Is education for Karachi slum-dwellers a waste of time?

Published: September 8, 2012

Kids have to work to support their families, and themselves. Teenage, male kids are expected to earn first and foremost, and anything else has lower priority. PHOTO: SHAHBAZ MALIK

In 2008, on a typical hot and humid summer morning, I was driving through Karachi city to get to work. Passing close to Karachi’s biggest slum area, Orangi, my car broke down and I had it brought to a workshop nearby to get it fixed.

The workshop had a head mechanic, who diagnosed the problem and then assigned one of the several teenagers working for him to fix the issue.

I observed the child working on my car and found him to be very talkative. He asked me about how I’ll be late for office and commented on my good luck that the workshop wasn’t experiencing loadshedding at the time. He seemed like an amiable, friendly young man. I asked him a few questions about cars, and discovered that he had a pretty good understanding of how car engines work; perhaps better than his head mechanic, as he was diverging from the instructions given to him and doing the job even better.

**All conversations with the child were in Urdu, translated here in English.

I asked him if he goes to school. His hands stopped working, and he looked up at me.

“Why should I?” he asked.

I was taken aback. I had thought education was something every child wanted by default, and if a teenager is working at a car workshop during the day time, he’d be desperate for an opportunity to be at a school.

“So you could get a better job… ”, I said, my tone clearly lacking confidence.

“Life is not so simple, sahib ji. So many MAs and BAs waste time in college and then start working at workshops. Experience is the real thing. I’ll open my own workshop in a few years. Studying is a total waste of time.” He remarked with the confidence of a grown man.

For the lack of a better answer, I said,

“Hmm… You can become an engineer and design a car engine.”

He looked into my eyes, smiled a little and said,

“Sahib ji, boys from Orangi don’t become engineers. And even if they do, they can’t find jobs. Who makes engines in Karachi? Only the ‘Japani’ know how to make car engines.”

The boy was street smart. I was happy. At least he fixed my car the right way. I wished him well, and left.

I joined uni after a long break, and thinking about the pattern of lives in Karachi, I recalled the boy’s statement and thought more about it. Education for him meant an absolute waste of time. Was that mindset a result of his observations or just street wisdom passed on from other teenagers?

I’ve come up with a few reasons why education is such a bad idea for children in Orangi (entirely my opinion):

The labour of necessity:

Children have to work to support their families, and themselves. Teenage males are expected to earn first and foremost, and anything else has lower priority.

Schools within slums:

Schools located within slums would be staffed by locals, and are bound to be poor quality. This would surely have a great dampening effect on any kind of motivation.

Social connections:

Of course, school peers, teachers and other actors in the ecosystem are from the same locality. Social connections which lead to opportunities such as a job or even an apprenticeship simply don’t exist. Connections within the family work very well, but they got nothing to do with how educated the kid is.

Heavy indoctrination:

Schools, and the society in general, remain very rigid. A large amount of teaching is in the form of unquestionable axioms you must accept. Creativity is shunned. Teachers hate the ‘why’ questions. The room to wiggle through this control structure is very narrow.

The link between education and financial success:

This connection is understood by default in most parts of the world. But for the dwellers of Orangi, money actually has an inverse relation with education. When you are socially isolated, education creates barriers instead of opening doors. Maybe the workshop next door would not like to employ you for being too smart. As for the uptown companies with large offices in the city; well, at least the workshop boy wasn’t too optimistic about it.

Instant gratification:

For the poor, education is a ladder to climb out of poverty. If there is not enough evidence it’ll happen quickly, they’ll most likely push the idea away. Instant gratification is required for the efforts put in. Of course, school education is too loose to fit the bill.

So the average street child has to earn money, survive the verbal and physical abuses of those around him, and hope to one day get out of the shackles of poverty, counting on his ‘experience’. Education certainly doesn’t fit in their timetable, culture, financial forecast, or logical sequence of events.

Usually the government intervenes. They sometimes pay to keep children in school, or issue vouchers to poor families so they don’t have to deal with paying private school fees. Of course, we can count on our government to keep ignoring the millions of young children trapped in this ordeal.

