THE curricula taught in Pakistani schools, especially over the last few decades, have been criticised for being exclusivist and helping promote rigidity and intolerance in society.
In fact, it would not be wrong to point out that more than the material taught in many madressahs, it is the content of public school textbooks that has contributed largely to the acceptance or condoning of terrorism by a large section of the population. That is why curriculum reform is a key area in the struggle to reclaim the anti-extremism narrative in Pakistan and point it in a more moderate direction.
In this regard, the Punjab chief minister’s remarks on Wednesday, in which he said that the syllabi of schools, colleges and seminaries in his province would be reformed as part of counterterrorism efforts, should be welcomed. Shahbaz Sharif said the steps would be in tandem with other efforts, such as cracking down on hate speech and the misuse of loudspeakers.
For a holistic, integrated counterterrorism and anti-extremism effort, it is essential that the curricula taught throughout Pakistan are carefully examined to root out any references or biases that may promote hatred of or belittle different sects, religions, communities or nations.
After the 18th Amendment, the onus is on the provincial governments to shape their respective curricula. The provinces have used their devolved powers differently where textbooks are concerned; for example, Sindh, especially in the lower grades, has made progress in removing gender bias and hate material from books.
The previous ANP-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had made similar changes, also guided by Musharraf-era curriculum reform guidelines. But in the recent past, the PTI administration of KP — apparently under Jamaat-i-Islami pressure — has tried to revert to the old lessons or reverse the changes.
Hence clearly, more efforts are required at the national level to produce curricula that are progressive and provide genuine learning opportunities to young students.
The Punjab chief minister mentioned that material on religious tolerance and restraint will be included in textbooks. While education is now a provincial subject — and should remain so — there are certain themes which all federating units may want to adopt in their respective course books.
These include tolerance, compassion and other humanistic values. What must clearly be avoided are the glorification of war, overt religiosity and excessive militarism, as well as the ‘othering’ of minorities that has long been a mainstay of our children’s textbooks.
Indeed, several generations have been brought up on myopic curricula, and the damage done over decades will not be undone overnight.
However, for a clean break from extremism and to help create a more tolerant polity, curriculum reform efforts must be long-lasting and overseen by academics of repute.
The stress must be on learning, not imparting ideology. Most of all, the state must resist pressure from obscurantist quarters that are bound to resist any educational reform initiatives for their own selfish interests.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2015