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Friday, October 30, 2009

Madrassas, Indoctrination, Education and Kristof



It is always disappointing when a writer who says sensible things about most issues decides to turn off his brain when it comes to education. I complained about a nonsensical article about education in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof a few months again, and now he has gone off and done it again. He is writing about spending less money on troops in Afghanistan and the suggests that that money should be spent on education. Kristof:

Since 9/11, the United States has spent $15 billion in Pakistan, mostly on military support, and today Pakistan is more unstable than ever. In contrast, Bangladesh, which until 1971 was a part of Pakistan, has focused on education in a way that Pakistan never did. Bangladesh now has more girls in high school than boys. (In contrast, only 3 percent of Pakistani women in the tribal areas are literate.) Those educated Bangladeshi women joined the labor force, laying the foundation for a garment industry and working in civil society groups like BRAC and Grameen Bank. That led to a virtuous spiral of development, jobs, lower birth rates, education and stability. That’s one reason Al Qaeda is holed up in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh, and it’s a reminder that education can transform societies.


Why am I complaining? This seems reasonable enough. Indeed, Kristof is usually reasonable. And then he says:
When I travel in Pakistan, I see evidence that one group — Islamic extremists — believes in the transformative power of education. They pay for madrassas that provide free schooling and often free meals for students. They then offer scholarships for the best pupils to study abroad in Wahhabi madrassas before returning to become leaders of their communities. What I don’t see on my trips is similar numbers of American-backed schools. It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists. For roughly the same cost as stationing 40,000 troops in Afghanistan for one year, we could educate the great majority of the 75 million children worldwide who, according to Unicef, are not getting even a primary education. We won’t turn them into graduate students, but we can help them achieve literacy. Such a vast global education campaign would reduce poverty, cut birth rates, improve America’s image in the world, promote stability and chip away at extremism. Education isn’t a panacea, and no policy in Afghanistan is a sure bet. But all in all, the evidence suggests that education can help foster a virtuous cycle that promotes stability and moderation. So instead of sending 40,000 troops more to Afghanistan, how about opening 40,000 schools?

On the surface this seems right, but it is very wrong. Americans have the view that Pakistan is full of terrorists and people who take money from the U.S. and make no good use of it. There is some truth to this I assume, but Pakistan is also full of very reasonable and intelligent people who behave a lot like people in the US. They go to good schools in Pakistan, they run successful business there, and they worry about fixing their country. I have been to Pakistan a few times, always talking about education and am usually very well received. I have talked with Mushareff and with various ministers in the government on many occasions. I am on the board of a private school there that is trying very hard to make great and innovative schooling available around the country.

I have never visited a Madrassa but I have seen the kids that go to Madrassas and they look happy and healthy. Here is a picture I took:

What is the issue here? The issue is indoctrination.
Madrassas have a goal. Their goal is make the kids that attend them believe certain things that the teachers are sure is true and to think and behave in certain ways in their every day lives. In short, Madrassas, like many other religiously run schools, know what the end product should be and they have a long history of being successful in creating what they want. The fact that we don’t like what they produce is irrelevant.
When Kristof says he wants to build more schools what he means, apart from the obvious -- getting kids capable of reading and simple math -- is to create more schools like the ones we have in the U.S. In the U.S. we have thousands of schools where kids are packed in like sardines learning a set of subjects will neither help them live their
lives reasonably nor help them to make a living. The education they receive is all about getting them into college, which is pretty irrelevant for the majority of the students who just need to be able to function well after graduation.


We offer indoctrination in our schools too. We constantly indoctrinate our children to believe that college is very important and that memorizing facts to help them pass tests is how to get there. This is the system we would be exporting and it is even more useless in Pakistan than it is the U.S. Just saying the magic education word is of no
help Mr. Kristof. You actually have to understand the difference between education and indoctrination. Madrassas do it and the U.S. schools do it too. You are saying that we should indoctrinate Pakistani students with our kind of indoctrination.
I say we should consider what learning is really about is, help our children learn things that are, or will be, important to them. (This would not include say -- our indoctrination about the significance of Algebra or the wonderfulness of our glorious history.) Build a school that does that, use it to help our own children learn, and then export that.
The U.S. schools aren’t as good as Madrassas. They have no goal, they don’t know what they want to produce and they have no agenda at all except raising test scores. How would spending millions on building these kinds of schools, the ones with the horrific drop out rates, and the pregnant students, and the drug dealers on campus, be a good thing? We are not doing so well over here in education. (The Beaconhouse School in Pakistan is every bit as innovatve as any school we have in the U.S.) Here is a picture of me helping the teachers at Beaconhouse think about learning:

5 comments:

Piero said...

I'm not sure your criticism is entirely fair. Sure, replacing one indoctrination model with another won't do any good; but it is hard to dismiss basic literacy as an unworthy goal, especially in the internet era.

flash said...

Pakistan government never focus on their education field that's why it happens there.

Thanks for sharing this info, keep sharing.


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Roger Schank said...

I didn't intend to dismiss the significance of literacy. Sorry if I was unclear. It is what usually follows literacy that I object to.

Jon A. Suárez said...

Thanks for this post. I think that there are some important concepts addressed in your article, such as ackowledging the whole debate on 'education or indoctrination?', 'my indoctrination vs. your indoctrination', 'imposing my education system' etc.

However, there are a few contradictions of which the following is of importance to me. (I hope you don't mind that I object to this).

When you say '... building these kind of schools, the ones with the horrific drop out rates, and the pregnant students, and the drug dealers on campus...' I think that you are making the same mistakes that are made by many writers in the West who, in this same fashion, generalise concepts of madaris as being a breading place for terrorists. I believe that your depiction of western schools is far from accurate, and I believe that you subjectively employed this description to suit your conclusion. In the same way many Western writers describe madaris as extremist islamist education centres to suit their own conclusions. In fact I believe that the situation is a lot more complex.

I hope you find some of my comments constructive,

Thank you.

Jon.

Roger Schank said...

It is a pretty accurate description of your average high school in the U.S. I am guessing that you live outside the U.S.