Sunday February 05, 2023

Textbooks for whom?

April 27, 2021

When development of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) began with the express objective of “erasing class differences”, observers who pointed to the pitfalls of using education in yet another attempt at social engineering were told to hold their objections until the new curriculum was released.

When the SNC became public and civil society observers pointed out the many ways it fell short of promises of mainstreaming critical thinking, creativity, tolerance, diversity, interfaith harmony, they were again told to wait until the model textbooks came out – they would be blown away. They would be so markedly improved that parents of children on the O/A-Level track would come rushing back to public school certifications. Now that Urdu and English model textbooks for grades-I to V have leaked, I have to admit to at least one thing: I am indeed blown away, but not for the promised reasons.

American philosopher John Rawls’ Original Position or ‘Veil of Ignorance’ is a thought experiment “to discover the principles that should structure a society of free, equal and moral people.” The experiment asks participants to select the organizing principles of a society without prior knowledge of what their own place and status in that society will be – age, gender, skin color, religious belief, level of education, wealth, economic circumstances, occupation, level of authority, etc. Rawls posits that this would lead participants to converge to an impartially and rationally selected set of principles.

Today I will review the books I obtained from the perspective of non-Muslim Pakistanis and evaluate whether these could have been developed from behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Spoiler alert: The revolution in textbooks that we were promised is nowhere to be found.

Inclusion, diversity, and respect for others are not learned through one-off mentions in an isolated subject/ lesson. Children usually acquire these values when embedded across the curriculum. While the model textbooks reinforce being Muslim, even in English and Urdu textbooks, they fail to normalize equality for religious minorities.

For example, in English, content that will foster inclusion is a token at best. A simple quantitative analysis of names appearing in lessons shows that of 49 unique names found in the grade-I English textbook, about 11 were not typical Muslim names; In grade-II that drops to six and then to zero in grades III, IV and V (save for a single mention of ‘John’ in a grade-V writing exercise). Not surprising then that when I asked Rumesh and a large group of his Christian friends, residing in a dominantly Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, if they remembered seeing names like theirs in any school textbooks. They could not remember any, but they remembered the most common names – Ali and Ahmed.

The only token acknowledgement of people of other faiths I could find was a paragraph about Dr Ruth Pfau and a picture depicting Holi and another of Christmas. On the other hand, content reinforcing mainstream Muslim lifestyle is interwoven throughout. Things look even bleaker in Urdu textbooks. Minorities are excluded as if they do not exist.

A review of the grade-I to V Urdu textbooks shows that roughly half to two-thirds of lessons contain clear elements of Islamic preaching or teaching. A reading exercise in a chapter in Urdu grade V – instead of spurring primary schoolers’ imagination and sense of wonder, asking critical questions and tying it in with lessons in Science – turns it into Islamiat content.

When subjects like Urdu and English are laden with religious content, teaching literacy skills, which should be the focus, takes a back seat – a frequent critique of past textbooks. The model textbooks repeat that mistake. For example, a chapter on caliphs in grade-IV English, includes questions; “What is the meaning of Al-Farook?” and “Who was the first child to accept Islam?” Clearly, the questions have little to do with learning English as a language.

Teachers often do not confine their explanations to what is in the syllabus but go off the reservation, tacking on their personal views, particularly on matters of religion. To understand what this can do to children of faiths or sects other than that of the majority, consider the following incident that happened at an expensive private school. The school principal shared that a little girl came to her crying because the Islamiat teacher had explained in class that only Muslims would go to heaven, all others would go to hell. The child was terrified for her Christian mother’s eternal fate.

When the issue of religious content outside of Islamiat textbooks is raised, ministry officials refer to guidelines in textbooks that offer sending non-Muslim students out of the classroom as a solution. In a subject like Urdu that would mean these students would miss more than half of their lessons and incur significant learning losses. Aside from purely educational reasons, this ‘solution’ is problematic because it requires children to identify themselves as ‘others’, akin to pinning a yellow star on their school uniforms.

Another troublesome chapter in grade-III Urdu is titled ‘Hum Aik Hain’ (We are one). Judging by the title, you would expect this to be an inclusive lesson fostering national unity and social cohesion. Instead, the chapter explicitly teaches that being a Muslim transcends national boundaries and that the most fundamental bond a Muslim has is with fellow Muslims, to the exclusion of fellow citizens that are adherents of other faiths. There is not a single lesson at any grade level in these two subjects that says anything remotely similar about national integration regardless of religious faith. It is a textbook lesson that implicitly deepens divisions (pun intended).

Discrimination and exclusion are often acquired from implicit messaging – for example, by exclusively depicting a dominant religious group, sex or race in books while not acknowledging the existence of others.

We may have limited influence on external attempts to unravel national integration (disinformation campaigns, information warfare on social media), but it is in our power to make sure textbooks do not further aid such efforts. The rights of majority Muslims are under no threat in Pakistan, but that is in stark contrast to the challenges to social and national cohesion and the rights of religious, ethnic and sectarian minorities. I ask: how is anyone who opposes working towards social harmony and national unity not, wittingly or unwittingly, playing into the hands of external rivals?

A simple educational matter of the well-being of all children has been turned into a religious matter and is being exploited by, what Russians call, ‘useful idiots.’ But I cannot lay the blame for this debacle at the feet of textbook authors. I do not expect graduates from a third-rate education system with minimum second-division degrees (as per advertised eligibility) to produce first-class textbooks. I cannot expect books to be non-discriminatory when the list of authors and reviewers is composed solely of members of the majority community, probably brought up in and conditioned by the same school system they have been called upon to fix.

This responsibility falls on the people much further up the chain who launched this project. Would senior members of the NCC please step up and explain in what way these textbooks are ‘100 percent different’ from government textbooks of the last few decades, as they claimed?

Knowing the rules of the society we have built, would you ever want to grow up in today’s Pakistan as anything other than a Sunni-Muslim?

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.