IN theory, education should be the great leveller. However, in many other post-colonial nations like Pakistan it is quite the opposite. Parallel systems of education in this country — private, public and madressah — generally serve to reinforce social divisions and act as a barrier to economic mobility. Justice, therefore, demands such a system be overhauled. In this context, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, while attending an education seminar in London, reiterated a long-standing promise of Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a conversation with this paper, Mr Mahmood said that a uniform curriculum developed with the consensus of all stakeholders would be implemented across the board — in government and private schools as well as madressahs. He observed that at present the only career option for seminary students is to become prayer leaders, but that after sitting their board exams they would be eligible for “careers in the military, the police, or anywhere in the mainstream job market”.
Aside from the injustice of having an educational framework where only a rarefied elite has access to the best career choices, creating a level playing field is also a practical concern. Education is a critical component of madressah reform, an issue that acquired greater urgency over the years as religious extremism tightened its grip on the country. It is true that only a small minority of seminaries, out of an estimated total of some 30,000 in total, have been imparting jihadist teachings, but young people frustrated by limited avenues of career advancement tend to be more easily seduced by extremist ideologies that can impart a sense of agency. However, standardising the curriculum should not be at the cost of the overall quality of education, otherwise everyone stands to lose. An equally important consideration is the pedagogical method. After all, many madressahs have long taught ‘worldly’ subjects to their students but critical thinking is alien to their approach. Of utmost importance therefore is the recruitment of suitable teachers who will impart lessons in the uniform curriculum in a way that actually benefits the students when they test the waters of the job market. That will not be an easy task: madressahs, accustomed to being essentially independent entities, have resisted multiple efforts at what they perceive as state ingress into their functioning. However, the government by making madressah reform part of the national education reform initiative may have adopted a course more acceptable to these institutions.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2020