The curricula being taught at both private and government schools are riddled with striking biases and omissions
By Ali Shan Azhar
(The News on Sunday, October 14, 2007)
The significance of meaningful school education cannot be overemphasised. Today, all nations — rich and poor alike — pay homage to the right of and access to the benefits of basic school education. In fact, school education is considered indispensable, both for the individual and the society in contemporary civilisation. Let us remind ourselves that the word ‘education’ is derived from a Latin word that means ‘to draw out’. The development or the drawing out of mental faculties is the very essence of education. The objective of school education, then, ought to be the training of the latent powers of observation, reasoning and thought in children; and, thence, awakening their intelligence. Also, school education is the pillar on which rests the whole edifice of learning / education systems. “School houses are the republican line of fortifications,” declared Horace Mann, the famous American educator.
Are the schools in Pakistan doing their job? Are they playing their part in nation-building and in creating an aware citizenry? Is the school education, as it stands today, sufficiently capable to tap the sources of the creative energies of the children and to adequately channelise them? To find satisfactory answers to these critical queries, it is imperative to have a survey of what is actually a part of the curricula at the school level in Pakistan at present. Careful research reveals certain broad trends of the curricula / textbooks being taught at various levels in both government and private schools. These trends merit particular emphasis to evaluate the quality of education being imparted.
Islamisation of textbooks
The teaching of Islamiat in preference to pure Ethics at all levels is in itself an indicator of the desire to ingrain a distinct identity among the Muslim children in Pakistan. Our Islamiat textbooks bring out the similarities in the beliefs, modes of worship, and social and practical life of the Muslims; and declare that the Muslims dwelling in every part of the world constitute a single brotherhood. Even more interesting is the claim made in a number of textbooks that all the non-Muslims (by default?) constitute a single nation. This stress on Islamic identity is carried over to the curricula for Social Studies and Urdu language, as right from the first grade one comes across lessons about Islamic rituals and beliefs in the textbooks of these subjects.
The Islamisation of textbooks picks up as the child moves to higher grades, with essays on religious personalities frequently adorning the curriculum. Inevitably, this quest for the Muslim identity has led to the Islamisation of the curricula for Social Studies and Urdu language at all levels and in all schools, barring the elite English-medium educational institutions. Some textbooks of these subjects are so highly representative of Islamic personalities and concepts that their first half is hardly indistinguishable from an Islamiat textbook. The overwhelming religious content inevitably phases out a number of essential topics of Social Studies that would have done much more to shape the character and socio-political / socio-cultural perceptions of the children. For instance, useful topics pertaining to geography, history, culture, economy and society do not find enough space in most Social / Pakistan Studies textbooks.
Adding insult to injury is the sad realisation that the damage is happily inflicted merely to accommodate religious lessons that already stand repeated ad nauseam in the Islamiat and Urdu language textbooks. The results of Urdu language instruction are not admirable either. The emphasis of school textbooks ought to be on enabling understanding and analysis at a specific level of vocabulary. However, in many cases, it appears that language has been rendered subservient to religious instruction. As a result, the children are missing out on true language training — as evident from their poor verbal skills despite studying Urdu language throughout their 10 years at school. Many educationists ascribe the ill to the ‘pushing out’ of literary pieces of prose and verse to accommodate religious essays, which do much lesser in terms of improving language skills.
Pakistan as an Islamic state
The curricula for Social / Pakistan Studies attempt to borrow directly from the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in a bid to prove that the country was originally meant to be an Islamic state: “Wherever you are and whoever you are, you are a Muslim first and last. This land does not belong to Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans or Bengalis.” So the Quaid wanted the inhabitants of Pakistan to be Muslims and also that they gave up provincialism on this basis (and not because they were Pakistanis?). The Quaid’s assertion that “Everyone of us should think, feel and act as a Pakistani; and we should be proud of being Pakistani alone” only finds a place in the O’ level textbooks exclusive to the elite English medium schools.
