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An Imaginary Conversation on Myth, Reason and Religion

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“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”― Plato, The Symposium

“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.”   ― Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology

Author’s Preface: What follows is a spirited, imaginary conversation across time, between a two well-known scholars: one an ancient philosopher and the other the foremost modern authority on myths and symbols, at a café in Athens overlooking the acropolis. While the conversation is purely imaginary, not overly academic, and rather colloquial at that, the integrity of the thought of its interlocutors on myth, reason and religion has been scrupulously respected, for not to do so would be to fail at arriving at the truth and run the danger of falling into the worst kind of sophistry as described by the ancients.

Plato: Good morning Professor Campbell!

Campbell: Good morning Professor Plato! I trust you don’t mind the title, even though you are so famous that your nick name would suffice to identify you. After all, you were the founder- director-manager, the first professor so to speak, of the ancient Greek Academy; a supreme intellectual institutional achievement which lasted a thousand years.

Plato. Oh, yes, yes, why don’t we simply dispense with formal academic titles? May I just call you Joe and you call me Plato? After all, we are not at a formal symposium or at a formal academic conference; we’re just sipping cognac and chatting at a café in modern Athens in view of the acropolis.

Campbell. By all means, Plato. In modern America, in fact, we prefer to dispense with too many social formalities and pomposity as you seem to prefer in Europe. Perhaps later we may even engage in a chess game and a pipe smoke, should you have the time. Those are pastimes suitable to reflective minds such as ours. I could teach you, if you are unfamiliar with those pastimes.

Plato. Sounds like a good idea, Joe. That way, while we may be discussing transcendent ideas beyond time and space unfamiliar to most ordinary people, we shall not give the false impression to passerby that we are two of those stereotypical unpractical philosophers with a beard, with their heads in the clouds of Mount Olympus, exchanging recondite abstract theories and reveries while smoking a pipe in an club’s armchair; rather, that we are practical men of the world, clever and democratic enough to mingle with the people while putting theory ahead of practice.

Campbell. Indeed, Plato, indeed. Human nature being what it is, it cannot have been a piece of cake for you to manage the logistics of the administration of a great academy and keep discipline among rowdy students and petty competing professors and their contemptuous ad hominem antics and juvenile slanderous attacks on each other. I know something about that. I am an insider at the academy, where I have sojourned all my life, but in reality, intellectually and spiritually that is, I have always felt like an outsider, a non-conventional academic who did not even bother to finish his Ph.D. dissertation, albeit I am presently widely known as the foremost mythology expert and scholar of the Western world.

Plato. Ah yes, I know your reputation, I have also heard about “the Ph.D. octopus,” the essay on the subject made famous by our colleague, your fellow countryman, William James. Excellent insightful essay; an exposé of sorts, it almost made me ashamed of having been the source of the term “academic.”

Campbell: Oh, well. Tell me Plato, do you think we moderns are justified in recognizing you as the first philosopher who brought to a head the conundrums of myth/history, reason/myth, religion/myth; all the more since you yourself repeatedly utilizes mythology and concocted myths galore in your dialogues and treatises, the best known of course being the myth of the cave as found in The Republic?

Plato: Indeed, Joe. The Myth of the Cave, whose narrative occurs in the Republic is a fantastical story, but it does not deal explicitly with the beyond, and is thus different from the traditional myths I myself used and invented. Strictly speaking, the Cave is an analogy, not a myth. Also in the Republic, Socrates says that until philosophers take control of a city “the politeia whose story we are telling in words (muthologein) will not achieve its fulfillment in practice”. The construction of the ideal city itself may be called a “myth” in the sense that it depicts an imaginary polis where we imagine the happy state.

In the Phaedrus I use the word muthos to name the rhetorical exercise which Socrates carries out, but this seems to be a loose usage of the word. In any case, when I inveighed against the bad poets I certainly did not have the likes of Homer and his Odyssey or Iliad in mind. I respect and revere the likes of Homer, or Shakespeare or Dante. What I was critiquing was the mind-set of those banal mediocre poets, the poets who write poems for wedding receptions and then lay claim to the title of great poet; those with no poetical vision who couldn’t even write a decent novel, never mind an epic poem. Did you know that in my youth I had aspirations toward poetry; an aspiration that never left me?

