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Zia’s spiritual children - From schoolbooks to religious vigilantism: An interview with A H Nayyar

17 January 2011

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The News on Sunday, 16 January 2011


"These are Zia’s spiritual children"

— A. H. Nayyar, academic and peace activist

by Farah Zia

TNS: The response to the Salman Taseer murder is a grim reminder of what people like you warned time and again. Some people now are saying that in today’s Pakistan, a literate person is more dangerous than an illiterate person? What and how much is the contribution of wrong education in creating this mindset?

A.H. Nayyar: Back in 1984, when Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and I were examining the history textbooks of Pakistan for our chapter in Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s book Islam, Politics and the State, it was possible for us to see the impact of the changes in curriculum being brought about by Ziaul Haq on the young minds. We had noted, "A new concept of education now prevails, the full impact of which will probably be felt by the turn of the century, when the present generation of school children attains maturity." I think what we see now is precisely Zia’s legacy. These are Zia’s spiritual children who practice, advocate and approve religious vigilantism. Numerous studies have shown that the public education system in its present form is as much responsible, if not more, as the Madrassas for the raging militancy in the country.

Pakistani education system faces a challenge of textbooks and learning material for students that are (1) attractive to students, (2) pedagogically sound, (3) free of errors, (4) and, more attuned to enhancing learning abilities of students than impacting them ideologically.

TNS: Did the curriculum wing of the ministry of education make any changes in the text books after your last report "The Subtle Subversion" in 2002?

A.H.N: As a result of the intense debate on the curriculum and textbooks in 2004, the Federal Ministry of Education set up special task forces to (1) devise new school curricula, (2) draft a new national education policy, and (3) draft a textbooks policy. The school curricula were revised for all the subjects and made public in 2006. A National Textbooks and Learning Materials Policy was drafted and adopted in 2007, and passing through several processes, the new National Education Policy was put in place in 2009.

The new curricular guidelines clearly corrected the wrong the old ideology-driven curriculum had in it. The new guidelines were professionally designed, focusing more on the competencies to be generated in young students than on making a narrow-minded, uncritical and bigoted believer out of them.

The new textbooks policy envisaged a system allowing multiple school textbooks produced by private publishers, and turned provincial textbook boards from being the sole publisher and printer of textbooks into more of a regulatory body.

The new National Educational Policy, however, remained, like its predecessors, a collection of pious rhetorics, tall promises and misguided priorities, a document that no one believes in, and no one will open for the rest of its life.

The above changes all came during the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. It is amazing how little attention education receives during the few democratic spells during the last two decades. After initial mishandling by the Minister for Education Zubaida Jalal, the new minister Gen. Javed Qazi took all the above initiatives.

It is astonishing, however, that in spite of a near dictatorial effort on the part of the General to change curricula and textbooks, the new curricula have not been implemented yet. No textbooks, save for class I, have been prepared and approved for use in classrooms. Even after 6 years of formulation of new curricular guidelines, the same old textbooks that were judged to be problematic, are still being used in classrooms. The democratic government of PPP seems absolutely unconcerned about the adverse impact of those textbooks. Teaching of hate, distortion of history, violation of the constitutional rights of religious minorities, glorification of the military, etc, all continue the way they were before the curricular reforms.

In addition, the forces that want education to serve ideological purposes continued to tinker with the new work. I will cite two examples here. One, a new chapter on Islamic education was inserted in the National Education Policy 2009 in the later stages of its formulation without any regard for consistency of the whole document. The second example is that of the Urdu curriculum. Unlike curricular guidelines of any other course, the Urdu course contains ‘suggestions’ on the titles of chapters of Urdu textbooks. Interestingly, if these suggestions are followed, the Urdu textbooks will look exactly like those that they are supposed to replace. I am told by the formulators of curricular guidelines that these suggestions were not a part of the initial draft. Although these are only suggested chapter titles, but it is clear that when Urdu textbooks go for vetting by the Curriculum Wing, they will be judged on the basis of this suggestion.

It is clear that education is an ideological battlefield in most societies, but it is more so in Pakistan where some have no hesitation in trying to eke political benefits out of it.

TNS: Till the dream of a "progressive, moderate and democratic Pakistan" is realised, do you think the elected governments have the mandate or authority to bring in the desired changes in the curriculum? Or is it as difficult as changing the blasphemy law? Will the deep state allow this?

