In matters of State and politics, the ‘urgent’ has an uncanny ability to crowd out the ‘important’. Stuck in the urgency of a 24-hour news cycle, based primarily on the sensationalism of partisan bickering, we often tend to lose sight of the important national and policy issues. Issues such as the plight and reform of our public education system.
Unsurprisingly, ‘education reform’ finds a notable mention in all manifestos of major political parties, in most political sloganeering, and is central to the proclaimed governance model of the incumbent PTI government. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, there is no national dialogue (of any meaningful nature) about reform of the education sector. In fact, the issue is made exponentially worse by the fact that people like Akbar Ayub (who admittedly has a Matric degree to his name) have been appointed as the Education Minister of KPK.
As a result, it must be asked: what should be the purpose of education in our national paradigm, and how should we start to imagine the contours of its reform?
Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, of Harvard Law School, once famously commented, “the purpose of education is to recognize a tongue-tied philosopher in every child.” Professor Unger’s 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 public education in our society? Do our (public) schools encourage students to ‘untie’ their tongues, and unshackle their brains, in order to reach their fullest potential? Are our curriculums conducive to higher learning? Will our children grow up to imbibe the ideals of a perfect society? Will our project of public 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, at least presently, is: No.
The problem, in this regard, exists at two distinct levels. First, the curriculum of public educational institutions across Pakistan disseminates an intolerant, narrow-minded and biased (even bigoted) idea of history, politics, religion and even sciences. And second, the ‘culture’ in most of our leading public educational institutions stuns debate, discourages political speech, deters the dissemination of avante gard 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 (after the 18th Constitutional Amendment), each Province has the power to review the curricula being taught in public schools within its territorial jurisdiction, and prescribe the subject-matter for classroom study. In this regard, while a centralized (Federal) curriculum is determined, for homogenous education across Pakistan, but the Provinces have the constitutional authority to prepare and publish the manuscripts/textbooks (in accordance with the curriculum) for each class. In exercise of this power, the Province of Punjab, for example, had earlier passed a Punjab Curriculum Authority Act, 2012, (for review and selection of textbook manuscripts) and the Punjab Textbook Board Ordinance, 1962 (for printing of the textbooks). In 2015, however, these two statutory authorities were merged into one, through the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board Act, 2015. And since the curriculum as well as the development of textbooks is governed through this legal instrument, the process of review and overhauling is simply a question of political will. In this regard, to guard against an ideology of bias and bigotry amidst our students, a clear break from the past is needed; an embracing of a curriculum that promotes pluralism, does not vilify other religions or nationalities, does not portray the militants as heroes, does not preach hatred against people of other nationalities and races, and instead encourages the questioning of the age-old ideals of societal restraints.
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’. Institutions of public education, 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 organize rallies, to endorse causes, and support movements is discouraged on public school campuses. The administration and faculty of even the most liberal educational institutions are afraid to scratch controversial issues. Teaching comparative religions is forbidden. Saadat Hasan Manto and D.H. Lawrence are perverts. And questioning the policies of an entrenched status quo is heresy.
Some years back, especially after the shooting in Stoneman Douglas High School, students across the United States have taken to streets to protest against a government that is weak on gun laws. And these protests were meaningful enough for the government to consider legislative measures for curbing the gun-lobby.
When was the last time something like that happened in Pakistan?
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Under the chilling pretext of taboo issues, our educational institutions have lost sight of the fact that the endeavor of education necessarily entails a conscious effort to engage with and participate in the ongoing national discourse; that student bodies, all through world 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 confront our nation today, and will graduate to a life in the promised sunlit uplands of democracy. But if Al-Qaeda members were arrested from the graduate schools of Punjab University and NUST, if political science students from Karachi University were suspects in ethnic target killings, and a group of graduate students ganged up to lynch Mashal Khan in Abdul Wali Khan University, then we must concede that our educational curriculum and institutions are failing in eradicating the evils of our society. The silver bullet, in the circumstances, is just a myth. And those of us who still have faith in the future of this country, are simply deluding ourselves as to the promise of an educated society.
To stem the rot, and cure an already cancerous malady, our educational curriculum and culture must change. The primary obligation to effect this change rests with the PTI government; and people like Akbar Ayub are part of the problem, not its solution!