Campbell: Yes I know, Plato, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit judging from the complex beauty of your ancient Greek prose which depicts your myths so well and fit harmoniously the form and the content. But what I am particularly interested in is finding out why you included myths such as “the myth of the cave” in the Republic? How did that help your rational philosophical discourse about good governance, democracy, justice? You seem to conceive of myth as a clue to the search for life’s meaning. I, on the other hand, see them as a clue to the spiritual potentialities of human life. For me myths are the ongoing search for “the experience of life,” to “finding one’s bliss.” They seem to tell us that the meaning of life is the experience of life, that eternity isn’t some later time, or a long time; that in fact it has nothing to do with time! It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time usually cuts out. I may be wrong but it seems to me that if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere; that the experience of eternity and transcendence right here and now is the function of life.

Plato: Oh well. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that you should even ask such a question as the eminent mythologist that you are. As you well know, mythology as well as drama sprang directly from the realm of the religious and the symbolical as stories about the gods and their all too human and petty interactions with humans and the universe and nature, stories which at first sight resemble children’s fairy tales, but when looked at closely reveal certain universal truths which later on a psychologist like Jung dubbed “archetypes of the human condition”; the journey archetype, for instance, being one of those. Jung also discovered that those archetypes are universal and occur among people who have had precious little cultural interaction with each other.

This origin from the religious and the symbolical is often overlooked in modern theories on mythology. Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy is one concrete example of a mythological journey which remains tied to its religious origins, so is Homer’s in the Odyssey, so is Captain Picard journey on the Enterprise space ship; the journey is always a journey into the self looking for its origins and its final destination. They are not historically documented journeys; they are more in the realm of the subjective, the imaginative and even that of the prophetic, more in the way of a myth, but a myth that repeats itself in many forms and among many people, revealing a hidden deeper truth, a truth that goes beyond a mere empirical positivistic explanation of the visible material phenomena. They may not be historically or empirically verifiable but they are certainly real since they exist in the realm of the intelligible just as logic, or mathematics, or astronomy are imbedded in the realm of the intelligible even when utilized for concrete material necessities arising from the positivistic realm of what is empirically verifiable. This akin to belief in the gods or religious faith which remains subjectively even when we are unable to prove it empirically.

Campbell: Well put Plato; you sound quite modern; sometimes I wonder if we moderns have not reinvented the wheel. I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I would say that you have caught up and even surpassed us moderns in the understanding of the essence or nature of myth: it is not to be considered a lie, or as the mere sugaring of the bitter pill of truth, as you put it when you criticized the bad poets, but a deeper truth to be decoded, interpreted and reflected upon. That’s basically what I try to do in my various books on mythology, especially the one titled “The Hero with a thousand Faces.”

Plato: I have read all your books and they are quite illuminating on the subject of mythology. They invariably expand one’s intellectual-spiritual horizon on the relationship of myth religion and reason.

Campbell: thank you for your kind words Plato, but could you indulge me a bit more by explaining to me your summation of ancient Greek mythology mentioned by you, of Zeus splitting the human being in half so that from then on one half has been searching for the other half? Most scholars, including Jung, interpret that statement of yours via a biological metaphor as the masculine in search of the feminine looking for wholeness, but I suspect that there is much more to it.

Plato: your suspicion is well founded, Joe. The Janus face represents the split which occurred when rationality, beginning with Socrates, my mentor, overpowered the poetical and the mythological so that the poetical began to be defined as the deceptive which lies and puts sugar on the bitter truth of rationality to make it more bearable. Your modern philosopher Pascal points to this error with his statement that “the heart has reasons that reason knows not.” Also there is another highly insightful philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico, from the 18th century, who identified the mistake of much of Western philosophy beginning with me alas, not only in its totalizing tendencies but in the attempt to subside the imaginative and the poetical under the rational and the empirical. The two realms really belong together and have been searching for each other since they were split asunder by Positivism in modern times. He expresses all this in his masterpiece The New Science (1725). When myth is split from the rational it becomes harmful, it ends up in myths such as that of “the master race.”

