No one is convinced of the need for reforms

Educationist Faisal Bari focuses on the need to reform our education system and how

No one is convinced of the need for reforms

The News on Sunday (TNS): The failure of the state is often traced in the curricula being taught in Pakistani schools and textbooks are said to contain hate material. Do you think there is something else in the school environment besides the textbooks that is harming the minds?

Faisal Bari (FB): There is plenty of evidence of hate material, undesirable material, material inducing narrowness of worldview and intolerance in our textbooks. Nayyar, Hoodbhoy, Aamir Riaz, Abbas Rasheed, Rubina Saigol and many others have done textual and curricular analyses to bring out the problems. Though there have been periodic attempts at reform, they have not been able to fully address the shortcomings.

There are a number of reasons for that. Where is the call for reform coming from, who are the people involved in the reform, what are their credentials, are they actually interested in the reform or are they just deflecting the calls for reform, what sort of pressures are present on the people working on reform: pressures from society as well as any sub-groups within the society (the latest case of that pressure on Dr. Bernadette L. Dean has been in the papers recently).

Are area experts, intellectuals, academics leading the effort? Have educational bureaucracies been captured by any sub-groups or is society being held hostage to any sub-group (right now the entire society seems to be a hostage to extremists)? We have not been able to address all of the concerns mentioned above…it is no surprise that efforts at reform have not been successful.

But the debate is larger. Even if curricula and books could be reformed/changed adequately, if the teachers and administrators of schools do not agree with the changes, continue to believe in things contrary to the changes and/or the spirit of the changes, the changes will not have much of an effect on the students. We have had curriculum/books issues for decades now. Existing set of teachers and administrators have been taught with the same books. Changes in books now, even if adequate, will not address the issue of existing knowledge and/or orientation of the existing set of teachers.

This needs to be addressed through teacher training as well as change of culture/environment of schools. This has not been tried in all book reform efforts that have been undertaken so far. And it is not easy to do as well. The number of teachers requiring re-training is formidable enough. But to retrain on deeper issues like tolerance, etc., that go to challenging the mindset of the teacher, we need deeper tools, we need more time and we need a larger consensus in society that this needs to happen. I do not see any of these currently.

Recently, I was in the principal’s office of a girl’s public high school. She had a sticker prominently displayed in her room: Qadiani ka jo yaar hai, Ghaddar hai, Ghaddar hai. This is not an issue of books. It is an issue of the mindset of teachers and administrators. Changing that is a harder job and requires a broader consensus in society. That consensus does not seem to be there.

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TNS: So, if the mindset of the teacher is part of the problem, is there any way to train the teachers into unlearning some of the lessons they learnt? What’s the best way to break this cycle of indoctrination?

FB: This is the hardest problem to address. How do we change mindsets? Clearly, some necessary conditions have to be met. There has to be an agreement in society that mindset is a problem…and need to be addressed. Teachers have to be convinced they need to change their thinking. Only then will good tools, like better curriculum and/or books, will be of help. It seems we are in a very right wing, conservative and intolerant phase in our history. I do not see any consensus that says that society needs to change its mindset. We do not have that consensus at the level of teachers, too. And we do not have the right material (books) also. So, how is this change going to take place? It will not. In fact, right now, it seems there is a strong counter argument. A part of our society is arguing that it is in more conservatism, stricter adherence to a narrower code and stricter practice that our salvation lies in. Given this, how can mindsets be challenged and/or altered?

TNS: There have been task forces and curriculum reform committees assigned the job of reviewing textbooks but no substantial change is allowed to take place. Dr Bernadette L. Dean is a case in point who had to leave the country recently. Do you think the state is committed to curriculum changes but is helpless in the face of non-state actors representing the religious right?

FB: I do not think the ‘state’ or ‘society’ is convinced that curricular changes are needed and there is no commitment as well. There is definitely pressure of non-state actors on individuals and the state, but the state also uses the issue of pressure to feign helplessness. The basic issue is that neither the state nor society is convinced yet of the need for reforms. If the conviction was there, there would be more space for resisting pressure from non-state actors.

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TNS: A.H. Nayyar in his 2003 report, The Subtle Subversion had pointed out the faults in textbooks like insensitivity to religious diversity, incitement for violence, bigotry, etc. If the state were free to bring about true reforms in the education sector, what would be your suggestions in order of priority?

FB: The issue cannot be cut this way in my opinion. The emphasis should be on giving needed skills, giving skills for critical thinking and engagement, more realistic picture of history, citizenship education, engagement with literature and local knowledge, and, generally, a more thoughtful engagement with curriculum in any subject. If the approach changes, almost all of the issues mentioned above will be simultaneously addressed and the priority that is being asked for will not be needed.

TNS: How do you respond to the suggestion that no child under the age of 16 should have to go to a madrassa?

FB: Given our Constitutional commitment to all 5-16 year olds, they should all have access to quality education that is free and compulsory. So, education is a right as well as an obligation. Given that, no child should be out of mainstream schools before 16. Madrassa, if it does not also impart mainstream education, should not have children prior to 16 years. Neither should any other type of institution. Nor should we have any children who are not in schools…so the question is not just about Madrassa.

No one is convinced of the need for reforms