A mix of great teachers, financial aid, social connections and potential opportunities are required to get the wheels rolling. The real world doesn’t work like that, yet. But here is a hard question: The government can provide money (if they want to), but can they provide great teachers? Of course not! That’ll be you and me, and maybe the children themselves, if they are empowered by us.

Are you ready to teach the next generation of Pakistan, without any expectations? Maybe teach your servant at home for an hour a day, or the delivery boy who brings lunch to your office? This resolution will be your greatest sacrifice.

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Adnan Khan

Adnan Khan

A student of Computer Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He has a deep passion for education and previously served in the Pakistan Army. He tweets @adnkhn

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • John B

    The purpose of education is knowledge and incidental earning for living with that knowledge. While the kid may be limited in his knowledge, ( so are the college graduates since not all college graduates can fix the car), he nevertheless is making good use of his knowledge. As long as he self learns how to read, calculate and write and makes a life out of his acquired knowledge he is set to go.

    I do not subscribe to the idea that a formal education with a government sponsored certification is the criterion for education.

    Unfortunately, we live in a world that requires a diploma. So, provisions should be made for the self taught kids to show their skills though a state sponsored certification, as in home school certification or equivalency exam and an environment for their employment should be created. Without these provisions, it is always a challenge.

    Child labor in developing countries is a complex social issue. What right do I have to force the child to give up his livelihood for a school if he or she does not have means for food, clothing and shelter?

    After all he is not some kid who has all the means yet skips the class and wastes his or her time in movie theatre or in park. Recommend

  • Billy Pilgrim

    I don’t know. Is proofreading is a waste of time?Recommend

  • Saima

    Since schools for poor do not have good teachers, infra structure and other facilities so the poor are more likely to stay behind than high fees school. after completing ten years of high schooling they may have not succeed in their final school exams. however working in a workshop from early childhood, a CHOTA may become a GURRU after ten tears of extensive training and hard work. That is quite beneficial.Recommend

  • Unicorn

    @John B: I think the author is saying exactly that: informal education is the way to go for the children stuck in child-labour. Schools are not helping, because its mostly rote learning, and leads to limited social connections. The average person in Pakistan has to take interest in educating the next generation. Recommend

  • Nadia Rizwan

    There is a famous theory called Expectancy Value theory. It describes attitude towards an action. The idea is that both expectancy and value multiply to determine attitude. So for attitude towards Education, Expectancy = expectation of finishing a Degree, Value = value of the degree. The child does not expect to finish a Degree because it is too long a duration and there are many hurdles so expectancy = 0. The child also does not see value in the degree, as he gives examples to you of people with masters coming back to workshops, so value = 0. Which means attitude towards education = 0X0=0.
    Having said that my brother runs a school in a slum. With just a few financial supporters he has single handedly managed to run this school since 2003. He invites people who are successful to come and give talk to these kids to raise the VALUE of education in their mind. His perserverance in educating them has made possible the first batch of kids to pass their matric, which has hopefully raised the EXPECTANCY.
    Having said that, we should tell such children that purpose of education is not always to get a job, it is to improve your understanding of life and making sure that no one can outsmart you because of your lack of reading and writing skills. Actually technical skills will always remain superior, infact we all should strive to have some technical skills in addittion to our education so we can survive if we ever are left without a job.Recommend

  • Numan Sheikh

    I always feel we need to change the stupid school system across the “modern” world. We need to start with fresh ideas that could be used for informal ways of educating, but since in a society like today’s, formal degree would still become a problem. The solution needs to be three-folds.

    Education in “real” sense of the word. environment and geography, ethics, mathematical thinking, reading & writing, computers, science, appreciation of art etc.
    Should be applicable across the strata of society. In the beginning, we might need to cater for special needs of different people in the society. (I understand that this might be a huge risk since it may diverge the situation towards the current status-quo.) But I want us to think of things from a rational/practical point of view. (Ideal/Emotional solutions look good in the books.) Then slowly with a very conscious and surely strenuous effort drive the things towards a single education system.
    Until some change in formal requirements, this education should cater for some culminating certificate like O-levels/A-Levels or Matric/FSc etc. But this should not be the primary goal, but should be a natural outcome. The students with the new system might (and should not) be position holders; because the whole point of the new system should be to avoid the rat-race of getting 2 dozen A’s in A levels were half a dozen are an overkill.

