A single curriculum is no solution

It is a dark alley we are entering. I hope I am wrong but this is my honest opinion

The government has recently come up with what it calls a ‘single curriculum’ for Classes 1-5. Let me first acknowledge that some important subjects, previously neglected, have been introduced. Among these are hygiene, care of neighbours and some idea of politeness markers in speech and body language. These, I have always contended, should be taught in all schools and to all students. These are part of general knowledge curriculum, however, whereas they deserve to be subjects in their own right. Also, the ahadith have been well-chosen.

Now I come to what I find alarming: there is a greater burden of learning on all students; no incentive for critical thinking and an increase in intolerance, sectarianism and discrimination against religious minorities.

Let us look at the learning burden first. What children were taught at the maktab (the junior schools in the madarsa system), namely, Quran nazira (i.e reading without translation or memorising), will now be taught in all schools. In addition to that, the hadith, which was taught in the madrasa but not in the maktab, will also be taught.

Muslim children have always been taught reading of Holy Quran at their homes. So the basic change here is to transfer this obligation to the schools. Will this have any unintended consequences? Yes, it will increase memorisation since children will be asked to memorise the texts from both the Quran and the ahadith.

When parents teach children the Quran there are no examinations to test the children’s memory. Moreover, parents can space out the learning of the sacred texts over as many years as they think appropriate whereas the schools will allow no flexibility.

The ahadith were never memorised by children; now that they will be examined, it will be required. Lest anyone should imagine that only the children of secular schools will face this additional burden, I should add that the madrasa children will also suffer. If they take the matriculation and intermediate examinations, they will have to learn their own subjects besides mathematics, Urdu, English and general knowledge, including science.

The maktab ends at Class 8 and the Dars-i-Nizami starts with Oola (9th) followed by Sania (10th).The Arabic courses in the Oola and Sania alone include several medieval books on grammar: Mizan as Sarf, Munsha’ib, Nahw-i- Mir and so on.

Besides the traditional books, the children have to learn Arabic from more modern texts with emphasis on memorisation. If anyone thinks this will leave them sufficient time to tackle modern subjects also—and this makes me think of the overladen satchels of our children and the loads of homework they are given—I would politely ask that person to go study in a madrasa.

Another real-life aspect of the matter which the architects of this single curriculum never thought about is that it simply is not ‘single’ anyway. The children of religious minorities will still be taught other subjects during the time Muslim children are made to memorise what the teachers order. Whether what these children study is as difficult, as demanding and how they are taught is one problem.

I am most concerned with the ‘othering’ these children will be subjected to. Their class fellows will see them going out and will be told by insensitive teachers that they are ‘unbelievers’. Thus, the minorities will be further alienated and ostracised in our schools. There is already a study by the SDPI called, Connecting the Dots, which makes it clear that Hindu children are forced by teachers to study Islamic studies. Some teachers even taunt them calling them ‘idol worshippers’ and ‘kafir’ and so on. Will this discrimination be extended now to Christians, Sikhs and Ahmadis? Incidentally, the last mentioned religious minority revere the Quran as their holy book, so what will they study?

If the present trend of including large parts of madrasa education continues, another consequence of the policy of single curriculum in senior classes will be creating the potential for further religious polarisation. While there may be some sectarian undertones even in teaching up to Class 5, the senior classes will have more amplified versions of those.

The madaris teach refutation of other points of view (radd). Indeed, the debates (munazara) in all schools of thought—Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Hadith, Shia, etc—teach students how to refute the beliefs of the other sects and sub-sects. So, at this stage, even the teaching of Islamic history (Jang-i-Jamal, for instance) and hadith will lead to controversies. Moreover, even if the exegesis of the Quran is not formally taught, the maulvis will refer to it and their interpretations of verses will vary.

Let me be blunt for a change: I think this pursuit of sameness in the name of equity and justice is a blunder; I think it has the potential to increase religious and sectarian controversy and increase intolerance: I think it will not help children become more gender-sensitive.

