WHAT is a Pakistani? Prime Minister Imran Khan stoked this thorny question with his order last week to establish a National Curriculum Council to generate uniform educational standards that will “produce Pakistanis”.
Any effort to improve education should be applauded. Few will deny the need for urgent curriculum reform. The prime minister should also be commended for expanding the discussion beyond access to education to quality of education.
But one must strike a note of caution. What does the ‘production’ of Pakistanis entail, educationally speaking? Previous dictators and governments have used the curriculum as a way to produce Pakistanis defined as pro-Islam and anti-India. Pakistan is divided along ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and social lines, and many of its citizens are marginalised and excluded. Earlier attempts at forging a national identity, imposing a common language, or concocting a shared history have had horrible consequences. Surely, this pattern is not to be replicated?
Education should be framed as a way to empower citizens.
Previous efforts to impose a religio-national identity through education have seen our textbooks littered with conspiracy theories, hateful messages and fabrications. They have contributed to misplaced national paranoia and left a young population without the knowledge and skills to survive in a competitive world. Any meaningful curriculum reform should seek to correct this.
But questions about what should be included in a national curriculum will be divisive and emotive. The state was recently held to ransom by religious right-wing groups who are likely to have strong opinions about what should be taught nationwide. Private schools offering progressive curricula have been subject to threats of violence and social media campaigns questioning their national loyalties. Academics involved in revising textbooks or developing curricula have also faced threats. In this climate, the government cannot enter the thicket of curriculum reform without adequate preparation to ensure that the project will not be hijacked through street agitation or worse.
The government should also avoid the temptation of quick fixes. We have seen these at the provincial level: teach Arabic to counter radicalisation; teach Chinese to increase students’ access to our ally’s knowledge economy. Such interventions that dodge the deep flaws of current curricula only further burden the system.
Academician Madiha Afzal has argued that one reason the 2006 curriculum reform effort failed was the lack of buy-in at all levels, from textbook authors to review committees and politicians. No doubt, the PTI’s first challenge will be securing buy-in for a meaningful reform process. This is tricky. Given how Pakistan is evolving, and that those tasked to produce a reformed curricula are themselves products of the existing system, we are in danger of entering a cycle of regression. The PTI also has to consider which stakeholders it will include in this process (recall that the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa included seminaries under the education department’s purview).
The way to avoid ideological and pedagogical traps is to focus not on national identity but on creating citizens. Education should be framed as a way to prepare empowered citizens — who demand their rights and resources due from the state, and hold the state accountable — and informed voters. This means a focus on facts, literacy and critical thinking.
Separately, there is danger that a national curriculum would betray the spirit of the 18th Amendment, which devolved education to the provinces. That devolution process acknowledged that national curricula can be coercive and alienating.
But it is difficult to be a purist. There is no intrinsic merit in allowing curriculum content to be dictated by the whims of provincial governments. In recent years, we have seen one province seek to introduce Jinnah’s Aug 11 speech on inclusion and minority rights in textbooks, while another has introduced the concept of jihad. Provinces focused on school enrolment and infrastructure may also lack the resources to ensure the best experts are feeding into the curriculum design process. A scenario in which Pakistanis have different interpretations of key values or events would certainly perpetuate internal strife.
A middle ground may be the best way forward. The national curriculum should guide which subjects are taught, with which methodology. The shift from rote memorisation to critical thinking and problem solving can be facilitated at the national level. Federal bodies can provide a content review function, ensuring that curricula developed by provinces are not inaccurate, radicalising, divisive, etc. But the provinces should have the freedom of input in local language, culture, history and more.
Getting curriculum reform right — or starting off by building consensus on the way forward — could be the PTI’s most transformative intervention. Let’s hope it works.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2018