How to fix the curriculum issue in Punjab

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It’s not entirely about textbooks, it is about manufacturing citizenry

 

 

A general sense of discontent with the school textbooks – especially with social studies, Islamic studies, Pakistan studies, history and Urdu – prevails amongst the concerned citizenry and academia in this country.

The signs of this disquiet are visible in newspaper articles, and protests held for inclusion or exclusion of particular themes from the textbooks. But the stakeholders apprehensive about textbooks are also agitated amongst themselves too. Besides pursuing their agendas, they want to defeat their opponents. Therefore, there is no common ground for textbook argument.

And who are these contenders: the state, the secularists-liberals, the conservatives, and the technical experts. All of them have their own interests. All of them want to win the battle for themselves. All of them want to keep the politicians and the elected representatives away from the debate.

And if one of them does not want to get textbooks written as they wish, they want to exclude others from having a say in their writing.

But these skirmishes are not entirely about textbooks. These are about manufacturing citizenry: what kind of citizens should textbooks produce?

Until we start a process of settling curriculum and textbook debates in political arena, we can’t end disquiet with the curriculum and textbooks.

Let me explain this.

The secular-liberals (and leftists too, as most of them have largely been co-opted) want to develop a secular citizen to whom the religion is a private matter. In their scheme, a secular citizenry is an antidote to violent citizenship produced by Islamization policies and is a panacea for Pakistan.

They believe Islamization of the curriculum and textbooks have strengthened militant and bigoted elements in Pakistani society.

The leading expression of secular-liberal perspective came from The Subtle Subversion: The state of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, which was published by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in 2003. Of course, exclusivist ideologies in textbooks legitimize violence in a society which has deep troubles with respect for law and deliberation.

But does it suggest secularism is the solution?

The conservatives for their part want to develop Islamized or traditional citizen whose life is informed by the teachings of Islam as they interpret it. They hardly allow ordinary Muslims to interpret Islam. The conservatives see Islamization and various forms of traditionalism as the only solutions for Pakistani problems, even of terrorism and violence. Jamaat-i-Islami, Nazriya Pakistan Trust, Islami Jamiyat Talaba have resisted changes in the textbooks through institutional and street power.

Technical experts – academicians, consultants and pedagogical experts – want to develop a rational citizen developed enough to learn everything that market economy requires. They assume that the issues of textbooks stem from the inability of textbook authorities to modernize themselves. It is not that they are not concerned with ideological trappings and political matters but they want to solve all problems through technical knowledge, even the political problems too.

One must mention, there is a majority of moderates, too. But who is interested in listening to them? All energies are being spent to convert them to an ideological position.

They think if the curriculum making, textbook writing and setting of ‘student learning outcomes’ are rational, if the teachers are trained, and if the principles of pedagogy and cognitive psychology are followed, the problems of learning can be solved. They are hardly concerned about people’s aspirations, and this reflects in their denial of a role to the elected representatives. The state wants to develop a citizen who is just a citizen – apolitical, depoliticized, docile, and non-thinking – who is more concerned about surviving and who lets everything go.

The agencies such as the Punjab Textbook Board, the Council of Islamic Ideology, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs think if all the above stakeholders stop being concerned about curriculum and textbooks, they can handle everything on their own.

The legacy of such institutional design was curriculum wing at the ministry of education, which set a tradition of total domination of textbook content. Though the curriculum wing was abolished in the aftermath of 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, the undemocratic and centralist manner of creating curriculum and textbooks is still alive. The laws enacted by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Punjab after 2010 regarding education are best examples to understand the continuity of this mindset.

The Punjab government acted on such line of argument when it passed the Punjab Curriculum Authority Act 2013 without much deliberation, legislative or otherwise. It is important to mention this because an overwhelming majority of curriculum and textbook battles are fought in the Punjab.

One must mention, there is a majority of moderates, too. But who is interested in listening to them? All energies are being spent to convert them to an ideological position.

Having discussed the positions of various stakeholders, let us discuss what is inadequate about them.

Think about secular-liberal aspirations. It is difficult to understand how the replacement of religious ideology with a secularist ideology will produce an enlightened citizen? We know that many textbooks in the secularist countries are as exclusive and bigoted as Pakistani textbooks may be.

James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: Touchstone, 1995) illustrates this point well. Christopher Barnard’sLanguage, Ideology and Japanese History Textbooks (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) also documents violent, nationalistic history narrative in school textbooks in Japan. Indians are not behind any other country. Martha Nussbaum had aptly documented violence through education in her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future(The United Press of America, 2007).

Similarly conservatives argue about producing faith and tradition-based citizen as a solution to the Pakistani problems. The proponents of this position hardly acknowledge existence of sects and plural Islamic practices in Pakistan. Creating consensus on the representation of Islam in textbooks in Pakistan to them is an anathema. An everyday representation of a praying child in the textbook wins approval from one sect and disapproval from the other.

As for the visions of technical experts, one often wonders how the bypassing of cultural, ethnic and religious questions in education will promote tolerance, peace and harmony in the country.

Then technical experts can’t settle the debates of citizenship, which is highly political in its essence.

Lastly, let us talk about the state, which hardly wants to change its culture, which in turn means it is unwilling to serve its citizens. It is writing on the wall that apolitical and depoliticized citizens can’t construct a progressive and inclusive society. And the wide majority of moderates have no forum to get their positions articulated. Most of them are interested not in ideologies but in education and social mobility of their children.

So where do we go from here?

If we look at the history of curriculum and textbooks in India, we will appreciate that the Indian colonial education was designed primarily for propaganda, indoctrination, and control. In fact, curriculum and textbooks in Pakistan are governed by the political arrangements not highly different from those of the colonial state.

It is, therefore, not the presence or absence of an ideology or the lack of technical expertise but the political arrangements for the curriculum and textbooks, which produce textbooks with narrow and bigoted visions.

Creating consensus on the representation of Islam in textbooks in Pakistan to them is an anathema. An everyday representation of a praying child in the textbook wins approval from one sect happy and disapproval from the other.

But since the arrangements of the political power which produces curriculum and textbooks remain understudied, there are little efforts to suggest ways to make these structures serve the needs of education than the needs of power. As a result, the proposals for reforming textbooks are content with replacing the current Islamization ideology with secular-liberal ideology in education.

This simplistic notion of education reform needs to be questioned.

We need to understand that resolving curriculum and textbook problems will not be possible until we are willing to settle their issues in political realm. There is a need to politicize the curriculum making and textbook writing. By politicization I mean politicians and large majority of moderates debates these issues without being fixed by the ideologies. There is a need to hold curriculum and textbook hearings across the cities and villages in Pakistan to discuss the contents of textbooks in the field of social studies, history, Islamic studies, and languages. The representations and contents of these books should be negotiated democratically. The vision for citizenship should also be negotiated and owned by the people. It should not be given by the bureaucrats. The citizens should have a right to debate to decide what they want to become and what kind of society they want to shape. Citizenship should not be fabricated in the bureaucratic offices and enforced on the citizens through the textbooks.

Until we start a process of settling curriculum and textbook debates in political arena, we can’t end disquiet with the curriculum and textbooks. Of course, the universities should support this process by conducting independent research, for it will help a lot in eliminating the domination of the so-called experts and consultants of the curriculum and textbook reform debate.