  • Faraz Talat

    Did I just read an argument against the importance of education? Well, at least it’s original, albeit heavily misguided.

    Using the poor quality of the schools as an excuse to deny these children their education, is tantamount to saying that a boy should die hungry because his bread is stale.

    And there’s absolutely nothing you may say that’d make me more open to child labor. If a man is poor and can’t afford to feed his family, then try not having a legion of kids. Don’t give birth to more children than you can sustain, and then ruin their lives with child labor. That is not an option.

    Education is more than about just getting a job. It’s about learning how to be innovative, how to be better at day-to-day problem-solving. About opening new doors, so you may choose to do something else if you want to. Be a writer, artist, anything, or at least buy the option of being able to do so.

    If the child lives in a situation where the education system is extremely poor, or the social system is a hindrance to him receiving good education, then you fix that system. You don’t argue that education is a waste of time. That is ridiculous.Recommend

  • Ali S

    Actually, until the past few decades, the main way of earning a living as a blue-collared skilled worker was through apprenticeships like this kid. It’s only recently that there’s this craze of “you’re worthless without a good degree” (and it’s true to some extent for only those from white-collar backgrounds).

    Instead of asking the kid whether he goes to school or not, you should have tried to ask him if he can read/write/calculate, if he reads newspapers etc. because that (i.e. the results of going to school) is what’s practically important in life regardless of his job. The sad fact is that a lot of kids in school up to grade 8 can barely read or do basic math because our public education system is very poor, under-resourced and hardly provides an incentive to go to school.Recommend

  • MonsieurCritique

    No. Education is never a waste of time. Recommend

  • Mohammed Hanif Khan

    Congratulations! A very realistic picture from the standpoint of child worker from the car workshop. you speak out the mind of the child worker. My God! This is the harsh reality. There is no escaping it. But the example of TANDOOR worker who topped the graduation list and another restaurant worker grabbing second position and a cobbler’s son doing wonders in education are examples of hope. and this hope comes from education. Try telling these kids ” with lack of confidence”to see the example of TANDOOR worker. See there is hope! Recommend

  • Qasim

    Perhaps author is not familiar with TCF’s success in educating slum-dwellers while maintaining high standards. Rising unemployment amongst educated in a stagnant economy does make day-to-day survival a priority for slum-dwellers. But one should not give up; such efforts are not going to educate everyone in as short span of time. Recommend

  • Tayyeb

    A very nice effort to highlight a real issue of this land of extremely intelligent, hard working, dedicated but opportunity less people. Allah bless youRecommend

  • John B

    Understood. The issues surrounding child labor and schooling for them are the same around the world. In the US during her early developing days child labor was rampant and it took both the efforts of the state and people to overcome that. Rich capitalists were against the child labor reform, for obvious reasons.

    Child labor disappears when the parents have enough means or the state has enough means to subsidize the poor and make provisions for their social mobility. A minimal wage of a honest day’s work should buy food for two days for four people. Poverty and child labor disappears in four generations in such an economic society.

    So, my reservation is only when people define education in terms of structured course work. Structured course work does not teach life skills. The purpose of education should be to enhance the life skills.

    The focus of education in many developing nations does not enhance the life skills and hence the issue of enrollment, among other things. A smart street kid sees this distinction. Recommend

  • RK Singh

    Normal education is OK. Madrassa, no.Recommend

  • Dante

    That kid is smarter than most. He doesn’t need to go to college, run around unemployed, and end up back to the spot he started at: workshop.Recommend

  • Umer Rasheed

    This is the prevalent opinion indoctrinated in the working class who are self-employed. And with Government doing almost nothing for the human development, these people are sadly better off this way. If you come to think about it; you cannot earn a respectable job if you are not a graduate/diploma holder. In the present economy even graduates are facing a tough time landing a job. It is a huge investment on their part. And they just do not want to see it go away for a meager white collar job that doesn’t earn them much money anyway.Recommend