Jewels in rags’ | I.A. Rehman

AS in the past, this year, too, the examiners in Punjab’s education system have found some poor students, most of them belonging to the lowest rung of the working class, who have done better than their affluent competitors.

Ali Hamza (16) from Daska town in Sialkot district has secured the second position in the humanities group of the matriculation examination. He overcame formidable handicaps: his parents cannot work because they have health problems; as the family’s sole breadwinner he sells fruit from a pushcart; and he studied at a government high school where only the most intrepid children can receive instruction.

Last week, an Urdu daily reported that a boy working as a dishwasher at a hotel had secured the second position in the Lahore Board’s Intermediate examination. The report added that the winners of distinction received medals, cash awards and the luckier ones laptops as well, but did not disclose the name of the ‘mehnat kash’ student.

Last year, Muhammad Rizwan, son of a security guard who paid for his education by selling samosas, gained the second position in the humanities group of the matriculation examination. Another student mentioned in last year’s report was Umar Farooq from a local seminary, the son of a bus driver, who secured the third position in a matriculation group of the Sargodha Board. One Urdu daily carried a three-column heading to the effect that ‘poor students sweep the matriculation examination’ but did not explain who the children of the poor were.

A more detailed report carried by an Urdu daily in 2013, under the headline: “Matric examination: poverty again surpasses affluence across Punjab” declared that a majority of top-scoring students belonged to poor families of Kasur (a plumber’s son), Dera Ghazi Khan (son of a rickshaw driver), Multan (son of a pakora/samosa vendor), Gujranwala (the parents of eight position holders out of 15 were described as labourers), and so on.

Why all these stories should attest to the genius of poverty-stricken students from Punjab alone cannot be explained. Similar stories may well be available from other provinces that are either not reported in the Lahore editions of the national dailies or are not considered worth reporting anywhere except Punjab.

Be that as it may, Punjab’s educational bosses are quite keen to announce the discovery of ‘jewels in rags’, an expression corresponding to an Urdu equivalent, ‘gudri mein laal’, meaning the existence of a genius in a family whose sole possession is a bundle of rags.

The romanticisation of poverty in whose bosom genius grew was a strong tradition in the age of feudalism. Rousseau, who was born free but poor, had an edge over Voltaire, the lord of the rich nobles’ salons. Goldsmith is praised for writing She Stoops to Conquer in a single night as he needed money to pay for his father’s burial. And Marx wrote Capital while in the grip of extreme poverty.

In our Urdu classical literature, too, poets have proved their mettle in direct proportion to their indigence. Can anyone imagine what Mir would have been if he had been rich? Or Ghalib if he did not have to worry all the time about his pension arrears or where the next bottle of his favourite drink was coming from?

The Punjab rulers can claim as much credit for keeping alive the feudal tradition of recognising the ‘laals’ in ‘gudrees’ as they want. But how will they ward off the charge that they want to condemn a large slice of humankind to survival in rags so as to earn plaudits for occasionally discovering the jewels among them?

Were it not so, our rulers might not have failed to notice modern nations’ efforts to eliminate the poor’s disadvantage in access to education by offering to all children, poor as well as rich, a certain level of equality of opportunity. We often raise the slogan of rule of merit without establishing equality of opportunity to all children to acquire merit.

Instead of shouting about the benevolence of the state in giving a few thousand rupees or a laptop to children of poor wage-earners, it is necessary to probe the causes of the failure en masse of the poorer students in all examinations, to find out and report the discrepancy between poor and rich and between the rural and urban seekers of knowledge.

Who does not know that education has become a commodity that people can buy in proportion to their financial means, that countless families make huge sacrifices to be able to send their children to expensive private institutions, and that the size of the class grows and the quality of instruction declines as you move away from capital cities?

All this has been researched by the much-maligned civil society organisations. For instance, ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) and Alif Ailaan have been pointing out year after year what is wrong with our elitist education system. While the authorities have shed their snobbery to the extent of using ASER findings in the Economic Survey they are still determined not to respect its advice. The provincial governments do not conceal their delight over the fact that 40pc of students are going to private schools but cannot see the need for developing a mechanism to protect the students against poor curriculum choices and substandard teaching, that was recently brought out by the Society for Advancement of Higher Education.

Each of these issues — disparity in rural and urban institutions, growing inequality between the rich and the poor caused by the difference between institutions exclusively meant for them, the need for rescuing those without resources from the culture of poverty, et al — deserves a full-scale discussion, and that is the route our rulers ought to take instead of indulging in hypocritical applause for a poor boy or two as ‘jewels in rags’ and ignoring the millions who are caught in the trap of poverty.

‘Jewels in rags’ | I.A.  Rehman

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2015


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