When reason is split from myth and the poetical it begins to rationalize and justify what ought never be rationalized and tolerates unethical behaviour. Indeed Pascal’s and Vico’s corrections, the corrections of those two Christian humanists were very much needed within the ethical Western tradition, as Emmanuel Levinas has also pointed out in the 20th century via his concept of “the other.”

As you know, in the Protagoras I make a distinction between muthos and logos, where muthos appears to refer to a story and logos to an argument. This distinction is also echoed in the Theaetetus and the Sophist. In the Theaetetus Socrates discusses Protagoras’ main doctrine and refers to it as “the muthos of Protagoras.” Socrates there calls a muthos the teaching according to which active and passive motions generate perception and perceived objects. In the Sophist, the Visitor from Elea tells his interlocutors that Xenophanes, Parmenides and other Eleatic, Ionian (Heraclitus included) and Sicilian philosophers “appear to me to tell us a myth, as if we were children”.

By calling all those philosophical doctrines muthoi I do not claim that they are myths proper, but that they are, or appear to be, non-argumentative. In the Republic I may come across as fairly hostile to particular traditional myths. And in many dialogues I condemn the use of images in knowing things and claim that true philosophical knowledge should avoid images. But I ask you: does Book X of the Republic offer a single repudiation of the best poets of the Hellenic world? Try as you may, you will not find one. What you will find is a complicated counterpoint in which resistance and attraction to their work are intertwined, a counterpoint which (among other things) explores the problem of whether, and in what sense, it might be possible to be a ‘philosophical lover’ of poetry” a la Vico.

I wanted to persuade a wider audience, so I had to make a compromise. Sometime I use myth as a supplement to philosophical discourse Most importantly, in the Timaeus, I actually attempt to overcome the opposition between muthos and logos: human reason has limits, and when it reaches them it has to rely on myth. That is to say, the telling of stories is a necessary adjunct to, or extension of, philosophical argument, one which recognizes our human limitations, and—perhaps—the fact that our natures combine irrational elements with the rational.”

Consider the fact that I chose to express my thoughts through a narrative form, namely that of the dialogue. So you may say that the use of a fictional narrative form (the dialogue, such as the prosaic one we are having right now) will mean that any conclusions reached, by whatever method (including that of academic ‘rational argument’), may themselves be treated as having the status of a kind of myth. So, a sense of the fictionality of human utterance, as provisional, inadequate, and at best approximating to the truth, pervade my writing at its deepest level. It is not that myth fills in the gaps that reason leaves, but that human reason itself ineradicably displays some of the features we characteristically associate with story-telling.

Campbell: Wow! This is interesting stuff indeed! Perhaps we moderns need to reinvent the wheel since we seem to have forgotten how it came about. It partly explains, to me at least, what a Catholic theologian expressed to me in a dispute we were having on “religion as myth.” He told me that it may be true that religions are based on certain archetypes of human nature and myths of the human condition but to say that Christianity is just another myth to be disposed as all the other myths as lies and falsehoods, to put a point across as we do with children’s fairy tales, to be superseded by the scientific mind-set, is to have misunderstood the very nature of mythology which is there to help us better understand transcendental-revealed truths. That is to say, to use mythology as an excuse to dump religion as retrograde, obscurantist, and unenlightened, is to run the risk of throwing the baby out the window with the dirty bathwater.

He also pointed out that Zeus or Atlas are impersonal ideas personified which when worshipped renders us idolaters or narcissists, but the concept of a benevolent providential creator God who takes on human nature to experience the human condition and enters physical reality historically and materially to redeem it is not a philosophical abstract idea to be found in any mythology; I dare say that not even brilliant philosophers like yourself ever thought of it; it is however the stuff of reality and historical events for which 12 ignorant fishermen from Palestine (no experts in Platonic or Socratic philosophy for which they’d be willing to die) were in fact willing to die because their allegiance was not to an idea but to a person who spiritually won the whole continent of Europe in a couple of centuries and gave it its ultimate identity as Judeo-Greco-Roman civilization; a religion this which makes a synthesis between the human and the divine and not only at an abstract theoretical level but at an existential level, and therefore it is humanistic to the core; that at its best advocates tolerance of other traditions, mythology itself, freedom of speech and democratic governance, given that we are all children of the same benevolent father and are commanded to love each other as brothers and sisters.