A.H.N: I have no reason to doubt that the elected governments have the mandate and authority to bring in changed to the public education system for the better. They also have resources to do so. What they have lacked, however, is the vision and the will to embark on such a project. Unfortunately they do not accord the priority that the national educational system demands from the state. Their political expediencies make them compromise over any principles they may have on the matter. Take the case of new textbooks according to the revised curricula. A visionary politician would have taken it as an urgent task to bring out new textbooks as quickly as possible. After all, any further exposure of impressionable minds to obscurantist ideas should have been seen as politically unacceptable. New curricular guidelines were ready. The new Textbooks and Learning Material Policy would have required private publishers to prepare new textbooks. What was required of the civilian government was to set in motion the process of vetting the textbooks submitted by private publishers. This was not done. Instead, a very long gradual process of introducing new textbooks was adopted, which meant that until those textbooks came, the students would continue to be exposed to Zia-era textbooks. This was a callous attitude towards public education.

TNS: What about the mindset of the teacher and his role in the classroom even if the curriculum is changed. How do you propose to change that?

A.H.N: The mindset of teachers and the role of teachers in moulding young minds in classrooms is a difficult challenge. Teachers, especially the politically motivated ones, have a direct impact on their students’ thinking and actions. Of the million or so school teachers in the country, most come from deprived classes, have themselves received education of the kind that was shaped in Ziaul Haq times, enjoy a lowly social status, and have a loose governmental control with no promise of a career growth. We can make textbooks as good as we like, but the final shape in which the learning material reaches students will be through teachers.

Teachers receive their sensibilities not just from their training, which in itself is, more often than not, very defective. Their sensibilities are also formed by factors like print and electronic media. No amount of reform in education can mitigate the effect of media on the general public. If the media glorifies militancy, general public will become tolerant and supportive of militancy. Mosque is another institution that influences public mind through sermons.

TNS: How to reform the faculty. Do we need teacher trainings on content apart from methodology?

AHN: Raising the quality of school teachers is now recognized as central to enhancing the quality of education in general. It was shown by a study that Pakistani public education is short of teachers by 30 - 50%. In addition, those in service are poorly educated and poorly trained. To meet the required number, the urge would be to employ any educated person as teacher. But that would be a wrong step. No one without at least two minimum qualities should be allowed to teach in schools: a sound subject knowledge, and a good training in pedagogical skills. Public school teachers have generally had pre-service teacher education and several sessions of in-service training. But the fact is that most of them remain poorly trained. There is a need to extensively strengthen continuing training programs for in-service teachers. In fact innovative methods, especially those that use advanced technology, are needed to meet the training requirement. The pre-service training programs also need to be strengthened.

TNS: You’ve pointed out in the report that along with Islamisation of education in Pakistan, there was communalisation of education going on in India. What are the trends there now? And does it impact the policy here?

A.H.N: Indian did experience a period of communalization of education during the BJP regime. Even now, the states under direct BJP rule enforce communalized education. But under the Congress government at the central level, things have changed in a remarkable manner. It is important to take cognizance of it and learn lessons from it. The Indian National Council of Educational Research and Training redesigned the entire curriculum and produced model textbooks that are admired by all. It is quite unfortunate that such a thing did not happen in Pakistan. NCERT curricula and textbooks are available online for anyone to benefit from.

TNS: What about the state of private English medium institutions? Are they conscious of distorted textbooks because we see retrogressive streaks among them as well?

Students of private English medium institutions preparing students for foreign examinations are certainly fortunate to have very attractive and pedagogically sound textbooks prescribed for their studies. However, when it comes to studying about Pakistan, these students are forced to follow a curriculum and textbooks that are as bad as the ones used in public schools.

TNS: Can you state for our readers again what is wrong with our textbooks and what needs to be corrected?

A.H.N:. As our report The Subtle Subversion had shown in 2003, the textbooks being used in Pakistani public schools were grossly harmful to young minds. Instead of providing a useful citizenship education to school children, they contained (1) insensitive to the religious diversity of the nation, (2) incitement for militancy and violence, including encouragement for Jehad and Shahdat, (3) inaccuracies of facts and omissions to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in our history, (4) perspectives that encouraged prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and towards other nations, (5) glorification of wars and use of force, and last but not the least (5) omissions of concepts, events and material that could encourage critical self-awareness among students.

It is tragic that in spite of pointing out these deficiencies several years ago, the textbooks being used in public school contain more or less the same material, and cause nearly the same harm to young minds by propagating the same harmful ideas and attitudes.

The interview was conducted via email


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