During my recent visit to Pakistan, I was invited to meet with the president of the country, Mamnoon Hussain.
Just a few months earlier, Mr. Hussain — no relation — was sworn in as the constitutional head of the country. In the parliamentary system of government, the executive power rests with the prime minister and parliament, not with the president.
The call from the president’s house was a surprise. Someone had told the president about my annual visits to teach at my alma mater, Khyber Medical College in Peshawar. He was also told about my Indus River expeditions and my literary activities in the United States and Pakistan.
President Hussain has an interesting background. He was born in Agra, India, in 1940 to a family of shoe merchants. He was 9 years old when the family migrated to the Pakistani city of Karachi and entered the textile business. After he earned a master’s degree in business administration, the future president joined the family business and became an ardent supporter of the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his Pakistan Muslim League.
Down-to-earth and humble, the president is the epitome of old-country grace. He thanked me for coming from Peshawar to see him. After the usual pleasantries, we sat down for a serious conversation about education in Pakistan.
He wanted to know whether the standard of medical education in Pakistan is comparable to that of western countries. The short answer: No.
I blamed the uneven standards on the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, the accrediting body charged by the government with upholding the standards of medical education. The council had accredited dozens of substandard private medical colleges.
Such medical colleges outnumber public ones three to one. These proprietary medical colleges are able to circumvent strict rules that govern medical education in Pakistan.
President Hussain was interested in my views on teaching students in their native language. This issue has been debated widely around the world. Experts contend that teaching in a student’s native language is more effective than using a foreign language.
While this is generally true at the primary and secondary levels, the crunch comes in higher education in science subjects. I believe science education at that level has to be imparted in a language of science. In our case, that is English.
President Hussain said students in China, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and many other countries are taught in their native languages. But these students have great difficulty competing on the global stage where English is the language of science.
He mentioned Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, where Urdu was once used as the medium of instruction at the college and university level.
That experiment was successful. Some world-renowned scientists and educators came out of that system.
The practice of teaching in Urdu, however, was abandoned when Hyderabad was annexed by India in 1947. The experiment worked in an era when science was still limited in its scope, and English was not a dominant world language.
In my days as a student, the University of Peshawar library had a complete set of Urdu textbooks that were used at Osmania University to teach the arts and sciences.
I proposed that Pakistan set up an institute of higher learning where subjects are taught in Urdu, but where English is taught as a foreign language. I told President Hussain that it would be interesting to see whether graduates of such an institution would have less difficulty competing on the international stage than those who were taught only in their native language without learning English. He promised to pass on my recommendation to the government.
Thirty-five minutes pass quickly when the conversation is interesting. I gave him a few of my books and prepared to leave.
He thanked me again for our meeting, and asked me to return one day to resume our conversation.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com