The traditional Sunni exegetes, the modernists (progressives) and the radical Islamists (among whom there are some militant groups) will interpret the same verses in different ways, leading to controversy. The Pakistan Army has already experienced this state of affairs when fighting the Taliban in what used to be the FATA. Initially, some of our soldiers got seduced by the militant interpretations they heard from radical Islamist preachers. Some even defected but the army succeeded in containing this tendency. Will we be able to control the preachers we recruit for our schools and colleges? Suppose some students prefer the more radical interpretations they hear or read?

The government claims that students will develop critical thinking. The instructional model of the madrasa system is based upon memorisation because the system is based on preservation and respect for the past and not on questioning. Modern science, on the other hand, is based on questioning the past not revering it; on critical thinking not on uncritical acceptance of authority. The two paradigms are based on different ways of responding to the world and if we want critical thinking to increase, then we would have to develop analytical skills and questioning. Will this aim be served by this large dose of memorisation and the basic premise of unquestioning acceptance of what the teacher tells us?

Yet another factor which nobody seems to have paid sufficient attention to is the huge influx of madrasa graduates in schools to teach Islamic studies. As it is, our society is critical of those who are different from the majority or the fashionable normative framework. Teachers of religion, no matter what sect they belong to, will probably be critical of girls who dress differently from what they prescribe. As they will operate in the name of the sacred, they will be difficult to refute or ignore.

Girls and women teachers will either be forced to change their lifestyle or bear the guilt of appearing as sinners. Indeed, with so many religious teachers in all institutions the very atmosphere of these institutions will change. We will have less tolerance for Western dresses, liberal ideas, religious minorities and even certain sects and sub-sects. So, how can we employ madrasa graduates? Well, they are specialists in theology and there are places for them in the mosque and seminary system. However, the state should not abandon poor children so that they are forced to study in the free madrasas. State schools should teach all children so that only those committed to a clerical life study the Dars-i-Nizami and graduate from a madrasa.

From a personal point of view, the whole thing is ironical for me because some of my work (Denizens of Alien Worlds, 2004 for instance) has been quoted in support of the present policy. What I was interested in was justice and equity, not sameness.

I had argued that all children, as far as possible, should be taught in their mother languages during the first three years of education. Then, I suggested, secular schools should teach English as a library language through the most innovative and interesting methods of instruction (play, drama, real-life dialogue, film, song, etc). However, the medium of instruction should be the language of wider communication (Urdu or maybe Sindhi in parts of Sindh).

Higher education, however, should be in English in all subjects. I also said that more liberal-humanist texts should be prepared in Urdu and that modern knowledge should be translated into it. My aim was to dilute the advantage rich people in English-medium schools have in South Asia. I also never envisaged that we should abandon English at the higher level as it is a world language. I did advocate making some core subjects the same. These were hygiene, basic preventive medicine, mental health, environment, human rights, women rights (anti-harassment sensitiveness) and world history.

I thought they should be taught to all students in Urdu supplanted with English videos and films. But the history and heroes of ethnic groups (Sindhi, Pashtun, Balochi, Punjabi, Seraiki, Urdu-speaking people, other ethnic and linguistic minorities etc.) would be different, not the same. I also suggested that, with schools not using English as a medium of instruction, the O- and A- level examinations will come to an end. I knew that the English-medium schools would be up in arms against my suggestion. I know now that none of the things I suggested, including an end to O- and A-level system, has been accepted in the new policy. To suggest that I recommended the idea of sameness in education is simply ignorance.

Let me be blunt for a change: I think this pursuit of sameness in the name of equity and justice is a blunder; I think it has the potential to increase religious and sectarian controversy and increase intolerance: I think it will not help children become more gender-sensitive or caring for the environment or aware of health issues. In short, it is a dark alley we are entering. I hope I am wrong but this is my honest opinion.

 The writer is a linguistic historian

A single curriculum is no solution