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The Struggle between Dark and Light

July 13, 2007


A number of reasons have been offered for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among those reasons is the fact that Soviet leaders, for all their faults, believed strongly in education. An educated populace eventually becomes restless, even if their leaders attempt to control access to media outlets (like radio, television, newspapers, and (now) the Internet). Despots have always tried to control what information is made available to those over whom they rule. That was easier in the past than it is today. One of the reasons I believe China has a bright future is that its leaders too believe in education. Even though they have attempted to control access to what their citizens can search for on the Internet or read or hear about in other media, I believe deep down they realize they wage a futile battle. As interested as they are in maintaining power for the party, they are even more interested in making China great.

That is not the case in other parts of the world that remain even more disconnected. As Tom Barnett stresses in his talks, those involved in nefarious activities flee to the dark parts of the globe where they can lose themselves among the illiterate and disenfranchised people who live there. They use their power and influence to keep such places offline and to manipulate the information people in those areas receive. Education undermines such attempts, which is why schools (if they exist) are often targets. No where is this more apparent than in Afghanistan, where the Taliban (who desperately desire to keep that country in the dark ages) are targeting schools and the innocent children who attend them. This strategy is vividly reported by Barry Bearak [“As War Enters Classrooms, Fear Grips Afghans,” New York Times, 10 July 2007]. Bearak begins his report by relating the fatal shootings of two students as they left the school grounds of the Qalai Sayedan School, considered one of the best schools in the country (because it is one of the few that actually has a real building in which to meet).

“Six students were shot here on the afternoon of June 12, two of them fatally. The Qalai Sayedan School — considered among the very best in the central Afghan province of Logar — reopened only last weekend, but even with Kalashnikov-toting guards at the gate, only a quarter of the 1,600 students have dared to return. Shootings, beheadings, burnings and bombings: these are all tools of intimidation used by the Taliban and others to shut down hundreds of Afghanistan’s public schools. To take aim at education is to make war on the government. Parents are left with peculiar choices. ‘It is better for my children to be alive even if it means they must be illiterate,’ said Sayed Rasul, a father who had decided to keep his two daughters at home for a day. Afghanistan surely has made some progress toward development, but most often the nation seems astride some pitiable rocking horse, with each lurch forward inevitably reversed by the backward spring of harsh reality. The schools are one vivid example. The Ministry of Education claims that 6.2 million children are now enrolled, or about half the school-age population. And while statistics in Afghanistan can be unreliably confected, there is no doubt that attendance has multiplied far beyond that of any earlier time, with uniformed children now teeming through the streets each day, flooding classrooms in two and three shifts.”

The biggest change, of course, is that girls are now back in school — something forbidden under Taliban rule.

“A third of these students are girls, a marvel itself. Historically, girls’ education has been undervalued in Afghan culture. Girls and women were forbidden from school altogether during the Taliban rule. But after 30 years of war, this is a country without normal times to reclaim; in so many ways, Afghanistan must start from scratch. The accelerating demand for education is mocked by the limited supply. More than half the schools have no buildings, according to the Ministry of Education; classes are commonly held in tents or beneath trees or in the brutal, sun-soaked openness. Only 20 percent of the teachers are even minimally qualified. Texts are outdated; hundreds of titles need to be written, and millions of books need to be printed. And then there is the violence. In the southern provinces where the Taliban are most aggressively combating American and NATO troops, education has virtually come to a halt in large swaths of the contested regions. In other areas, attacks against schools are sporadic, unpredictable and perplexing. By the ministry’s estimate, there have been 444 attacks since last August. Some of these were simple thefts. Some were instances of tents put to the torch. Some were audacious murders under the noon sun.”

It is not just education that matters it is the right kind of education. People often point to Pakistan where nearly 4,000 religious schools are officially registered. They “teach” 540,000 students. Thousands of unregistered schools are also believed to exist, which teach hundreds of thousands more students. Many of them have been accused of turning out terrorists who go on to fight for Islamic parties in Afghanistan’s civil war and may be ready to join other militant movements. The kind of education that needs to be promoted is secular and pragmatic. Students need to learn things that will benefit their daily lives and lead them to a brighter future. The Afghan minister of education is searching for support to create such school system, but he also wants to establish a parallel religious school system.

“Western-educated and notably energetic, [Mohammad Hanif] Atmar is the nation’s fifth education minister in five and a half years, but only the first to command the solid enthusiasm of international donors. Much of the government is awash in corruption and cronyism. But Mr. Atmar comes to the job after a much-praised showing as the minister of rural redevelopment. He has laid out an ambitious five-year plan for school construction, teacher training and a modernized curriculum. He is also championing a parallel track of madrasas, or religious schools; students would focus on Islamic studies while also pursuing science, math and the arts. ‘This society needs faith-based education, and we will be happy to provide it without teaching violence and the abuse of human rights,’ Mr. Atmar said.”

There is no doubt that Atmar needs more money to support education. The madrasas experience in Pakistan, however, gives pause to many potential contributors who fear their contributions could be used to foment more heat than light.

“Virtually every Afghan school is a sketchbook of extraordinary destitution. ‘I have 68 girls sitting in this tent,’ said Nafisa Wardak, a first-grade teacher at the Deh Araban Qaragha School in Kabul. ‘We’re hot. The tent is full of flies. The wind blows sand and garbage everywhere. If a child gets sick, where can I send her?’ The nation’s overwhelming need for walled classrooms makes the killings in Qalai Sayedan all the more tragic. The school welcomed boys through grade 6 and girls through grade 12. It was terribly overcrowded, with the 1,600 students, attending in two shifts, stuffed into 12 classrooms and a corridor.”

The U.S. has certainly poured money into Afghanistan, but the needs there are enormous and infrastructure has received more attention than education.

“Since the fall of the Taliban, the United States Agency for International Development has devoted only 5 percent of its Afghanistan budget to education, compared with 30 percent for roads and 14 percent for power.”

Although there is an implied criticism with these statistics, there shouldn’t be. Infrastructure such as roads and power generation capacity are necessary to get Afghanistan’s economy on its feet. If jobs are unavailable for parents, children are often required at home to help scratch out a living — keeping them out of school. Job creation and education must progress together. If jobs are available, but schools are not, accepting those jobs could be problematic for parents unwilling to leave their children at home and unattended. The other problem, according to Bearak, is that schools supported by U.S. funds often become targets for those who see attacks against the schools as attacks against America.

The Taliban, however, are not the only ones suspicious of education. “Education is the fast track to modernity,” writes Bearak. “And modernity is held with suspicion” among some tribal elders. Changing that kind of a cultural bias is going to be difficult and may take a generation or more. For now, the battle is to educate one child at a time in a safe (and preferably secular) environment.

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