Through circumstances that can only be considered coincidence, I’ve found myself reading a lot about the educational situation in Pakistan lately. OK, I’ve read two books related to the topic, which isn’t a lot, but enough to get me thinking – especially since I never really set out to learn about it in the first place.
First I read I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, because I was curious about the 17-year-old girl who became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about remarkable teenagers, right?? Now I’m reading Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin. My mom gave me the book because she liked it, but it ended up in storage before I got a chance to read it. After unpacking our book boxes, I’m finally able to catch up on things like this. Relin tells the story of Greg Mortenson, an adventurous mountain climber who accidentally stumbled on the needs of the children in the remote Pakistani villages. Through sheer dedication and determination, he has gone on to build several schools in Pakistan.
Reading these books hasn’t given me a new mission in another part of the world or anything like that. I’m impressed and inspired by the passion demonstrated by both Malala Yousafzai and Greg Mortenson in the face of overwhelming difficulties, but my focus and interests remain in America. However, I am constantly struck by the extreme contrast between the American and Pakistani situations. Clearly, America is the land of opportunity and provision. Complain all you want about the public schools here – the fact remains that every child in America has access to the educational system, which simply isn’t true in Pakistan. However, there is one area that I think Pakistan wins, hands down. While all children in America receive an education, children in Pakistan actually care about their education.
Even the good kids in America take some element of their education for granted. While people may question the quality of education or how far students may go, no one questions that they’ll get some kind of education. That’s a given here. It’s not in Pakistan, so those kids fight and suffer for what little education they can receive.
Mortenson was moved to build his first school after seeing young kids who had no school building or supplies scratch out lessons with sticks in the frozen ground. His book tells stories of children who couldn’t swim who floated down frigid rivers to get to school, and other kids who crossed rickety rope bridges over deep gorges to get to school. At the age of 12, Malala began a blog writing about being a girl in school in Pakistan, and it wasn’t long before she received death threats from the Taliban. She continued to speak out for educational rights for girls even after being shot in the face! Kids and teenagers in Pakistan are literally taking their lives into their hands simply to be able to learn!
And here I am in America, sitting in classrooms filled with all our modern conveniences, SMART boards and Chromebooks in every classroom, and I feel like I’m practically begging these students to care. I watch them zone out, ignore instructions, and treat their lessons and teachers with at least apathy, if not disdain. I imagine those Pakistani kids, who endure so much for the sake of learning, taking a peek into our American classrooms. I imagine them staring at all the resources we have, only to see our opportunities treated with such flippancy and disregard. It honestly makes me a little sick to my stomach to think about it.
A small part of me understands why this contrast in attitudes exists. In Pakistan, there’s a direct, tangible connection between receiving an education and an improved quality of life. Plus, it’s not a given right, especially for girls. The government hasn’t done much to provide education for any of them, even the boys.
In America, we’ve lost that connection between education and improved standards of living. We still see it in our wealthier professions – doctors and lawyers have to go to school longer than most people, and they get paid accordingly, but I’m not talking about graduate level education. I’m talking about the basics: elementary, middle, and high school. Those students who haven’t aspired to take their education further than high school also fail to see any value in learning what high school has to offer. If they don’t learn, someone will still take care of them, right? If not their parents, then the government will. Pakistani kids don’t have that kind of safety net.
Those kids fight for every scrap of learning they can get, while American teachers try to force an education down the throats of students who don’t want it. We’re constantly told by our pupils that our lessons are stupid and pointless. Instead of taking opportunities to learn new skills or expand their knowledge base of the world around them, our students complain and ask “when will we ever use this?” Instead of listening while we present the lessons we so carefully planned, they ignore us and play on their phones. Instead of appreciating their access to countless resources, they bog down the WiFi with YouTube videos and games, and then complain about the slow connection. And even the good students learn for the sake of the grade, not for the value of the knowledge itself.
So what would happen if our American students had to face the hardships of the Pakistani school children? Would they find a reason to fight for their education, or would they passively allow themselves to remain in ignorance? What would they endure for the opportunity to learn?
In my first year teaching, I had a student who worked two jobs to pay his own private school tuition himself. He wasn’t a natural scholar. He was a solid B student in regular level classes, but he was a joy to teach because he took his education seriously. He knew exactly how much it cost him to be at that school, and he didn’t want to waste it. In his own way, he was fighting for the education he wanted. So I know American teenagers are capable of caring – I just wish it didn’t take extreme circumstances to bring it out of them.