few days later I was a guest speaker at an event at a prestigious (non-medical) university. One of the other speakers at the event was a management consultant who, like me, had spent a considerable amount of time studying and working in the United States. He had also, upon his return from the US, set up the first ever office in Pakistan of his parent company, the renowned management consultants McKinsey & Company (a $10 billion global giant with 127 offices all over the world). He told the assembled audience an interesting and instructive story. When McKinsey started hiring for their new office in Pakistan, they received 4000 resumes (of highly qualified people). They whittled it down to 200, then to 40 then to 20 and invited these 20 to final interviews.

The speaker said that the hardest thing about hiring who they needed out of these extremely bright and well qualified people was finding people who (a) were not automatically and unnecessarily deferential to authority (b) who had the courage to disagree strongly with people presumed to be their superiors and (c) who were not inveterate people pleasers or outright sycophants. The speaker then told us, rather ruefully, that they ended up hiring who they needed but then spent up to the next three years inculcating just these qualities in their new employees, something that their training, education and work experience had not.

Having now been a teacher in Pakistan for over 9 years, I can safely say that questioning conventional wisdom, critical thinking and disagreeing with established norms is not just discouraged in Pakistan’s educational institutions but actively punished. Being also a father of three children of various ages going through the school system in Pakistan, I have heard first hand stories from my own children about teachers who berate them for being curious and inquisitive, who insult them for asking questions and God forbid, if they should ever correct their teachers (which my children used to do), they are severely reprimanded.

It is doubly difficult for children like mine since in our family, we have long cherished and advocated values considered somewhat anomalous in today’s Pakistan. For example, at our dinner table and family gatherings, there are often heated discussions about religion, morality and ethics. We all love art, music, literature and movies and our children imbibe that love from us.

We prize freedom of opinion and encourage it amongst each other and our children. My wife and I have learned over time though, especially in the last 9 years since we moved back to Lahore from the US to instruct our children to be circumspect when expressing some of these opinions in public, especially in school. As they have gotten older, it has become easier for them to understand, for example, why last night’s dinner discussion about freedom of religion should be not mentioned to their Islamiat teacher! Even though I would prefer that my children have the same freedom of thought and expression in school that we try to provide them at home, I understand that it is not entirely possible. I remain confident though that we have instilled in them some core values that they can carry into their adult life.

Of course, the same is not true for the vast majority of students in Pakistan. They are taught from a very early age that they need to unquestioningly bow to authority, suspend their curiosity, not ask questions and especially not question traditional knowledge. The education system that instills these fears into them, is of course, designed to support and sustain coercive state and social structures that benefit those in power. When the brightest of these children are then admitted to our medical university, it becomes my unenviable task to help them begin to reverse some of this brainwashing and rediscover a love for learning and curiously about the world around them.

The efforts of a few teachers like me also collide directly with the majority of teachers at our university who not only have imbibed an authoritarian ‘top-down’ coercive model of education from their own teachers, but are also convinced that this is the best way to ‘teach’. They then become actors in the ongoing multi-generational cycle of what can only be called ‘abusive training’ (‘education’ is not the right word for it).

Thus, the cycle continues. The teaching of these very bright young people should be designed to encourage them to love learning for the sake of learning (rather than just as a means to get a degree which is then a means to get a decent paying job etc); to encourage curiosity and wonder about the world around them. In addition, college and university should be a happy period in a young person’s life. A time where they make friends, learn about themselves and the world, sometimes fall in (and out) of love and generally have the kind of fun that becomes increasingly difficult once one gets on the treadmill of ‘adult life’ and begins to be weighed down by responsibilities.

Instead, university life becomes just another extension of school where they are hemmed in by inane and useless ‘rules’, threatened and bullied by ‘teachers’ and encouraged to become ‘student drones’ to prepare for life as ‘worker drones’. It’s no wonder that today’s students, exposed to so much knowledge and information about the outside world, become conflicted by this stark contrast between what college and university life is meant to be (as they see it) and what it actually is.

The irony also is that all modern, research-driven methods of education in fact support a completely different model of learning: one that is student centered and learner driven and makes teachers collaborators and facilitator of education rather than tyrants. Apparently, that memo has yet to arrive at our university or most of Pakistan’s higher educational institutions.

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs. At our own university, a few years ago, some students banded together and with my active encouragement founded a peer-counseling/support network (the first of its kind in Pakistan, to my knowledge).

It has been extremely effective, not just in helping students struggling with mental health difficulties but also to promote healthy activities on campus like Art and music competitions. This year too, I reached out to one of their organizers who arranged a session with the incoming first years. I later saw pictures on Facebook of talks, guitar and singing sessions, games and activities on the university lawns and lots of happy students. In addition, there is a small group of faculty at my university with an interest in (and some with advanced degrees in) teaching and education.

We keep devising ways to enhance and improve the teaching of our medical students and young doctors in whatever ways we can. So far, we haven’t been able to implement any institution wide initiatives but more and more of our colleagues (especially younger faculty) are coming around to our point of view. The sheer numbers of students that we are required to teach sometimes makes the task difficult but we keep trying in whatever ways we can.

A long time ago in Pakistan (as my elders tell it, all of whom were educators), colleges and universities in Pakistan were vibrant, alive, colorful places where students learned but also sang, danced, debated, did sports and generally had fun. We are not quite there yet but perhaps we can get back there one day.

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