I must confess to you that I am still chewing on what that theologian provided for me on that day. I felt as if I had been check-mated in a chess game, but I don’t think now that he was playing chess with me, out to win some kind of sophistic debate or diatribe. To the contrary, he simply challenged some of the common assumptions of “enlightened” positivistic modernity which I had inherited uncritically.

Plato: well you should have Joe, well you should have. I myself am already ruminating on this whole conversation. While I do so, why don’t we order another cognac, light up a pipe and start a game of chess? Perhaps even take in a soccer game in the afternoon, since it happens to be Sunday?

Campbell: Indeed Plato, soccer games are now the new religion of the brave new world of the EU in which we live and have our being. Some call it the world of globalization. Some, perhaps more wisely, call it “reinventing the wheel,” which come to think of it, can itself be a myth (the myth of Sisyphus?) and an archetype of the human condition. Have you ever noticed that the world of dreams has no Kantian rational categories of the understanding; it is not linear, nor strictly logical and rational and it needs plenty of interpretation once it is recollected? Could the Hindus, who are not even Westerners in their thinking, have it on track when they say that we are all dreaming and when we die we will wake up to Reality, to the point of it all (the Word)?

Plato: I understand the concept of logos, but there are other things such as revealed truth and the need for forgiveness and the theological virtue of charity which I find difficult to grasp as an ancient; plenty of food for thought here; but perhaps it’s only the antipasto announcing the main course still to come. In any case, let the debate go on.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Delivering On Our Promise of Universal Education

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A young girl studies at home in Gujarat, India. © UNICEF/Panjwani

Our investment in education – especially for children caught in crisis and conflict – is our investment in a better future.

Co-Signed by: Federal Councillor of the Swiss Confederation, Ignazio Cassis; Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, Svenja Schulze; Minister of Education, Niger, Ibrahim Natatou; Minister of International Development, Norway, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim; Minister of General Education and Instruction, South Sudan, Awut Deng Acuil; Minister of Education, Colombia, Alejandro Gaviria; Former UK Prime Minister, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of ECW’s High-Level Steering Group The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown

As we mark the International Day of Education, world leaders must make good on their promise of providing quality education for all by 2030.

Education is our investment in peace where there is war, our investment in equality where there is injustice, our investment in prosperity where there is poverty.

Make no mistake about it, there is a global education crisis that threatens to unravel decades of development gains, spur new conflicts, and upend economic and social progress across the globe.  

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted at last year’s Transforming Education Summit: “If we are to transform our world by 2030 as envisaged by the Sustainable Development Goals, then the international community must give this (education) crisis the attention it deserves.”

When Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, was founded in 2016, we estimated that 75 million crisis-impacted children required education support. Today, that number has tripled to 222 million.

Of the 222 million children whose right to an education has been ripped from their hands by the multiplying impacts of conflict, climate change and other protracted crises, an estimated 78 million are out of school all together – more than the total populations of France, Italy or the United Kingdom.

Even when they are in school, many are not achieving minimum proficiencies in reading or math. Think about this terrifying statistic: 671 million children and adolescents worldwide cannot read. That’s more than 8% of the world’s total population. That’s an entire generation at risk of being lost  

As we have seen from the war in Ukraine, the challenges of the Venezuelan  migration to Colombia and South America, the unforgiveable denial of education for girls in Afghanistan, and a devastating climate change-driven drought in the Horn of Africa that has created a severe hunger crisis for 22 million people, we are living in an interconnected world. The problems of Africa, the Middle East, South America, and beyond are the problems of the world that we share together   

Every minute of every day, children are fleeing violence and persecution in places like Myanmar, the Sahel, South America and the Middle East. Every minute of every day, boys are being recruited as child soldiers in Somalia, the Central African Republic and beyond. Every minute of every day, the climate crisis brings us closer to the end of times, and children go hungry because they are denied their right to go to school, where they might just have their only meal of the day. And amid conflict, migration and climate change, governments like Colombia are struggling to secure the most basic living and education conditions for children in hard-to-reach borders.

