The silver bullet

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Our educational curriculum and culture must change

During my Masters degree, I had the privilege of taking a course with one Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who is one of the founding scholars of the Classical Legal Studies movement. Specifically, Professor Unger, one of the greatest legal minds of his generation, taught ‘Progressive Alternatives’ – a course designed to encourage students to deconstruct the modern-day institutional structure of our society, and propose alternative socio-political paradigms that might result in ‘better’ governance and society. In one such class, the topic being discussed was ‘Education’, its contours and objectives. When the debate had raged on for a few hours, and all sorts of ideas – from the sublime to the ridiculous – had been discussed, I raised my hand to ask Professor Unger a simple, but pointed question: “What is the purpose of Education?” The learned professor pensively paced around the auditorium for a while, stopped, looked straight at me and answered: “Mr Rasool, the purpose of education is to recognise a tongue-tied prophet in every child.”

Keeping aside its blasphemous connotations, this statement embraces the collective idealism of every society and puts forth a hope that every single individual, if educated in the ‘correct’ way, has the potential – even destiny – to change the fate of humanity.

This naturally begs the question: are we living up to the promise of education in our society? Do our schools encourage students to ‘untie’ their tongues, and unshackle their brains, in order to reach their fullest potential? Are our curriculums conducive for higher learning? Will our children grow up to imbibe the ideals of a perfect society? Will our project of education open their minds to pluralistic thought? To tolerance and equality? Will they grow up to further the frontier of thought? Will they be citadels of intellect, and bastions of moral courage?

The short answer, to the extent of Pakistan, is: No.

The problem, in this regard, exists at two distinct levels. First, the curriculum of educational institution across Pakistan disseminates an intolerant, narrow-minded and biased (even bigoted) idea of history, politics, religion and even sciences. And two, compounding the issue, the ‘culture’ in most of our leading educational institutions stuns debate, discourages political speech, deters the dissemination of avant-garde ideas, and prohibits questioning beyond the prescribed circumference of faith.

The first of these two issues – curriculum review – is legal in nature, and thus easier to resolve. Under our now (amended) constitutional scheme, each province has the power to review the curricula being taught in schools within its territorial jurisdiction, and prescribe the subject matter for classroom study. Owing to a lack of jurisprudence on the issue, there is lack of clarity in regards to the extent to which the government has jurisdiction and power to dictate the curriculum of private schools (which, for example, are teaching the O and A Levels curriculum, prescribed by University of Cambridge).

In exercise of this review power, the province of Punjab, for example, has passed a Punjab Curriculum Authority Act, 2012, responsible for periodic curricular review of textbooks of schools across Punjab, along with Punjab Textbook Board Ordinance, 1962 (for the printing of the prescribed textbooks), and a Punjab Private Educational Institutions Promotion and Regulation Ordinance, 1984, entailing some (limited) powers relating to the curricula review of private schools in Punjab. And since the curriculum is determined and reviewed through legal instruments, and the resulting executive authority, the process of review and overhauling is simply a question of political will. In this regard, to ensure eradication of bias and bigotry from the minds of our students, a clear break from the past is needed; an embracing of a curriculum that embraces pluralism, that does not vilify other religions or nationalities, that does not portray the militant of the Afghan war as heroes, that does not idolise dictator generals as saviours, that does not preach hatred against people of other nationalities and races, and instead encourages the questioning of the age-old ideals of glorified martyrdom.

All this can be done with the stroke of a pen – a singular incident of legislative will, coupled with a concerted exercise of executive authority.

The second issue – discouraging the freedom of thought and expression – is cultural in nature, and thus perhaps harder to ‘fix’. Educational institutions, all across Pakistan, seem to be pursuing a policy of chilling political speech and participation of students in our national discourse. Student petitions to hold vigils, to organise rallies, to endorse causes, and support movements is discouraged on campuses. The administration and faculty of even the most liberal educational institutions are afraid of scratching at controversial issues. Discussing the blasphemy law is taboo. Teaching comparative religions is forbidden. Saadat Hasan Manto and D H Lawrence are perverts. And questioning the insidious two-faced policies of our intelligentsia is heresy.

Our educational institutions have lost sight of the fact that the endeavour of education necessarily entails a conscious effort to engage with and participate in the ongoing national discourse; that student bodies, all through history, have been the engine of social progress and political development. And that without such participation by students in our socio-political debate, we will be producing a generation of doctors, engineers and lawyers, all of whom are disconnected with the pulse of modernism, and inert as to the growing and grave trends in our society. This impotence of moral and social conscience will also spell the death of political evolution and institutional progress, without which no country or generation can ever hope to achieve its fullest potential.

For the longest time, we have been told, by politicians, social workers, and intellectuals, that education is the silver bullet against militancy, intolerance and extremism. That with education we will be able to overcome the menacing problems that our nation faces today, and graduate to a life in the promised sunlit uplands of democracy. But if Al-Qaeda members are being arrested from the graduate schools of Punjab University and NUST, if lawyers are showering rose petals at Mumtaz Qadri, if political science students from Karachi University are suspects in ethnic target killings, then we must concede that our educational curriculum and institutions are failing in eradicating the evils of our society. The silver bullet is just a myth. And those of us who still have faith in the future of this country, are simply deluding ourselves.

To stem the rot and cure an already cancerous malady, our educational curriculum and culture must change. And it must change yesterday!

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected], or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool