Most of us are familiar with the usual statistics on education in Pakistan. The adult literacy rate is more or less stagnant at 58% (in fact it has dropped by two percentage points compared to two years ago). About 40% of children (22 million) aged from 5 to 16, are out of school. Only a third of children who are enrolled manage to finish high school. School infrastructure is highly inadequate, with at least one essential element – buildings, drinking water, toilets, boundary walls, missing in most rural schools in particular. The quality of education imparted is a whole different story – learning outcomes, particularly in Math and Science are abysmal at the school level, while assessments of teacher content knowledge point to a dire situation. Quality of pedagogy is hardly assessed, but that is in general secondary to content knowledge, and when the former is poor, it is no surprise that teachers tend to resort to corporal punishment. When you don’t know the subject you are teaching, you cannot hold the attention of the class and will end up punishing children who are bored and distracted. We as a nation have spent seventy years wringing our hands over how our population is illiterate, unskilled, multiplying at an impossible rate, and generally unequipped for modern life, but successive generations have failed to do anything about this What is more worrying is that the statistics cover up huge regional disparities. For example, in parts of the country, and for certain groups, literacy rates are amongst the lowest in the world, let alone the region. The rate for adult women in rural Kohistan for instance is 1 to 2%. In Balochistan, up to 70% of children aged 5 to 16 are not in school, and this goes up to over 80% for girls. And then there are the pockets of excellence – the literacy rate in Islamabad is 96%. Net enrolment in Abbotabad district is 87%. And then there are the intriguing disparities. In Sheerani district in Balochistan, (which was previously a sub-division of Zhob), male net enrolment is over 90%, while female enrolment in primary school is just 9%. One could go on and on analysing the data, and decrying the state of affairs. But what is the larger issue here? Most studies will point to the fact that public investment in education has historically been low. There is no doubt about that. But what is even more troubling is that what is allocated to the sector is often badly spent or wasted. Teachers don’t show up. School buildings are erected (at rather expensive rates compared to what a local contractor could do without following government strictures), but teachers don’t have chalk, blackboards or books to teach from. Anybody who can afford it, and many who really can’t, send their children to private schools where teachers are typically low paid, and poorly trained but are present and have basic equipment. When one looks over the literature on education in Pakistan, one is struck by how the same problems recur over the decades. The issues being highlighted forty or fifty years ago are still issues (as is evident from the data listed above). We as a nation have spent seventy years wringing our hands over how our population is illiterate, unskilled, multiplying at an impossible rate, and generally unequipped for modern life, but successive generations have failed to do anything about this. Perhaps one reason for this is that we as a nation don’t want to do anything about it. It is seen as an insurmountable problem that can’t be solved. There are all kinds of excuses – parents don’t see the value of education (really, then why do they pay for private school as soon as they are financially able); cultural values prevent girls from going to school (so then why do you find girls sitting in back rows in boy’s schools, particularly at the primary level, in many parts of Pakistan); the government doesn’t have the money (but does manage to find funds for more grandiose projects); parts of Pakistan like Balochistan have highly scattered populations which are impossible to service (Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world, and they have over 90% literacy). The simple issue is that an educated, healthy, productive population is not a priority for the State (and we are not talking about governments here, but a more obtuse entity). The State sees its role as one of providing security and that too not in the sense of maintaining law and order but prevention and combating of foreign aggression. Even populist politicians are beholden to this view. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously said that “we will eat grass but we will develop a nuclear weapon.” That was quite prescient – we have indeed got nuclear weapons, and much of our population is, in effect, eating grass. It has never occurred to any politician in Pakistan, let alone the military rulers from whom one would not expect it anyway, to say that “we will eat grass but we will make sure we achieve 100% literacy.” Interestingly, in our chosen role, in which we are called for higher things such as ensuring security from foreign aggression, we do reasonably well. We manage to develop nuclear weapons with a handful of experienced scientists, and practically no access to the required technical resources. When we finally decide to take action, we subdue an enemy-funded terrorist group in no time at all, and clear large swathes of area of militant groups, whose partners have overrun neighbouring countries. When we set our minds to something, or prioritise a course of action, we are clearly capable of achieving goals quite efficiently. Unfortunately, we cannot seem to expand our list of priorities. Published in Daily Times, August 14th 2017.