The single national curriculum and the problems of education

A hurried implementation of the proposed SNC is not going to help anyone

The Single National Curriculum recently proposed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government has triggered acrimony in several segments of society, and the reverberations of this can be heard from one end of Pakistan to the other. Because of my own abiding interest in education, I feel drawn to scrutinise the SNC even though much of what I want to say has already been said. Prof Tariq Rahman’s insightful analysis of various provisions of the SNC, indeed, leaves extraordinarily little for one to ruminate over and posit.

I earnestly believe that by making the SNC public rather hastily, the government has opened a can of worms which has added to the myriad problems that it has to contend with. Two of the SNC’s components have drawn particularly trenchant flak. First and the foremost is the role entrusted to religion in the proposed system of instruction and second which, too, is equally significant, is the medium of instruction.

Both these issues are vital and contentious. They are, as in the past, deployed as instruments of homogenisation in a country that has ethnic, lingual, cultural and sectarian plurality. But stress on these two tools of homogenisation in the past has yielded a result that was diametrically opposite to the intended harmony.

Religion and a single national language engendered parochialism. Sectarian and ethnic fissures got crystallised and in the 1990s and 2000s, exclusionary tendencies became perilously pronounced. Keeping all this in view, it becomes even more critical for decision-making bodies to be extremely circumspect while underscoring religion and Urdu language as the seminal features of the education policy. Many commentators have already expressed their concerns about the impact such a curriculum is likely to have in further alienating religious and ethnic minorities.

The aim of this entire exercise is to bring the parallel system of the madrassa into the educational mainstream, an undertaking that none of the previous governments had the vision to execute. Those having stakes in the continuity of the madrassa tradition have resisted any such measure, conceived to reform that hackneyed system.

A few months ago, Mr Shafqat Mahmood, the federal minister for education, invited several scores of educationists and members of the intelligentsia to seek their opinion. I tried to persuade him that the PTI government must allow several languages, including English, to be taught and give all of them the status of national languages.

Why cannot we propound a version of (Pakistani) English because that is a language of power and a source of employment? I argued that by circumscribing to the dominance of Urdu, the prospects of Pakistani youth to seek employment globally would be drastically reduced and in the professional fields they would lose the competitive edge, if at all they have any.

If all the reforms proposed by the SNC are implemented, the first few years will be lost to experimentation because no new policy initiative automatically fits into the existing situation. Initial reforms are mostly followed by several alterations to bring the policy in consonance with the existing disposition and the psychological make-up of the people at large. The possibility of a new policy backfiring also cannot be ruled out. That period of transition is one of pain and anguish.

Those forming and implementing policies should also be mindful of the fact that, in post-colonial societies, every language, social tradition, and fundamental postulates of pedagogy are the outcomes of a pre-independence interface between the colonial power and the representatives of the natives. Therefore, in a post-colonial society like Pakistan, calling anything purely and solely our own, is just a misnomer. Running after socio-religious imaginaries is of no use.

Shafqat Mahmood, astute and erudite as he is, alluded to a stark fact, the gravity of which cannot be understated. A student from one educational stream (he meant English medium schools like Aitchison or Karachi Grammar School, etc) cannot even start a conversation with a student hailing from another stream (he must be implying a student from a madrassa). While inhabiting the same country, their world views, language, ambitions, and career options do not converge at any stage. They are traversing different paths, seeking different destinies. The mutual alienation is frightening.

It goes without saying that such a situation is ominous for the future of the country which has a citizenry split at several levels. Thus, socio-epistemic distancing among the Pakistani youth must be bridged sooner than later for any homogenizing SNC to be feasible.

The minister’s concerns were justified, and his social diagnosis too was valid. However, dismantling the existing structure of school education to improve the state of the madrassa, hardly makes sense. English education at least opens avenues to the wider world of which we want to be an integral part. An isolationist policy, based on hyper-nationalism, which does not recognize Pakistan’s presence in the comity of nations, will only lead to further problems at home.

A streamlining of the madrassa system, which is the fundamental motive of the Single National Curriculum, can, I am sure, be pursued differently. Here is one suggestion that might help address the concerns regarding possible promotion of sectarianism and religious bigotry raised by most critics.

The government should consider dedicating a government school with boarding facilities at every tehsil level to be used for housing students from poor families, who will be fed, lodged, and instructed free of cost by the government. In addition, the government should pay a monthly stipend to the parents of those students as an incentive for them to educate their kids in these schools instead of sending them to madrassas.

The general perception is that many families send their sons to madrassas because in a madrassa, poor students are enrolled and provided free lodging, clothing and food. Thus, a madrassa student passes out completely indoctrinated and without any skill to speak of, except being able to lead prayers in a mosque. The government school, in the scheme I am proposing, will be an effective alternative to the madrassa. The curriculum of those schools should teach Islam with a South Asian specificity, with Arabic and Persian as allied disciplines. Such schools must provide a less militarised version of the education provided at cadet colleges, while replicating their discipline. Such students should be instructed in skills through which they can have employability.

It must be stressed that such a system of school education that helps bring the madrassa into the mainstream of education cannot be envisaged and implemented in a hurry. This scheme would take decades to bring successful results. Perhaps the SNC’s most obvious fault is that its architects imagine a quick solution to the problems they have set out to address.

However, as the views of most educationists have shown, the SNC poses considerable problems. Perhaps consultation is needed with senior academics and educationists not included in the first round before critical decisions are taken. A hurried implementation of the proposed SNC is not going to help anyone.

The single national curriculum and the problems of education