Curriculum reform in Pakistan: moving to action

Curriculum reform is essential, but not sufficient, to counter radicalism in Pakistan, argues Madiha Afzal

Curriculum reform in Pakistan: moving to action
In 1981, the University Grants Commission issued a directive to Pakistan Studies textbook authors, stating that they were to “guide students towards the ultimate goal of Pakistan, the creation of a completely Islamized State”. Given this direction, Pakistan’s textbook authors certainly did their job well. In the process, as I, and others before me – including K K Aziz, A H Nayyar, and Pervez Hoodbhoy – have documented, those government-approved authors also wrote textbooks rife with biases, negativity, half-truths, errors, over simplifications, and conspiracy theories.

But Pakistan is not the only country to have problems in its textbooks, and hardly the only country to impose its brand of nationalism – in our case, religio-nationalism – through its education system. Research on textbooks in China, Japan, South Korea, and Israel – among other countries – documents similar distortions of history in the name of fostering nationhood.

Yet I argue in my recently published U.S. Institute of Peace report on education and attitudes in Pakistan that curriculum reform is essential to countering radicalism in Pakistan. Government textbooks did not cause Pakistan’s terrorism problem. We can thank a confluence of internal and external geo-political factors for that. But our textbooks have certainly not helped the situation, and have worsened it in some cases; and they define how we respond to terror and the terrorists in our midst.

Textbooks, memorized, drive attitudes on what they focus on most – India, the Pakistani identity, and our national sense of victimhood. But textbooks and schools also define how the public absorbs information — from the media, the mullah, the army, politicians, and each other. So when the army blames RAW for all of Pakistan’s problems, a paranoid public agrees. It forgets the killers in its midst, the Taliban who claimed responsibility for killing 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar.
Teach them how to do research - how to seek out evidences

Why do attitudes matter? After all, believing in conspiracy theories never killed anyone. But such attitudes create space for militant groups to survive, and they define government action toward these groups. And the exclusionary identity cultivated by Pakistani textbooks leads citizens to tolerate increasing sectarian and religious violence. Even worse, this mindset can trigger mob violence. Remember Shama and Shahzad, the Christian couple burnt to death in Kot Radha Kishan in November 2014.

So curriculum reform is necessary – but not sufficient – if Pakistan is to find a way out of this mess. But it is easier said than done. Pakistan’s previous attempt at this, the 2006 curriculum reform, failed save for marginal improvements. Now there is no federal ministry of education that could undertake a comprehensive reform, even if it wanted to – not that the ideological leanings of the current PML-N government would make that likely – and curricula are the purview of the provinces.

So unless we see a reversal of the 18th amendment vis-à-vis curricula, textbooks will be dictated by the political leanings of their provinces. Ideologically, Sindh under the PPP is the only province that would lean toward a liberal curriculum but – while it has shown a positive step in that direction by announcing that it will add Jinnah’s August 11 speech to textbooks – it seems too mired in misgovernance to be able to launch and complete a comprehensive reform. The direction in KPK, under pressure from the Jamaat e Islami – reintroducing jihad in textbooks, for one – is regressive. And Punjab shows no signs of wanting to move on curricula.

A complete curriculum reform would allow all Pakistani government schools, and private schools using government textbooks, to follow an international level curriculum that encourages analytical and critical thinking. Textbooks would reflect the latest international scholarship while being authored by Pakistanis (reality in a country where educationist Dr. Bernadette Dean was forced to leave due to security concerns after it became known that had co-authored textbooks). History would be presented as it is written and debated by academic historians, not conjured up by our army and politicians. All this would be costly.

But in a country where the net primary enrollment ratio is only 57 percent, and the primary school completion rate is 50 percent, how realistic is this? The educational system is drowning in problems: 51 percent of schools function without electricity, 36 percent of them have no drinking water, 42 percent of schools are missing a toilet, and 35 percent of schools have no boundary walls. There are at least 8252 ghost schools across the country, according to a recent Supreme Court survey. And teachers – of whom 10 to 18 percent don’t show up on any given day — are struggling to impart basic literacy and math skills. Is costly curriculum reform a “luxury” Pakistan cannot afford, faced as it is with these basic educational access and quality issues?

Pakistan allocates just 2.14% of its GDP to education, or roughly 10% of government spending. And 20-30% of even that — this may come as a surprise — remains unused. In addition, corruption means that the used funds don’t go where they are supposed to.

Meanwhile, Pakistan spends at least 3.5% of its GDP on defense – accounting for roughly 20% of government spending. It spends liberally on “nice-to-have”s, like the metrobus projects — the recently completed one in Islamabad cost Rs. 45 billion; as a comparison, the Punjab government allocated Rs. 48.31 billion in 2014-15 to education (a notable increase from Rs. 23.31 billion in 2013-14).

So Pakistan can afford to fix its access to education and educational quality issues, as well as its curriculum. And given that a comprehensive curriculum reform is very time-consuming in any context (as my experience as faculty at a U.S. university has taught me) – not to mention politically fraught in Pakistan, given that the previous curriculum was instituted explicitly as an Establishment policy — one can start incrementally, and shake up some fundamentals in the process.

Start, for one, by teaching world history as a core subject. It will give students context in which to place their knowledge of Pakistan, teach them about other people and places, and their histories, and hopefully give students the ability to draw common threads across the world.

Teach them how to do research – how to seek out evidence and evaluate sources of information. Focus on discussions and debate within the classroom. De-emphasize the matric exam. Make classroom interactions count for students’ final evaluation.

Present students with additional sources of information beyond prescribed textbooks – with the scholarship of Ayesha Jalal and so many others who have written about Partition.

All this can happen even without new textbooks for Pakistan Studies. Teachers will need to be re-educated twice – once on the additional materials and again on how to engage with students in an interactive manner. Spend the summer training them. Some of these changes can start as early as September.

The above offers a start. It is our best hope for a thinking population, that, even when faced with hate material and militant propaganda, will be able to counter it.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution