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Burn these books, please!

Updated Dec 12, 2015 06:25pm
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

NO, I take that back. Books shouldn’t ever be burned. Instead recycle the paper, use for wrapping vegetables or fish, or dispose of in some environmentally friendly way. But please keep our students away from the rotten science textbooks published by the Sindh Textbook Board (STB), an entity operating under the Sindh Ministry of Education. Else yet another generation will end up woefully ignorant of the subjects they study — physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Tragically they will see these magnificent human achievements as pointless, boring, and dry as dust.

I have a pile of STB books before me at the moment. Both in English and Urdu, they are the officially prescribed texts for classes 4 to 10 (ages 10 to 16) and are in current use. In addition, I have two manuscripts on general science for classes 4 and 5, scheduled for publication this year or next. My blood pressure is steadily rising as I turn the pages, and I take careful sips of water.

Imagine the torture inflicted on a class 4 kid from Sindh, a non-native speaker of English, when confronted with difficult words (no explanations provided) like ‘obesity’, ‘ulcer’, ‘characteristics’, ‘interpret’, ‘deficiency’, ‘osteoporosis’, ‘decomposers’, ‘ecoregion’, ‘translucent’, ‘trough’, ‘lukewarm’, ‘constriction’, etc. In class 5, he will be haunted by monster words like ‘monocotyledonous’ and ‘dicotyledonous’. Strewn across these unattractive books are hazy diagrams, hundreds of capitalisation and spelling mistakes, plus countless grammatically incorrect sentences.

Keep our students away from the rotten science textbooks published by the Sindh Textbook Board.

More serious than the get-up or language is the frequently wrong or nonsensical content. A doctorate in physics did not prepare me to deal with questions like: “Explain how one state of matter (solid, liquid and gases) dissolves in the other”, or with, “Explore that the greater the force, the greater the change in the distance covered by the object”. Or with an electric circuit described as, “The device that uses electricity converts it into other forms of energy such as heat, light and other forms”. Evidently someone who lacks common sense, not just knowledge of science, wrote this.

The science books in Urdu are no better. This underscores that lack of conceptual understanding — not language — is the real problem. Most teachers, and these textbook authors, don’t understand what they teach. Hence every science subject is reduced to dull drudgery and rote memorisation.

Mathematics, a beautiful subject that sharpens reasoning and logical thought, becomes a meaningless mind-deadening exercise, devoid of reason and motive. Why learn logarithms? Or matrices? I fruitlessly scoured the class 9-10 textbooks to find out. If our 15-year-olds know less math than a nine-year old Korean kid, you should know why.

The biology book (Urdu) for classes 9-10 is impossibly bad. A full-page tree chart of biological evolution, with English letterings, was obviously stolen from some unacknowledged text. But items in the chart find no mention in the text. Beyond reiterating the religious view that all life evolved from water, the book doesn’t say how life started. There are countless names of plants, animals and detailed descriptions; one dry fact follows another. But how any fact was established is not explained.

The class 9-10 physics book takes the cake. This book is so comprehensive, it says, that a student doesn’t need another. A couple of pages later the reader is told that uttering just one word brought this universe into existence “kuch lakh sal pehlay” (around 100,000 years ago). This misses the correct age of the universe by a whopping 13 billion years — so it’s wrong by more than one hundred thousand times.

Reader: ask yourself why STB books have a minimum of six authors (most have nine to 12 authors). That’s because everyone wants a share of the plunder — let consistency and pedagogy be damned! If this results in some awful gobbledygook with things scattered higgledy-piggledy, don’t be surprised. For example, one book introduces multi-cellular organisms in an earlier chapter and single-celled ones in a later one!

Let’s look at the economics of crookery. Sindh’s population is about 30 million, so each class 4 textbook title would have a print run of around 300-400 thousand. Multiplying by the number of titles, and about Rs150 per title, you see that billions of rupees are involved. The publishers, distributors, authors, and managers know the weaknesses of a public monopoly. In an opaque system, who profits how much is anybody’s guess.

It is time to dissolve the Sindh Textbook Board, and possibly its sister organisations in Punjab and KP too. Poor production quality proves that STB does not have the intellectual capacity, or organisational integrity, to deliver quality science books. Although PIA and Pakistan Steel Mills are said to be inefficient public-sector organisations, even they deliver better products.

Authorship of science textbooks by our college professors is seriously problematic. College professors, through no fault of their own, have generally received a poor education in science. Most don’t understand their subjects, and cannot solve the exercises in any decent ‘O’ or ‘A’ level textbook. Yet these badly educated persons have been entrusted with educating Sindh’s young.

The solution: instead of futilely experimenting with local authors, the government should purchase rights to adapt, translate, or cheaply reprint those books which have a good international track record. It is absurd to assume that science and math are Pakistan specific — water is H2O everywhere, and two plus two makes four even in Timbuktu. Pakistan’s universities and colleges already use books by foreign authors at the BSc, MSc, MPhil, and PhD levels. So why not extend to school books and make our science curriculum exactly that in other countries?

Pakistan needs to provide good, cheap books to its children through open competition. That only local authors are permitted violates this principle. Authors and their agents cleverly appeal to national or provincial pride but the real reason is the fat pickings. These vested interests have successfully thwarted reform and will keep doing so. The tiny number of Sindh’s children privileged to access British ‘O’ and ‘A’ level schools — and use their books — are doing okay. For the rest, one can only weep.

The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2015