Schools of hope

With the virtual collapse of government schools, many parents have to depend on Wahhabi-funded madra

Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently in the Observer: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state."

Yet the reality on the ground in Pakistan is far more complex than the caricature imagined by the likes of Amis: under the urbane eye of Shaukat Aziz, formerly a vice-president of Citi bank and now Pervez Musharraf's prime minister, Pakistan is enjoying a construction and consumer boom, with growth approaching 8 per cent and the fastest-rising stock market in Asia. It also has better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity than in India. Flying in to Lahore or Islamabad from Delhi or Bombay, one feels immediately that one is in a less poverty-ridden country: there are fewer beggars on the roads, the new motorways and concrete mosques make it more closely resemble a dusty Gulf state than a former part of India, and the houses look more substantial.

There are, however, many areas where Pakistan is doing less well than India: most obviously, the country seems unable to support sustained democratic governance. It has an abysmal human-rights record, a long history of some of the worst governmental corruption in the world, and an increasingly violent Islamist problem.

Yet, despite these awesome difficulties, no problem in Pakistan casts such a long shadow over its future as the abject failure of the government to educate more than a fraction of its own people: at the moment a mere 1.8 per cent of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. The statistics are dreadful: 15 per cent of these government schools are without a proper building; 52 per cent without a boundary wall; 40 per cent without water; 71 per cent without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed, many of these schools are empty ruins or exist only on paper.

This was graphically confirmed by a survey conducted two years ago by the former Pakistan cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan in his own constituency of Mianwali. His research showed that 20 per cent of government schools supposed to be functioning in his constituency did not exist at all, a quarter had no teachers and 70 per cent were closed. No school had more than half of the teachers it was meant to have. Of those that were just about functioning, many had children of all grades crammed into a single room, often sitting on the floor. There is little wonder that Pakistan ranks among the very lowest countries in the UNDP's world human development index.

This education gap is the most striking way in which Pakistan lags behind its neighbour: in India 65 per cent of the population is literate, and the number rises annually. Only last year, the Indian education system received a substantial boost from state funds; and there is, in any case, a tradition among Hindus of making terrific sacrifices in order to educate children. But in Pakistan the literacy figure is under half (it is currently 49 per cent), and falling: instead of investing in education, Musharraf's military government is spending money on a cripplingly expensive fleet of American F-16s for its air force. As a result, 83 million adults of 15 years and above - out of a population of 160 million - are illiterate. Among women the problem is worse still: 65 per cent of all female adults are illiterate. As the population rockets, the problem will get worse: only half the children in Pakistan will have access to any formal education, and the remaining half will never see the inside of a school. Of those who do enrol, half will drop out in the course of their primary education.

The virtual collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the poorest people who wish to enhance their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place them in the madrasa system, where they are guaranteed an ultra-conservative and outdated but none the less free education, often subsidised by religious endowments provided by the Wahhabi Saudis.

Altogether there are now an estimated 800,000 to one million students enrolled in Pakistan's madrasas: an entire free Islamic education system existing parallel to the increasingly moribund state sector. Though the link between the madrasas and al-Qaeda is often exaggerated - the overwhelming majority of the sophisticated international Salafi jihadis associated with Osama Bin Laden's group are middle-class and were well educated at western-style colleges - it is true that madrasa students have been closely involved in both the rise of the Taliban and the growth of sectarian violence within Pakistan and Afghanistan; it is also true that the education provided by many madrasas is often wholly inadequate to prepare or equip children for modern life in a civil society.

Education within reach

There is, however, one bright glimmer of hope in this depressingly dark situation. In 1995, a group of Karachi-based Pakistani businessmen founded a new charity called The Citizens Foundation, or TCF, with the simple aim of taking Pakistan's children off the streets and providing them with a quality, secular education at heavily subsidised prices. Since then the charity has grown at the most remarkable rate: TCF now has 311 purpose-built schools located in Pakistan's most miserable slums and most underdeveloped rural areas, and a new one opens every single week. Each morning, around 40,000 boys and girls enter the gates of a TCF school somewhere in Pakistan.

The TCF schools I have visited are remarkable: in contrast to the government-run primaries, which usually resemble little more than cattle pens, TCF schools are beautifully planned two-storey structures built in brick, with attractive courtyards and verandas. Each has six classrooms, a library, an art room and washrooms with running water; the secondary schools have, in addition, science and computer rooms. The quality of teaching is surprisingly high, and TCF has its own purpose-built teacher-training institute where the staff - entirely made up of women, in order to encourage parents to enrol their girls - receive a thorough grounding in education. Since it was opened in 1997, more than 2,400 trained teachers have emerged from the institute and taken up positions in TCF schools.

The quality of teaching provided to the children in many cases equals that of Pakistan's smartest private schools; yet the kids who enrol are from the very poorest and most deprived families. Although all children have to pay fees of a minimum of ten Pakistani rupees a month, TCF's adjustable fee structure gives the poorest children access to an education, uniforms and school books at heavily subsidised rates - up to 95 per cent of fees - putting a top-quality edu cation within the reach of the poor for the first time. Already the first batch of graduates from the TCF system has been winning scholarships to Pakistan's leading colleges.

It costs just £10 a month to educate a child at a TCF school; £6,000 will keep an entire school running for a year. TCF is probably the most dynamic, impressive and well-run south Asian charity I have come across in 20 years of writing about the subcontinent. Yet, given Pakistan's now central geopolitical role, and the huge stake that the west has in seeing Pakistan surviving as a moderate and potentially democratic country, it is an NGO that we need to support almost as much out of self-interest as charity.

Donations can be sent to: The Friends of the Citizens Foundation, 9 Camden Road, London E11 2JP. The TCF website is http://www.thecitizensfoundation.org

William Dalrymple will be giving a fundraising lecture for TCF on his new book, "The Last Mughal", at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7, on Thursday 17 May. Tickets cost £15 each and are available online at http://www.ftcf.org.uk

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge