On August 16, PM Imran Khan launched the Single National Curriculum (SNC). He claimed it will unify the country, remove class divisions, and eliminate the ‘mental slavery’ that the British colonial system of education had imposed.
SNC’s launch has faced mixed reactions. But its defenders are responding to criticism in a rather rhetorical manner. Many of them are of the view that those critiquing the SNC do not understand that every nation-state requires one. Truth is, this is not what the criticism is about. It is largely about the content that the SNC carries.
Indeed, after its creation in 1947, Pakistan did adopt a curriculum that had been evolved by the British in India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The English language, the sciences, law and economics were at the core of this curriculum. And even though room in it was also made for vernacular languages, there was no such space for religious instruction. This was to be gained from specific religious schools, or at home.
Nation-states are the sum of economic, political and social integration. To continue supplying this integrated arrangement with talent, a national curriculum attempts to impart unified knowledge that fulfils this task. Till the late 1960s, the Pakistani state and governments overwhelmingly applied the ‘modernisation theory’ that was internationally the preferred model of economic and social development in the mid-20th century. The curriculum that Pakistan had adopted from the British, sat well with this model.
The historian Patricia Crone writes, in her book Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, that economics and science were two vital organs of the post-18th century concept of modernity. This modernity was firmly attached to progress through industrialisation and the formation of nation-states with integrated economies and societies.
Crone insists that economics and science, in this context, are required to remain as flexible and fluid as possible because, unlike in pre-modern societies, change was more rapid in modern ones. Therefore, science and economics require ample space to expand, mutate and evolve accordingly. Crone adds that if science, economics and the educational system are tightly attached to a dogmatic ideology, they become stagnant.
The defenders of the Single National Curriculum are not addressing the real criticism directed against it — that its content is constrained by the same myopia that put the country out of step with the needs of a modern world
This is what happened in Pakistan. Even though work to formulate a core curriculum framework began in 1967, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the first real steps were taken in this regard. During the government of Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77), an education policy was rolled out that focused on vanquishing illiteracy through ‘free universal education.’
A large number of educational institutions were nationalised. This was mainly because rural-to-urban migrations had increased manifold during the robust industrialisation period of the 1960s. The demand and need for education had steadily increased. Naturally, nationalised educational institutions with subsidised fee structures were able to absorb a large number of new entrants from low-income groups.
The contents of textbooks were gradually altered as well. This change was influenced by a new nationalist narrative that was emerging after the acrimonious loss of East Pakistan in 1971. According to the educationalist Rubina Saigol, the narrative was highly myopic. From the mid-1970s onwards, Islamic subjects too were made compulsory in schools. There are two reasons for this. First, it was felt that Islam needed to be more aggressively integrated into the new narrative for the sake of ‘national unity’, which was apparently being threatened by the nationalist politics of non-Punjabi ethnic groups after the ‘East Pakistan debacle.’
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Secondly, it was believed that, to attract rural migrants and rural folk towards getting an education, Islam could be a bait of sorts, because this segment had begun to see the previous modernisation model as elitist and anti-traditionalist. The results were disastrous. An ideology was tightly attached to every subject taught in the new syllabus and, also, not much was invested in the quality of teachers hired to teach at nationalised schools. Standards plummeted.
But the experiment wasn’t over yet. Gen Zia’s 1979 education policy stated that “priority will be given to revision of the curricula with a view to reorganising the entire content around Islamic thought and giving education an ideological orientation so that Islamic ideology permeates the thinking of the younger generation.”
The results of this policy were curious. Whereas, understandably, education’s contribution to Pakistan’s already dwindling scientific output continued to decline, there was an increase in the contribution to some financial institutions, mainly banks and multinationals. However, these contributions were mostly emerging from private ‘English medium’ educational institutions. Their syllabus had incorporated Zia’s conservatism too, but they paired it with ideas close to the dictatorship’s policies of economic liberalisation and deregulation.
In 1991, the first Nawaz Sharif government admitted that the post-1960s’ education policies had failed. But, ironically, while education was outsourced to a variety of private businesses on the one hand, the syllabus at nationalised schools was made even more myopic on the other. This time the curriculum was attached to a ‘Shariah Act’ that called for an even more systematic ‘Islamisation’ of education.
Educational standards and the contribution of educational institutions to the country’s economic and scientific outputs have continued to plunge. Research that I conducted for a book in 2018 showed that, between the 1990s and 2010, there was a manifold increase students at state-owned universities doing their Masters in theological subjects.
There is nothing wrong in introducing theological fields of study in the curriculum. But, as Crone points out, the problem arises when other subjects too become sharply shaped by an ideology. In our case, political Islam. And this is exactly what the SNC really is.
A national curriculum’s foremost aim is to prepare astute citizens who can innovate and originate new ideas in a world driven by the ever-evolving dynamics of economics and science, and consequently make the nation-state a competitive player in the international arena. Of course, a national curriculum is also supposed to help keep a people as a unified national whole. But this alone cannot be its sole purpose.
PM Khan’s SNC is packed with even more of what the curriculum was already loaded with after the mid-1970s. The SNC’s contents are influenced by half-baked and somewhat naive middle-class urban cultural perceptions of Pakistani society and the world at large. Therefore, each and every field of study in SNC will remain constrained by this myopic worldview.
The SNC may produce fiery moralists and theologians, both traditionalist and postmodernist, who can offer arguments against competing ideologies during meaningless mental parlour games. But never can this SNC produce scientists or economists of any merit or practical use.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 29th, 2021