It’s an assault on our humanity, a moral affront to the binding promises outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a giant step backwards in our persistent efforts – against all odds – to find peace in our times.

There is hope. By embracing a new way of working and delivering with humanitarian speed and development depth, ECW and its strategic partners have reached 7 million children in just five years, with plans to reach 20 million more over the next four years.

Imagine what an education can mean for a child of war? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 13-year-old Nyota lost her father and brothers in a brutal attack on her village. Her family’s home was burnt to the ground.

In a country where 3.2 million children are out of school, Nyota’s future was bleak. Would she be a child bride, the victim of sexual violence, another tragic statistic in a forgotten crisis?

No. She did not give up. With the support of an innovative programme funded by ECW, Nyota is back in school. “When I have completed my studies, I dream of becoming the President of my country to end the war here. That will allow children to study in peace and not endure the same horrible things that I have.”

Nyota is not alone: we have received inspiring letters from girls and boys in over 20 crisis-affected countries across the world that underscore the amazing value of education in transforming lives and creating a better future for generations to come.

On February 16, world leaders are gathering for the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva. Hosted by ECW and Switzerland – and co-convened by Colombia, Germany, Niger, Norway and South Sudan – the conference provides world leaders, businesses, foundations and high-net-worth individuals with the opportunity to deliver on our promise of education for all. The aim is to raise US$1.5 billion for the next four years.

As the co-conveners of this seminal event, we are calling on the people of the world to invest in the promise of an education. It’s the best investment we could make in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nyota and millions like her are not giving up on their dream, and we shouldn’t give up on them. We have promises to keep. 

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New Social Compact

Education starts early – or it should

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Authors: Manos Antoninis and Silvia Montoya*

When children attend early childhood education, they are not just learning their ABCs and 123s, they are learning how to solve problems, live in harmony with others and communicate effectively. Going to pre-primary education increases the  chance to grow and flourish in a nurturing and stimulating environment. It is an opportunity to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in school and in life.

Thankfully, early childhood education is something that more and more children are accessing: over the past two decades, the rates of those attending rose from 65% to 75%. Countries have put pen to paper, committing to taking this up a level. As part of a multi-year exercise, they have set national benchmarks for the progress they feel they can make between now and 2030 on helping more young children start their education in their early years, alongside other objectives. On the occasion of the 2023 International Day of Education, UNESCO published a global report, the 2023 SDG4 Scorecard showing how fast countries are progressing towards their national benchmarks on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education). These benchmarks commit countries to together open school doors to 95% of five-year-olds by the 2030 deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

These ambitions are not messing around. Conversely to what you might expect, countries have actually set their targets far higher than one might expect considering how they’ve done in the past. Even if they managed to improve at the rate of the historically fastest-improving quarter of countries, they would only manage to reach the stage where 83% of children were going to early childhood education. At present, therefore, barely one in three countries is on track with their self-set targets. How can we help them speed up? 

Having monitored education for the past 20 years, a few clear lessons jump out that can help countries break the speed barriers we’re keen to impart. While simple education reform is not very common, this first example is at least compact. Our recommendation is for countries to legislate and provide for free and compulsory education, which about a half of countries have done so far. Since 2015, for example, the introduction of three years of free education in Armenia, four years in Uzbekistan and three – and later five – years in Azerbaijan is associated with a large increase in participation rates.  While one policy change cannot be assessed out of context, there is a clear jump in children’s early education access across these countries post the new legislation.

Where we see these laws lagging is in low income and, more generally, sub-Saharan African countries. For all those who join us in believing in the importance of the foundations that early childhood can bring, Sub-Saharan Africa should be a region where we direct our support over the coming years. Not only are fewer than half of children starting school early, but its population prospects will make the challenge harder over time. It is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will surpass Central and Southern Asia by 2026 as the region with the largest number of 4-5 year olds in the world. This cohort will grow by 1 million on average in the next 20 years. Population growth will slow down but will still reach 100 million in 2069. The region will be the home to a staggering 43% of all five-year-olds on planet earth by the end of the century.

