The curious case of the Parrots without Purpose

By Minahil Qasim. Minahil lives in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is an engineering student in her second year of university. She loves reading blog posts and books on neuroscience. She aspires to become a researcher and discover the many hidden facets of the human brain.

On a global scale, the educational landscape of today is laden with wonderful initiatives such as the Engineers without Borders, led by people who are dedicated to the advancement of engineering education worldwide. While in the realm of humanitarianism and medicine, Doctors without Borders is an important milestone. However, in Pakistan we have, of sorts, the Parrots without Purpose; it is by no means a governmental incentive, nor is it a movement spearheaded by some creative campaigner for the cause of biological parrots. It is, on the contrary, nothing of national or international concern, at least not apparently.

While Parrots without Purpose, as far as the name goes, is solely a result of my own musings (there is certainly no paper published in any scientific/political journal to that end), it is a phenomenon that continually manifests itself through the impact of education on students in Pakistan. It is a nation-wide occurrence where students, in the manner of parrots, regurgitate whatever they are taught in school, without having an inkling of understanding as to what they have learnt. Though they toil hard-and though they get “educated” in the process-such learning is purposeless, because these students acquire nothing of substantial value, such as critical thinking, independent learning or the ability to analyze what they are taught, at the end of the day.

Yeats once said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of fire” [1]. But ironically, it is exactly how education works in our country. A great deal of emphasis is placed on mindless memorization of information. Our education system is hinged upon the philosophy of committing to memory the intricate details of textbooks or the profuse particulars of the professor’s lectures, and then regurgitating these verbatim when asked in a test or an exam. Any student unsuccessful in doing so is termed as a “failure”.

Even if a student is an independent thinker, and wants to repudiate such an absurd way of learning, the fear of being a “failure” drives him or her to commit to memory an amount of information that is virtually useless in addressing real-world problems. This is especially true for secondary level students. In schools, students aren’t allowed to have an opinion or to think independently. Allowing children to have opinions and debating about what they are being taught takes a lot of time and effort on the part of the school faculty and teachers. But since teachers are pressed for time and resources, they consider it easier to test students on facts and figures. As a result, by the time these students reach colleges and universities, all they are equipped with is useless facts and figures only to be supplanted by facts and figures that they learn at the university. Over the long haul, hardly any genuine scholarship or research results from such an oppressive scheme of education because it stifles creativity and quashes the ability of students to think independently.

Confucius rightly pointed out when he said: “He who learns but does not think is lost” [2], and his words precisely delineate the dilemma that the Parrots without Purpose face: they are students who have been educated rigorously, but have never acquired the capacity to think critically about the relevance of what they are being taught, nor are they aware of the demanding issues they face as individuals who are intricately woven into the fabric of the society. What’s worse is the fact that they consciously evade thinking about any of this. Why? Because thinking takes time, the time that they could use to learn just another statistic or a piece of information that may turn up in the next exam. They are never really keen on questioning what they are being taught, because in doing so, they would fall behind and their educational careers would not be as successful as the rest of the Parrots out there. So they continue to commit to memory without questioning anything.

So if I could change one thing about the education system of my country, I would change the aspect of education that makes intelligent students nothing more than Parrots without Purpose.

And so I have a dream, the dream to change the lack of applicability of knowledge in our education system. I dream of a kind of education system that helps its students reach their full potential instead of stifling it by burdening them with stacks of useless information. I dream of a kind of education system that encourages, realizes and capitalizes on the ability of students as intelligent and independent thinkers who have all that it takes to make a difference in the world.

And so I dream of an education that is based on learning by means of participation, as opposed to passive reception of facts and ideas. I have a dream that calls for an increased participation of students in class learning, where they aren’t simply at the receiving end of education, obtaining it passively as they sit through classes and lectures, only to parrot it out what they’ve learnt on verbal exams or written tests.

I dream of classrooms where children write critical analyses and reflective responses, expressing their own opinions on the topics they are taught, as opposed to answering multiple choice questions or engaging in other traditional methods of examination. I dream that they can understand the reasons for learning what they are learning in class, and that they are capable of questioning the validity of what they are being taught in case the occasion requires it.

I dream of an education system that is more student-friendly, where students are given the opportunity to intellectually engage with what they are being taught. And so I dream of the kind of learning that encourages students to sift the seemingly accurate from the accurate, and the alluring from the beneficial. I dream of an education that makes them laudable leaders, reliable researchers and sagacious scholars.

I have a dream that our education focuses on central issues and probes students to critically think about them. I dream of an education that not only involves learning, but also the application and utilization of that learning to solve real-life problems and to address pressing issues; an education that makes students realize that they are not an end in themselves, but that they are part of a community that needs their ideas, their innovations and their leadership to become a better place for the generations to come.

But that’s not all that I dream; I also dream of an education that is more than just education, that is beyond learning and teaching, that is beyond testing and examining, an education that makes students realize their greatest, most exalted purpose: to be human.

[1]: “Subscribe to DailyGood.” DailyGood: News That Inspires. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.

[2]: “Quote DB.” He Who Learns but Does Not Think, Is Lost! He Who Thinks but Does Not Learn Is in Great Danger. by Confucius. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.

One comment on “The curious case of the Parrots without Purpose

  1. Aesha on

    I can so relate to this. The system of education here can really get unfair sometimes. Some people just don’t have the time and the memory to keep up with this way of education. Nice article!


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