Culture, Learning and Schooling

Saturday, 23 June 2007

By: Khadim Hussain

One sometimes wonders what could have been the situation in the former British colonies if the modern schooling system had not been installed. Was it possible for western capitalism to spread its tentacles to the far off lands without using the modern schooling system? In other words: are education and literacy apolitical? Are they used only for the ‘mental growth’ of the people in a particular region having been established as a fundamental human right?.

In fact modern schooling has remained an effective ploy in the hands of those who perpetuate the status quo. The advent of the modern schooling has its origin in the era of colonization. The colonizing powers did not only rob the colonized of their precious resources but also discredited the indigenous knowledge schemata which could have become the basis of their modern institutions. The indigenous knowledge used to be transmitted orally from generation to generation in this part of the world. This would give continuity to cultural history and ethnic identity on the one hand and would keep the dynamics of cultural values alive on the other hand. The education that was imparted culturally would also preserve the worldview of a particular people.

Even today the elders in our villages know how to distribute land among the heirs of a family estate without having enjoyed the privilege of formal schooling. They would also tell you the names and species of almost all the plants, flowers and herbs grown in their particular area. They also know the genealogy of all the families living in that particular area. The elders had always been very keen to talk about the history of their cultural unit in a very candid manner. It seems as if everything related to their people was stored in their memory which was to be used whenever the need arose.

The most important aspect of the cultural life in this part of the world was the languages the people spoke. The indigenous languages carried in their womb probably everything a people lived with—identity, culture, worldview, lifestyles, genealogy and a perception of reality. The modern schooling system, especially in the colonized societies, took away the word out of their mouths. With it went away an asset which remained the soul of a whole people because as Fishman would put it, “a huge part of every ethnoculture is linguistically expressed that it is not wrong to say that most ethnocultural behaviours would be impossible without their expression via the particular language with which these behaviours are traditionally associated.”.

The modern schooling systems did two things to the previously colonized countries and societies simultaneously. Firstly, the modern schooling alienated the indigenous population from their culture and language. In several parts of the world indigenous languages and cultures have been stigmatized as they have been posed to be poor, underdeveloped, devoid of the capability to express modern trends and discoveries (for details see Nettle and Romaine’s the vanishing voices, and Skutnabb-Kangas’ Linguistic Genocide).This process led to cultural and linguistic imperialism and so is there the extinction of indigenous languages and cultures. Secondly, modern institutions could not be built on the indigenous knowledge as it was already stigmatized. The process of development, thus, lacked credibility as it was never owned by the indigenous people. Did Lord Macaulay mean this when he said in 1835, “I have traveled the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we will ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation”.

Consequently, all the Pat Shalas and Azad Schools were closed down on one or the other pretexts but interestingly the religious seminaries continued to exist. It is now understandable why the religious seminaries were allowed to work. They were not English but they were as foreign to the Indian culture as the modern schooling system. The national leadership of the decolonized countries who were aware of the process designed their educational system in the light of their own cultural values and languages while incorporating the modern trends. They revised the policies, restructured the curricula and developed their own methods of teaching in tandem with their identity, culture and worldview but those who relied on the colonial paradigm of education not only lost all these precious assets but also lagged behind in research, creation of new knowledge and critical faculty. There emerged two extremes in such societies—those who followed everything that comes from the west and then there were those who rejected everything that is new.

In the case of Pakistan, political power came in the hands of the former but the power wielders made it sure that the other extreme—religious extremists, are manipulated to the advantage of those who hold power. All the economic, political and social institutions were formed to give power either to the former or the latter and the schooling run by both the extremes perpetuates the status quo. The ‘culture of silence’ was an inevitable consequence. This culture comes into being when the people are manipulated through different techniques to accept the interpretation of a reality imposed by a person or by a group of persons. Sophisticated methods of mental and emotional control are used to ensure the obedience, submission and sub-ordination of the common people. Participation of common people in the activities and institutions of state and society becomes simply a far-cry. The motive behind the development of this culture is usually keeping the status quo for the vested interest. This is, in fact, anathema to the basic concepts of freedom and democracy.

No one in his sane mind would suggest that the modern schooling system be abolished altogether but one definitely would like to suggest that indigenous knowledge, culture and language should be incorporated in the educational systems worldwide, especially in this ‘land of the pure’. This is the shift of the whole paradigm. Cosmetic treatment of the issue has done badly than good to the whole structure and system of education in Pakistan. The students have to compete in the global market. This is the need of 21st century. The needs of the 21sr century cannot be addressed with the mindset of the mediaeval and colonized concepts and techniques. This necessitates a strategy in and outside the classroom, which should develop the faculties of free enquiry, rational approach and the habit of sharing. Otherwise the masses will remain disempowered as they were in the colonial era. Harvard Professors Rosovsky and Bloom have given the following criteria of an educated person in the 21st century. A person, in their view, is educated when he/she:

  • Can think and write clearly, effectively, and critically, and who can communicate with precision, cogency and force.
  • Has a critical appreciation of the ways in which we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society and of ourselves.
  • Has a broad knowledge of other cultures and other times, and is able to take decision based on reference to the wider world and to the historical forces that have shaped it.
  • Has some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems.
  • Has achieved depth in some field of knowledge
The writer is an academic based in Islamabad. Email:

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