The second recommendation we believe can make a difference is also a governance issue, and relates to the fact that the first education experiences of 40% of children in the world today is with private providers. Much of this trend can be linked to the fact that there was not enough supply related to demand, and private providers grew to fill the gap.

This phenomenon can’t be ignored in some areas of the world. In Oceania, for example, some countries have close to 100% of preschool students enrolled in non-state institutions. These can be for-profit and non-profit organizations, such as child-care centers, preschools, and home-based childcare providers, for example.  Their presence can bring significant financial implications, and therefore, barriers, to families, and detract from the original reason they exist in the first place: to increase education for all.  With the provision part removed from government’s control, it means that their ability to regulate the quality and equity of the myriad of alternative early childhood education providers – and monitor them – is vital.

For much of the pandemic, the GEM Report team at UNESCO mapped over 200 country profiles on its PEER website to look further into the regulations countries currently have for private providers in early childhood education. What we found is that those covering equity are in the minority: only 26% of countries support specific vulnerable populations’ tuition fee payments and just 15% prohibit non-state providers from operating for profit.  On the positive side, however, we also found that turning these numbers on their head could also see a huge surge in participation rates. When governments have regulations in place helping out some of the most marginalized groups with tuition fees, for instance, the percentage of children who participate in organized learning one year before entry to primary school is higher by 13 percentage points, whereas countries with fee-setting regulations have a 7 percentage-point higher participation.

Our third but equally critical recommendation covers the extent to which governments prioritise education in the early years in their spending. We looked at the countries with data from the last two years and found they were spending just 0.43% of GDP on pre-primary education – pittance in comparison to the benefits an early education can bring. There is a clear correlation between how much was spent on public education and the rise of participation rates as a result. Doubling spending from 0.25 to 0.50 of GDP, we found, triples participation rates in public preschools from 20% to 60% on average, and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.

As any education policy maker will tell you, there is no one easy fix for system reform. Sadly, this is the reason the sector fails to attach the funding it needs to transform and deliver to match our expectations. But, where there are lessons that our past mistakes and successes have taught us, we should take them, and not waste further time. Education can and should start early. If we legislate, regulate and finance appropriately, we can help countries’ ambitions to make that happen a reality.

*Silvia Montoya, Director of UNESCO Institute of Statistics

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New Social Compact

A Cry for Help: Pakistan’s Broken Education System

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Photo: UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Asad Zaidi

The saying “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”, attributed to Derek Bok – the former president of Harvard University, holds a plethora of resonance for a developing country like Pakistan. Compared to the global standard of spending 4% of GDP on education, Pakistan only spends around 2.3% of its GDP on education, which happens to be the lowest in the South-Asian region.  The inadequate spending on schools stems from the government’s nonchalant attitude and general disinterest in the education sector. Because of this, Pakistan’s budget allocation for education is far less than what is advised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

The 2019 Annual Status of Education Report shows the overall literacy rate in the country to be 60%, with 71% male literacy rate compared to 49% female literacy. Despite these statistics showing an improvement from the past trends, the Human Development Report of 2019 remained unfazed. According to the findings of the report, Pakistan failed to show significant improvements in key educational indicators concerned with the rate of literacy, overall enrolment ratio, and education related expenditure. In the same year, Pakistan was also ranked 152nd out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) under the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 

Comparing Pakistan’s Education sector to other developing countries in the region further paints a dismal picture, as Pakistan lingers behind it its quest in providing quality education. Pakistan suffers from the third-highest primary school dropout rates in the region, estimating at 23%, only behind countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. In a 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report titled “Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All”, it was found that Pakistan is 50 years behind in achieving its primary education goals, while adding another 10 years in its path to achieving its secondary education goals.

