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By silencing discussion, state shirking its responsibility to schoolchildren

January 12, 2015


Labourers raising the boundary wall of IMCG, F7/4, on Sunday . — INP
Labourers raising the boundary wall of IMCG, F7/4, on Sunday . — INP

ISLAMABAD: Eleven-year-old Iman Fatima is too young to fully understand violence and death. But when her school remained closed for far too long in the aftermath of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the insightful schoolgirl went up to her father and asked him some questions that no one expects an 11-year-old to ask.

“I asked my baba who these terrorists are and what their faith is. I want to know about political matters and once my school opens, I will definitely ask my teachers what they think about the motivations of these terrorists who kill in the name of religion,” she says, displaying an understanding that is far more advanced than her years.

Take a look: Schools’ security

Shamas Riaz agrees. He is father to two school-going children and has learned to deal with such difficult questions. “I want my children to learn about religion and politics at their schools. If there is no debate around these issues, how they will learn right from wrong,” he told Dawn.

But it seems that the Federal Directorate of Education (FDE), which runs 422 educational institutions in the federal capital, does not care what the children think or what they may need to learn in order to cope with the changing times.

As part of the guidelines issued to schools before they reopened, the FDE has come up with two documents: a 12-point description of the ‘Duties of School/College Administrations’ and a 15-point list entitled ‘Duties of Students’. While most of these include legitimate measures, such as familiarisation with escape routes and emergency protocols, point number 14 on the latter list calls upon students and teachers to “strictly avoid discussions on religious and political issues”.

The guidelines are currently available on the FDE’s website and Facebook page. According to an FDE spokesperson, the guidelines are expected to be circulated to schools after they officially reopen on Monday.

New FDE guidelines call for clampdown on all political and religious discussion between teachers and students

Noted educationist A.H. Nayyar told Dawn that while limiting religious discussion among students in schools was not a new idea, clamping down on political discussions between students and teachers was tantamount to curbing individuals’ freedom of expression at a very young age.

Supporting the promotion of healthy political and religious debate and discussion at the college level, Mr Nayyar said that without dwelling on complex topics such as jihad and terrorism – which are confusing enough for adults – it was nearly impossible to get children to understand them. “Teachers should denounce terrorism at every forum,” he said.

Dr Rizwan Taj, who is the head of Psychiatry at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims), told Dawn, “Debate and discussion play a major role in developing the personality of a student. Schoolchildren get nearly 50 per cent of their knowledge from discussions. Debates even improve their speaking power and boost their confidence.”

Omar Bangash, a practicing psychiatrist, told Dawn that getting children to understand what is happening around them required a systematic approach, which touches upon what children learn at school and what they learn at home. “Civic responsibility includes parents. That should go hand-in-hand. Civil society should serve as a kind of monitoring and evaluation check on schools,” he said.

Gauher Aftab, a teacher and public speaking coach at Aitchison College in Lahore, told Dawn that over the past year or so, a troubling trend had begun to emerge. “Ever since the narrative of protest has become popularised, helped by the street movements of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, there is increasing rejection of the democratic systems and disillusionment with the law. This is pushing students towards a more anarchic paradigm, and if this energy is not checked or channelled in a constructive way, through debate and discussion, it can be co-opted by radical groups and turned against society,” he said.

“Children accept binaries more easily, but now they are not ready to accept other opinions or shades of grey. This can only lead to growing intolerance, especially in the context of religion. This is the responsibility of the state and it should ensure that not only is the curriculum sensitised, but teachers shouldn’t be allowed to fill in the gaps with their own prejudices,” Mr Aftab told Dawn.

Published in Dawn January 12th , 2014

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