One of the most oft-repeated mantras you hear in Pakistan is the idea that education is somehow a panacea for all of the country’s ills. If only more attention was paid to providing the populace with education, the logic goes, poverty, deprivation, bigotry, and intolerance would simply disappear, and rivers of milk and honey would flow through the streets of Pakistan. While it is undeniable that there are obvious benefits to providing greater access to quality education, it also has to be recognised that this approach, usually defined by an almost single-minded focus on literacy indicators, is unlikely to do much good unless accompanied by broader structural reforms aimed at addressing the economic constraints that perpetuate inequality and impede social mobility. Pressing for more schools without, for example, addressing inequalities in wages and property ownership, will only serve to blunt the positive effects of any educational interventions.

The fact that educational attainment is strongly linked to economic and social background is a point that is quite well established. Yet, the absence of this perspective from the mainstream discourse on education in Pakistan is one of the reasons why the most vocal proponents of educating the populace tend to be drawn from the educated elite. In a context where calls for socioeconomic justice would necessitate questioning the perpetuation of elite privilege, it is not surprising to find elements of the rich and powerful supporting broad, apolitical campaigns for ‘education’.

There is, however, another, more distasteful aspect to this narrative. More often than not, linking progress in Pakistan to more widespread education conceals a deep vein of contempt for the underprivileged. This is most manifest in discussions on politics and voting. In the aftermath of the May 2013 elections, middle and upper class PTI voters berated the rural and urban poor for their failure to vote for Imran Khan. In addition to deploying tired stereotypes about the cultural differences between ‘simple’ voters in the countryside and their more sophisticated, elite counterparts in the cities, it was argued that had these voters been better educated, they would have obviously chosen to vote for the PTI rather than any of the other, arguably discredited parties.

Without getting into a discussion about whether or not the PTI actually represented a credible alternative to the other parties, it is important to address the fundamental assumptions that underpin the kind of argument described above. Essentially, it is assumed that education empowers people to make better political choices and could, therefore, allow them to escape from the systems of domination that have traditionally prevented them from voting in their own best interests, rather than in support of corrupt but entrenched local politicians. This, in turn, is based on the notion that education provides people with the information they need, as well as the skills they would require, to make better sense of the world around them, and to better evaluate the merits of different candidates and parties competing for power.

This kind of thinking is erroneous on several levels. For one, while it is obviously important and necessary for people to be educated for a variety of different reasons, it is not clear how or why this would necessarily lead to the ‘right’ electoral choices. After all, for all their self-congratulatory assumptions about their own superiority, the educated elite in Pakistan and elsewhere can hardly be accused of making good political choices; large segments of this section of the populace have had a history of endorsing military coups in Pakistan, and many of them still call for the dissolution of the country’s democratic setup. Furthermore, even when their engagement with politics is more pro-democratic, many see no problem in endorsing ideologies and policies that embrace the most dogmatic and reactionary aspects of contemporary conservatism and neo-liberal capitalism. Similarly, the assumption that education makes people better voters conflates formal schooling with political information; while voters can and do respond to different kinds of information, they do not necessarily require a college degree to do so. Through the media, and through campaign events and the efforts of party workers, the messages being put forward by different parties and leaders can be quite comprehensively disseminated in a form that is accessible by most voters. While formal education might help people read more, it will not necessarily enable them to make the ‘right’ choice. After all, going to high school does not necessarily mean that you are equipped to make an absolute and final judgment on who is or is not the right person to elect, just as a degree in accountancy does not necessarily give you any greater familiarity with the intricacies of foreign policy.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the fact that, on the whole, people are not stupid. While it is often suggested that voters lacking in education are easy to mislead, all that is really being said is that choices not in conformity with those of the elite are the ‘wrong’ choices. In fact, they are simply different choices rooted in different realities. You do not need a college degree to know you need proper sanitation, or to articulate a demand for better healthcare in your community, and most people are usually quite adept at recognizing when they are being lied to by different electoral candidates. If people continue to vote for the tainted politicians of the PML and the PPP, it may not be because they simply do not know better; instead, it makes more sense to recognize that voters make strategic choices, casting their lot with candidates who might be able to provide them with some patronage and service delivery by working the levers of Pakistan’s dysfunctional, clientelistic politics. Seen this way, the blame for poor electoral choices lies with the system that produces and offers these choices, rather than with voters who often have no viable alternative.

The elite narrative on the link between education and voting serves little purpose other than to belittle the choices of the poor, and to justify a continued refusal to engage with the broader problems that characterize politics in Pakistan. Rather than pursuing an anti-democratic agenda that refuses to recognize the agency of the poor when their decisions, unsurprisingly enough, do not conform to the expectations of the rich, it makes much more sense to press for more participatory and inclusive democratic politics predicated on a need for broader systemic change, rather than the championing of elite-led and supported parties, including the PTI, that have offered little to the marginalized majority.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.