For the most part, the policy maker’s one-stop solution for increasing the level of education in Pakistan has focused on raising the enrollment rates in primary schools. While this approach emphasized more on the quantity of education being provided, it has done little to cater to the quality and expense of the education itself. This is reflected in the learning levels of public schools in Pakistan, which are astonishingly low as student’s performance in academics is hugely underwhelming, compared to the acceptable standard. This shortcoming in the public education is mainly attributed to the dearth of incentives for public sector teachers. Which translates into low teaching effort, since any chance at salary increment and promotion is directly related to seniority and experience and not the teacher’s actual performance.

In view of these prevalent conditions of the public sector education, Pakistan witnessed a sudden boom in low-fee private education institutions in early 2000’s, which outnumbered state-run schools in both quantity and quality. With ample availability of low-cost teachers in rural areas due to lack of other job opportunities, these schools quickly expanded in the region and provided multiple schooling options for the 63% of the population which resides in the rural setting. Despite the private sector teachers being underpaid and under-experienced compared to their public sector counterparts, the learning levels of students in private schools has been much better. This is mostly due to effective teaching pedagogy, curriculum design and proper oversight which gives private schools an edge over public sector ones. 

In the Human Rights Watch Report titled “Shall I Feed My Daughter, Or Educate Her?”: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Pakistan”, the Pakistani government’s inability to adequately  educate the girls also surfaced. Liesl Gerntholtz, the Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch commented “The Pakistan government’s failure to educate children is having a devastating impact on millions of girls”. The report stated that the majority of the 22.5 million children that are out of school are girls, who are simply barred from attaining education.

However, many of the barriers to girl’s education lie within the education system of the country itself. The State takes on a lasses-faire approach towards providing education in the country. And instead relies on private sector education and Madrassahs to bridge the gaps in education provision. Thus the girls are deprived of a decent education in the process. The government’s inadequate investment in schools is another main culprit for the number of girls that remain out of school. As girls finish primary school, secondary schools are not as widespread and their access to the next grade is hindered. Furthermore, while the Constitution of Pakistan claims that primary schooling be free of charge, it is not actually the case. Hence, most parents with constrained resources opt to educate their sons over their daughters. As a result, once girls are dropped out of schools, there is no compulsion by the state to re-admit the girls into school. Therefore, a chance once lost is lost forever.

Towards the end of 2019, Covid-19, which emerged in the wet markets of Wuhan, quickly took the world by storm. It forced the entire world into lockdown, and resulted in a major humanitarian and economic catastrophe, ultimately affecting the Education Sector as well. This compelled Pakistan to take swift notice of the virus and announce country-wide closure of educational institutes from beginning of February 2020. It wasn’t for another six months that educational institutions were reopened with strict SOPs in place, only to be shut down again amidst the second wave of the virus. And so due to these conditions, the education sector in Pakistan faced a devastating loss of learning. The virus not only exposed the cracks in the country’s education system, but it also further amplified them.

According to a report published by the World Bank “Learning Losses in Pakistan Due To Covid-19 School Closures: A Technical Note on Simulation Results”, it was predicted that a loss of livelihood due to Covid-19 could translate into a severe case of children dropping out of schools. The study estimated an additional 930,000 children that are expected to drop out of the fold of education, and thus increasing out-of-school percentage by 4.2 percent.

Similarly, the report also mentioned that the learning levels in schools could drop to anywhere between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning. Therefore, an average student now only attains an education level of 5 years due to poor quality of education, despite going to school for 9 years. Furthermore, in wake of covid-19, the share of children who are unable to read basic texts by age 10, represented by “Learning Poverty” are further expected to go up 4 percent from 75 to 79 percent. As schools were shut down across the country, many of them were also unable to transition into online mode of learning. This was because the state failed to provide internet access to remote regions of the country. Hence, Covid-19 proved to be a huge setback for the education sector of Pakistan.

To conclude, while significant steps have been taken to strengthen the education sector of Pakistan, such as the unanimous passing of the Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan and the dedication towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to provide quality and equitable education; there still remains a gap between policy formation and its implementation. Despite the education policies of Pakistan focusing on science and technology, nationalizing private education institutions, increasing the number of student enrollment and improving their access to higher education, it still failed to improve in the education indicator of the HDI in the past decade. In view of this, Pakistan needs to rethink its education policies and fill gaps that currently exist between what is decided and what is implemented.

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