It’s morning in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s biggest province, and the country’s next generation is headed to school. But what children are finding when they get there is of increasing concern for those who want peace in Pakistan’s future.
For 12-year-old Fatma, school is an abandoned brickyard.
“I study at the Government Primary School in Lahore,” she explains. “I study English language, and I like it. There are no chairs. We have to sit on the ground. It’s a problem in the winter. When it rains, there is nowhere to sit.”
Each day, the kids bring in a few chairs for the teachers, and they set up the school’s one blackboard, which six classrooms share.
“So your students actually have no rooms, no desks?” correspondent David Montero asks the school’s headmaster.
“No furniture. No rooms,” he replies.
This school is not an exception. There are some 20,000 “shelterless” schools throughout Pakistan. And even when there are buildings, 60 percent have no electricity, and 40 percent have no drinking water. Because the schools are so bad, Pakistan has the lowest enrollment rate in all of South Asia.
Ali Hassan is roughly the same age as Fatma, but he’s recently dropped out of the third grade. Instead, he helps out at a local gas station and makes the equivalent of 12 cents a day — money his mother says the family now can’t live without.
“I hope Ali learns to be a mechanic, that he learns this work,” his mother says. “When only my husband earns, how can we get by?”
“Today, there are 68.4 million children between the ages of five and 19 in this country, and fewer than 30 million of those kids are in any type of school,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a longtime advocate of reforming Pakistan’s schools. “You look at the consequences of these kids not going to school — and let’s set aside the fearmongering and the scare-mongering of saying, you know, ‘What if all these kids become terrorists?’ Setting that aside, the real problem is that, if you aren’t capable of participating in the global economy, you will be very, very poor. And desperate and extreme poverty has some diabolical consequences for societies and for individuals.”
In Pakistan, public education has become a battleground. Members of Fatma’s local school council are outraged, saying the elite only care about themselves and keep the poor illiterate to stay in power.
“Government officials send their own kids to air-conditioned classrooms. Let’s see them make their kids sit here and see what it is like,” says one council member. “Aren’t these the children of God’s creation?”
The council takes Montero on a tour of a new construction site, where the government promised a new building that was supposed to house the 300 students from Fatma’s school.
“This is the only room?” Montero asks. “Three hundred students are supposed to sit in this room?”
The government blamed the contractor. The contractor blamed the government. The school council wanted to visit the Education District officer of Lahore to ask what had gone wrong. But he threatened to fire them if they showed up.
When Montero visited, the officer said that the teachers shouldn’t be complaining. According to his paperwork, the school would be big enough.
Across town, another kind of school is functioning quite well. It has plenty of room and even provides free tuition and a hot meal. It is one of the country’s many madrassas, or religious schools, which are becoming an increasingly popular option for poor parents.
“Parents who were educated don’t send their kids to madrassa. They send them to private schools, universities,” says the madrassa headmaster. “Poor people want their children to learn about their religion.”
Although madrassas are often criticized in the West, many local conservatives, like the school’s headmaster, believe that what’s being taught there will make Pakistan a stronger state.
“Why are we Muslims in this mess today?” he asks. “Because we’ve strayed from the Koran. If you look back at history, non-Muslims used to tremble in front of Muslims. Today, they don’t. Today, when they see the situation Muslims are in, they say, ‘Exploit them.’”
It’s a message that is also taught in the country’s public schools, where it can influence far more children. For decades, Pakistani schoolchildren have been learning that their country is in a battle for survival.
“The teachers tell us that India and the British are our enemies,” Fatma says. “They are killing Muslims. They are behind the bomb blasts. I do not know much about America, but generally people do not like America, and they can never be our friends.”
Rabina Saigel is an academic who’s studied public school textbooks for years and found that they have quietly been feeding extremism.
“I feel that a great deal of the ideology that we think madrassas are producing is in fact being produced in state schools,” she says. “And I say that it’s the biggest madrassa because it has the widest outreach. It reaches every town, village, and small hamlet. It reaches every nook and cranny of the country.”
At the Ministry of Education’s curriculum wing, the staff has been working on removing the militaristic tone of the curriculum. But the textbooks still include passages like these: “For the past three centuries the Europeans have been working to subjugate the countries of the Muslim world” and “The Christians and Europeans were not happy to see the Muslims flourishing in life. They were always looking for opportunities to take possession of territories under the Muslims.”
While those in the curriculum wing say that the new curriculum will address these issues, some religious fundamentalists have attacked the new, more tolerant curriculum.
“There is no demand for [secular education] in Pakistan. No demand from any section — not from students, not from teachers, not from parents,” says Fareed Paracha, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest fundamentalist Islamist party. He blasts the West for trying to secularize Pakistan’s curriculum.
“They have started a clash between Western and Islamic civilizations,” he says. “They claim Western secular, democratic civilization now is the fate of humanity.”
Just a few months ago, Paracha led a protest against the latest American aid package, which includes hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for education reform. The religious parties say the United States. is using the aid to try to hijack Pakistani society.
But ironically, others fear that the money will never reach the schools, anymore than the $100 million in U.S. aid over the past three years has.
Reformers believe the problems that Pakistani children face are so deep that money alone will not be enough to fix them.
“I think it’s generous of the American taxpayer, and I think it’s important that Congress and the president and the administration have made this kind of a long-term commitment. But it is not going to make the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional Pakistan,” says Zaidi. “The choice of whether Pakistan is going to be a functional country is a choice that has to be made by Pakistanis. And Pakistanis haven’t made that choice yet because government after government fails to make the investments that it needs to make.”