By Zubeida Mustafa
PAULO Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said education should aim at teaching students to think critically. They should work with the teacher in creating knowledge.
Freire believed that students should do a lot of “problem-posing” and then seek answers through their own experience and thought processes to discover the route to change.
Can we hope to achieve this change through the kind of textbooks used in our public-sector schools? For decades, critics have mourned the dismal state of textbooks in Pakistan. But no one has batted an eyelid.
Now we have yet another report on textbooks. The analyst is Tahira Abdullah, whose is an invincible voice that cannot be silenced. She is the most fearless and untiring of activists in Pakistan, who has left no injustice, oppression or social evil unaddressed. She took up the gauntlet on behalf of the students of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
KP has yet to adopt a right to education law.
In a comprehensive and scathing survey of textbooks published by the KP Textbook Board, Tahira sums up all that is wrong with them. In Textbooks of Hate or Peace? she says the books glorify war, ‘otherise’ non-Muslims, take a uni-dimensional view of reality, distort history and stereotype women.
Textbooks of English, Urdu, Pakistan studies, social studies, Islamiat. general knowledge, geography and history published under three different governments that have ruled KP since 2002 have been analysed. What emerges clearly is that any subject can be used as an agent for pushing a narrow religious agenda. This in turn can be exploited for the attainment of nefarious political goals by those in office.
The conclusion? The MMA, the ANP and now the PTI (in coalition with the Jamaat-i-Islami) have wreaked havoc on the minds of KP’s children. Tahira points out that the different ideological complexion of these three rulers has not made much of a difference.
For instance, the ANP claims to be secular in orientation. Yet it was in no hurry to change the pattern of education in the province when it was elected. It took the ANP three years after assuming office to draw up a relatively progressive education sector plan in 2011. But there was no time to implement it as in 2013 the ANP was out of office. Meanwhile, weak attempts to liberalise the curricula proved futile. Even the peace slogan the ANP educators inserted on the flip side of the front and back covers of textbooks have been removed by the PTI which has surrendered totally to its junior coalition partner, the JI.
The fact is that there is a nexus between the militant, extremist and jihadist elements in the education sector, not just in KP but to an extent all over Pakistan. These ‘pro-ideology’ elements understand that only by controlling the minds of the youth is it possible to pre-empt change and resist reforms. If they cannot control curricula-making they use threats of violence to influence the process. We saw it happen in Sindh where Bernadette Dean had to leave the country because her attempt to secularise textbooks was disapproved by such elements.
KP’s indifference towards education is appalling. The assembly there has yet to adopt a right to education law that is needed under the newly introduced Article 25-A of the Constitution. It is the only province not to have done it.
The first priority, as very rightly pointed out by Tahira Abdullah, should be to change the wider framework that is the national curriculum and the education policy. The ITA, an NGO involved in the education sector, tells us the Inter-Provincial Education Ministers-Conference has been working on this agenda since August 2015 and the policy was to be announced in January 2016. Is it a case of waiting for Godot?
Tahira’s recommendation is for the government of Pakistan to establish a reforms committee on curricula and textbooks. This would formalise the process of change.
The fact is that howsoever progressive textbooks may be, education will not take a new direction until pedagogy is also changed. Tahira speaks of the need to incorporate the concepts of critical thinking, spirit of enquiry, pluralism, tolerance for the ‘other’, gender equality and peace education in pedagogy itself.
One may add that textbooks only serve as tools. The person who uses the tool, that is the teacher, does the real mischief. It is important to limit the potential of exploiting religion by removing religious content from all textbooks. Islamiat books should be the only exception.
The Peace and Development Foundation has done well to sponsor this report on textbooks in KP which is vulnerable to extremist religious influences. Some have pointed out that mullah networks in the tribal areas were used by the colonial power in its Great Game against Russia and that Deoband also had clandestine links with some religious elements to destabilise the colonial rulers. Today, we are suffering its consequences.