Be prepared, Pakistan! Imran Khan’s government is poised to inflict damage upon this country’s education system in a manner never seen before. Its so-called Single National Curriculum (SNC) hides systemic changes going far deeper than the ones conceived and executed by the extremist regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Implementation is scheduled for 2021.
At first glance a uniform national curriculum is hugely attractive. Some see it striking a lethal blow at the abominable education apartheid that has wracked Pakistan from day one. By the year, a widening gap has separated beneficiaries of elite private education from those crippled by bad public schooling. So what could be better than the rich child and the poor child studying the same subjects from the same books and being judged by the same standards?
But this morally attractive idea has been hijacked, corrupted, mutilated and beaten out of shape by those near-sighted persons now holding Pakistan’s future in their hands, and who, like their boss, kowtow to the madressah establishment. Prime Minister Khan was widely criticised in 2016-17 for making huge grants to madressahs of the late Maulana Samiul Haq, self-professed father of the Taliban who was murdered by an associate in mysterious circumstances.
As yet only SNC plans for Class I-V are public. But the huge volume of religious material they contain beats all curriculums in Pakistan’s history. A column-by-column comparison with two major madressah systems — Tanzeemul Madaris and Rabtaul Madaris — reveals a shocking fact. Ordinary schools will henceforth impose more rote learning than even these madressahs. Normal schoolteachers being under-equipped religiously, SNC calls for summoning an army of madressah-educated holy men — hafiz’s and qaris — as paid teachers inside schools. How this will affect the general ambiance and the safety of students is an open question.
The push for a uniform national curriculum idea derives from three flawed assumptions:
First: It is false that quality differences between Pakistan’s various education streams stem from pursuing different curricula. When teaching any secular subject such as geography, social studies or science, all streams have to cover the same topics. While details and emphases obviously differ, each must deal with exactly seven continents and water being H2O.
Instead, learning differentials arise because students experience very different teaching methods and are evaluated using entirely different criteria. So, for example, a local examination board will typically ask a mathematics student to name the inventor of logarithms whereas an ‘O’-level student must actually use logarithms to solve some problem. The modern world expects students to reason their way through a question, not parrot facts.
Second: It is false that a hefty dose of piety will somehow equalise students of Aitchison College and your run-of-the-mill neighbourhood school. The legendary Mahmood and Ayyaz prayed in the same suff (prayer line) and established a commonality without ending their master-slave relationship. Similarly, rich and poor schools will remain worlds apart unless equalised through school infrastructure, well-trained teachers, high quality textbooks and internet access. How the needed resources will be generated is anybody’s guess. Under the PTI, defence is the only sector seeing increases instead of cuts.
Third: It is false that school systems belonging to the modern world can be brought onto the same page as madressahs. Modern education rests squarely upon critical thinking, and success/failure is determined in relation to problem solving and worldly knowledge. Madressah education goals are important but different. They seek a more religiously observant student and a better life after death. Understandably, critical thinking is unwelcome.
While some madressahs now teach secular subjects like English, science and computers, this comes after much arm-twisting. Soon after 9/11, madressahs were spotlighted as terrorist breeding grounds. Musharraf’s government, beholden as it was to America, ordered them to teach secular subjects. Most rejected this outright but others were successfully pressurised. However, madressahs teach secular and religious subjects identically; reasoning is sparse and authoritarianism dominates.
While the new Class I-V SNC document also discusses secular subjects, much of this is pointless tinkering with the minutiae of teaching English, general knowledge, general science, mathematics and social studies. They are not accompanied by plausible plans for how the necessary intellectual or physical resources will be garnered and the plans implemented.
Still bigger changes are around the corner. The Punjab government has made teaching of the Holy Quran compulsory at the college and university level. Without passing the required examination no student will be able to get a BA, BSc, BE, ME, MA, MSc, MPhil, PhD or medical degree. Even the Zia regime did not have such blanket requirements. To get a university teaching job in the 1980s, you had to name all the wives of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and recite some difficult religious passages such as Dua-i-Qunoot. Still, students could get degrees without that. That option is now closed.
Starkly inferior to their counterparts in Iran, India and Bangladesh, Pakistani students perform poorly in all international science and mathematics competitions. Better achievers are invariably from the elite ‘O’-/‘A’-level stream. More worrying is that most students are unable to express themselves coherently and grammatically in any language, whether Urdu or English. They have stopped reading books.
Significantly, as yet the PTI’s new education regime is mum on how it will advance its goal of closing a huge skill deficit. So poor is the present quality of technical and vocational institutes that private employers must totally retrain the graduates. That’s why private-sector industrial growth is small and entire state enterprises, such as PIA and Pakistan Steel Mills, have collapsed. Pakistan’s space programme flopped but Iran has just put a military satellite into orbit and India is well on the way to Mars.
Empowered by the 18th Amendment, Pakistan’s provinces should vigorously resist the regressive plan being thrust upon the nation by ideologues that have usurped power in Islamabad. Else Pakistan will end up as the laughing stock of South Asia, left behind even by Arab countries. Pakistan’s greatest need — and its single greatest failure — is its tragic failure to impart essential life skills to its citizens. To move ahead, the priority should be to educate rather than score political points.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad. Views are personal.
The article was first published in Dawn.