By Zubair Torwali
Pakistan has always been in search of a national identity. It has been obsessed with finding a collective identity for the nation-state since its inception in 1947, and this is still apparent in the country’s education policies and curriculums.
The emphasis on forging an identity through public education in Pakistan has made education a tool of nation-building at the cost of critical thinking and civic imagination and at the expense of diversity, empathy, and coexistence. The goal of homogenization through education has long been evident in its policies and is the central premise of the so-called Single National Curriculum put forward by the current government led by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party.
Since the Single National Curriculum (SNC) was made public in Pakistan this year, it has been a hot topic for educationists, academia, and media. The debate centers around the question of why Pakistan needs a curriculum set by the federal government when education was devolved to the provinces through the 18th constitutional amendment in 2010. Critics say the SNC is a means of undoing this at the behest of the powerful military establishment that has repeatedly expressed dislike of the 18th Amendment, and they say it’s a way to further indoctrinate an already conservative society.
A curriculum consists of a body of knowledge to be imparted, a set of expected learning outcomes, a guide to achieving these objectives, and methods to measure the outcomes. The SNC’s proponents claim the lofty goal of an education system with equal opportunities for all. Since education in Pakistan is starkly divided along the lines of equality of opportunity and access, quality of learning, educational aims, social class, and parental income, the idea of an equal education system taps into the imagination of a majority of Pakistanis. But in truth the SNC represents a set of centralized objectives, rules, and guidelines not based on sound research or a proper national consensus.
The SNC focuses on political and moral aims that ignore the cognitive and behavioral objectives of education. This is discernible in the wording of the document outlining the curriculum and is evident in its defense by the education minister and his advisers. The heart of it is based on a zeal to bring madrasahs — schools for religious teachings that teach Islam exclusively — into mainstream public education and the desire to build a homogenous nation.
The West considers Pakistan’s madrasahs sanctuaries of religious extremism and terrorism and has long pressured the country to reform and regularize them. But regularizing them has always been a hotly contested issue; no government has ever been able to reform madrasah education. The religious schools cater to the needs of the poorest echelons of society and function as boarding schools where children can receive not only free education but food and shelter, as well.
Every attempt at reform in the past has been forcibly resisted by the government. And now it seems that to avoid any backlash in a bid to mainstream madrasahs the government is conceding to religious leaders by including more religious content from the madrasah curriculum into the public school system — which has no shortage of such content to begin with.
English, meanwhile, is to be taught as a language, not a subject. This deceptively simple statement implies that language is a carrier of a particular ideology, civilization, and ethos. Under the new curriculum, English is to be taught as a bundle of grammatical rules and a means of communication only. How can a language be dissociated from the history, power, culture, values, literature, and imagination it carries? The designers of the SNC ignore this question.
The SNC builds upon the political aspect of education by seeking to homogenize Pakistanis using assimilation, which achieves uniformity through an imposed unified culture denying the validity of other cultures. This is Pakistan’s nation-building project.
Such indoctrination in education will prevent creativity and critical thinking for generations of Pakistanis. This is done by instilling beliefs in students in such a way that they become unable or unwilling to evaluate or question those beliefs independently. It is a form of teaching that steers students to unquestioningly embrace a specific doctrine, religious or political. Critical thinking, on the other hand, assesses the beliefs, judgments, and actions on the basis of relevant evidence and reason.
Another question that critics have asked regards the inclusion of Pakistan’s other languages in public education. The values of social justice and respect require that each group’s values, traditions, and beliefs should be regarded as equally legitimate, and advocates for diversity maintain that cultural multiplicity must also be reflected in education. In Pakistan, there are over 66 languages spoken, including the major languages such as Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, and Urdu. The diversity of languages, customs, lifestyles, basic beliefs, and values must also be reflected in a country’s curriculum.
The SNC ignores Pakistan’s cultural diversity and deems languages other than Urdu unworthy of either educational or cultural value. It mentions the “promotion of diversity of culture and languages especially regional languages of Pakistan” in the Urdu grade 1-5 curriculum. Languages not labeled as regional languages will be ignored. Moreover, the SNC states that the “diversity of culture and languages” will be taught through Urdu, which means using Urdu to assimilate all other languages and cultures. Regional languages get a mention because speakers of these languages have some political clout, while those who speak the “others” have no political voice and usually live on the margins of society and are hence denied recognition.
The obsession with education’s political and moral aims and the apathy toward Pakistan’s cultural and linguistic diversity renders the SNC a propaganda and indoctrination tool.
Zubair Torwali is a researcher, author, an activist, and educator based in Swat Pakistan. Zubair has published works in English, Urdu, and in the Torwali language. His book in English, Muffled Voices, provides insight into Pakistan’s social, cultural, and political issues. He co-founded Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), an organization focused on education, development, and the empowerment of the marginalized mountain communities of upper Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, in Pakistan.