A number of textbooks, however, do find room for another extremely ambiguous quote from the Quaid: “We are Muslims and have faith in one God, one Prophet (PBUH) and one book; so it is binding on us that we should be one as a nation also.” It is obvious that our policy-makers, in order to promote a theocratic set of mind, do not hesitate to quote out of context even the very founder of the country. Many textbooks claim that Pakistan is the “fort of Islam” and all efforts should be aimed at making it an “Islamic welfare state”. The deliberate and blatant promotion of a very questionable logic as the very raison d’etre of Pakistan’s existence certainly does very little to promote responsible citizenship among the future generations, while simultaneously distorting their vision of historical events / personalities for the rest of their lives.
Such attempts at Islamising Social Studies have efficiently deprived the subject of its utility, which can be of invaluable significance in explaining to the children the world around them in a simple, interesting and classified manner. It is a discipline that can provide them a peep into the world affairs; as well as the political, social and economic structure of their native country. All this facilitates the development of children into adults who can think for themselves and who possess the power of critical analysis. The heavy doses of religion and manufactured history, however, transform the very framework of Social Studies from a modern, liberal and progressive one to one with strict taboos and unquestionable assertions. In total opposition to what true education envisages, school textbooks appear to be encouraging tendencies among the children to be dismissive of highly debatable issues.
Relations with non-Muslims
Accepting the debatable premise of Pakistan being an Islamic state does not in any way condone or connote that non-Muslims are not entitled to find a peaceful abode in Pakistan — it is not too much to expect that school textbooks communicate to the young minds in no uncertain terms the relevant Islamic teachings regarding relations with the non-Muslims. Interestingly, however, only the Islamiat textbooks exclusive to the elite English medium schools seem to convey the true tenor of the Islamic teachings regarding relations with the non-Muslims — for example, they cite incidents of the hospitality that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) extended to the non-Muslims; or highlight the fact that he ensured complete security of life, property and practice of religion to them in the Islamic state of Medina.
The non-Muslims were called zimmies (protected people), because they lived in peace and tranquility under the protection of the Islamic state. In fact, in safeguarding the rights of non-Muslims, an Islamic state has gone to such extremes as to give them the liberty of maintaining even those practices that are entirely opposed to the teachings of Islam. For example, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden for the Muslims in Pakistan; yet the government itself issues permits to the non-Muslim to use alcohol. These are facts and religious teachings that have been omitted in their entirety from all Islamiat curricula, except those taught at most of the elite English medium schools. Some Islamiat textbooks go the extent of labelling all the non-Muslims as kafirs (infidels). Also, the Quaid’s opposition to religious intolerance is almost entirely overlooked by all the school curricula in Pakistan.
The task of providing a national identity to the Pakistanis is mystified by the alternate pursuit of the curricula for a concocted Muslim identity and Islamic recognition. The least that the curricula must do in these circumstances, in order to stimulate the process of national integration, is to encourage the people of all the four provinces to better understand each other. To what extent do the curricula accomplish this task? The Punjab Textbook Board’s Urdu language textbook for the grade 8 delves only into the Pakistani literature produced in Punjabi language. Similarly, the Social Studies textbook for the grade 4 totally ignores the geography and the history of all provinces except Punjab. So, it is only in the grade 9 that the children at government schools learn about the culture of the country in a comprehensive manner and an organised form. In addition to culture, most textbooks also miss out on the geography and the economy of the country.
The luxury of comprehending the entity that Pakistan is seems to be reserved exclusively for those fortunate enough to be educated at the elite English medium schools. The O’ level textbooks, for instance, elaborate in detail the geography and the economy of the entire country — its climate, agriculture, industry, means of communication, natural resources, occupations, etc. There is also a chapter entitled The struggle for a cultural identity, which incorporates the history and growth of the various regional languages of Pakistan as well its national language Urdu. Similarly, the Urdu language and Social Studies textbooks being taught at the elite English medium schools describe the life and works of famous personalities from other provinces. For instance, essays on Pushto poet Rehman Baba and Sindhi poet Abdul Majid are included in the curriculum being taught at the elite English medium schools of Punjab. The curricula in these schools also adequately cover the culture, lifestyle and famous places of all the provinces.
Democratic values and systems find almost no mention in the textbooks and in the curricula. A quote from Quaid-e-Azam can, however, be found in the Punjab Textbook Board’s Pakistan Studies textbook for the grade 10: “I believe that the final shape of the constitution will be democratic and based on the fundamental Islamic principles.” Otherwise, even the slightest mention of the meaning and the functioning of a parliamentary democratic system is rare, even in the case of the curricula being taught at the elite English medium schools. So is the case with the description of a federal system of government and its prerequisites.
Similarly, the concept of universal human rights is yet to find a place in our school curricula; and, as a corollary, the class perspectives and socio-political demands pertaining to basic human rights have also not been found worthy of mention. What is noticeable, instead, is degradation of the democracy and eulogising of the military — an institution widely acknowledged to have repeatedly sabotaged the democratic process in Pakistan on one pretext or the other. The Urdu language textbooks are immensely helping the Social / Pakistan Studies textbooks in this task. A particularly favourite discussion topic of the Urdu language textbooks for the grades 7 and 8 at the government schools is the martyrs of the wars with India and those bestowed with military honours like the Nishan-e-Haider.
To play down the repeated military interventions in the history of Pakistan, all textbooks overlook the latest episodes of the national history. The worst being the Punjab / NWFP Textbook Board’s Pakistan Studies textbook for the grade 10, which totally overlooks the national history beyond the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution. What type of aware citizenship can be promoted by virtually hiding the better part of the country’s history? And how is it possible to prepare the youth for the challenges of the modern age without providing them with the barest idea of either the concept of democracy or the need for a democratic political setup?
Perception of the West
No Social / Pakistan Studies curricula being taught at the government schools makes any attempt to study the international geography / history, except for that of the Muslim countries. This is a strange grouping to study given that the only commonality is religion, which has nothing to do with geography and climate. The underlying message (explicitly stated at places) is that the Islamic countries (somehow) constitute a single block with common interests and hence the need for cooperation. Compare it with the curricula being taught at the elite English medium schools, most of which are teaching both medieval and modern world history, as well as international geography. For a vast majority of the Pakistani children, however, the sole introduction to the West remains the alleged ‘evil alliance’ between the Hindus and the English to jeopardise the existence of a newly created Pakistan. The theme of Hindus as ‘the enemies of Islam’ recurs in both Social Studies and Urdu language curricula.
Summing up, it is evident that the curricula being taught at both English medium (mostly private) and Urdu medium schools (mostly government) are riddled with striking biases and omissions. Sparing the extremely elite, the school education in Pakistan is burdening our future generations with distorted perceptions and ideals. First, the products of our Urdu medium schools are likely to misconceive Pakistan as an Islamic state where religion and politics are inseparable. Second, it is improbable that they have adequate knowledge of the geography, culture and history of their own country, except for perhaps their home province. Third, even more misleading are their perceptions of the world at large apart from maybe a handful of Muslim countries. Fourth, they are not likely to have much faith in the democratic process and/or an understanding of its dynamics and necessity.
It is fair to assume that before the students reach the college level they have been substantially deprived of the abilities to think and observe. Their mental growth stands stunted, thus undermining their capacity to acquire higher education and be able to truly benefit from it. The didactic approach towards history and social studies at school level is certain to hamper the vision of children. Everything around the children has been branded as so sacred that there is no room left for an objective analysis directed at some sort of variation / improvement. If the curricula could at least encourage the children to think for themselves, the intolerance and obscurantism in the Pakistani society might see a decline.
Presently, the textbooks are cultivating a mental outlook among children that has its basis in the reinforcement of certain stereotypes and creating fear. The children are encouraged to ponder in terms of absolutes — they conceive every scenario as a picture of absolute good or else as a caricature of absolute evil. Their mindset fails to appreciate that differences — whether they pertain to beliefs, culture or ideology — are natural and often historical. They, instead, have fantasies of the eternal struggle between their favoured creed and the ‘enemies’, who are always busy conspiring and colluding to stall the ultimate triumph of the ‘truth’. I am tempted to conclude with an observation by eminent historian K K Aziz: “The failure of democracy, the long spells of military dictatorship, corruption, moral laxity, deterioration in character, decline of moral values, sense of irresponsibility, inefficiency, cynicism, indifference to what the future holds for us — all this is the bitter harvest from the seeds we use in the cultivation of the minds of the young. As you sow, so shall you reap!”