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Single National Curriculum: Review of Model Textbooks – Part-XVI

Single National Curriculum: Review of Model Textbooks – Part-XVI

[Introduction to Series: Dr. Anjum Altaf, former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS, is writing a page-by-page review of the model textbooks (Pre-I to Grade 5) accompanying the recently implemented Single National Curriculum. These detailed reviews intended to involve parents in the education of their children will appear as a series in Sindh Courier. Parents would benefit by having a copy of the primer under discussion in front of them while reading the review.]

SNC Model Textbooks: Pre-I Primers — Conclusions

Pakistan exported Talibanization into Afghanistan via the teaching of the Jihad curriculum in its madrassahs and the blowback can now be felt in every corner of Pakistan itself.

By Dr. Anjum Altaf

I have now completed page-by-page reviews of the three model textbooks (primers for Mathematics, English, and Urdu) developed for the Pre-I grade under the Single National Curriculum and implemented beginning the 2021-22 school year. I am concluding the series with some overarching observations.

First, contrary to general perceptions, curriculums are extremely important and have long-term implications, which is why we have to take them seriously. As an economist, I always keep in mind the words of MITs Paul Samuelson, a Nobel Laureate, whose textbook “Economics” written in 1948 dominated the global market and shaped the discipline for the next fifty years. This is what he said in 1990: “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks. The first lick is the privileged one, impinging on the beginner’s tabula rasa at its most impressionable state.”

Closer to home, the importance of a curriculum is confirmed starkly by the efforts that the US government undertook in the 1980s through its intelligence agency (CIA), its aid agency (USAID), and its academic institution (University of Nebraska) to devise a Jihad Curriculum to combat the Russians in Afghanistan. This curriculum was taught in madrassahs in Pakistan and its outcome is glaringly visible in the form of the Taliban.

Afghanistan-bookYou don’t need to take my word for the impact of this curriculum. Here is what Pakistan’s information minister is reported to have said on June 12, 2021:

“In the 1960s and ‘70s Pakistan was a progressive society but in the 1980s a syllabus was made in Nebraska University for madrassahs in Pakistan. It was part of the plan by CIA for the Great War in Afghanistan. It was a deep political strategy to make Pakistan conservative… as a result of that mess a big chunk of our population became militarized. Gradually our liberal society moved towards extremism. When you opt for extremism, your ideas don’t remain forward-looking.”

Within Pakistan, Zia ul Haq in the 1980s proved to be as smart as Paul Samuelson in realizing, contra Marx, that it was not the commanding heights of the economy but the commanding heights of education that needed to occupied first. The changes he made in the curriculum, that went unresisted, have hurried Pakistan along towards the intolerant society that the Minister of Information would like to blame the Americans for.

Two things ought to be clear from this narrative. First, no one is averse to using children for political ends. And, second, that processes initiated for political ends often run out of control. Pakistan exported Talibanization into Afghanistan via the teaching of the Jihad curriculum in its madrassahs and the blowback can now be felt in every corner of Pakistan itself.

I hope this convinces the sceptics that a curriculum is of deep significance and it is, as Samuelson noted, the first lick on the beginner’s tabula rasa that counts for most. Hence, the importance of the Pre-I to Grade 5 model textbooks under the Single National Curriculum which is Zia 2.0. Zia’s seemingly minor interventions are now much more overt and will become even more so under the newly announced Rehmatul-lil-Aalameen Authority to “be charged with monitoring the schools’ curriculum.” After decades of promises of making madrassahs more like schools, it is now the schools that are being moved closer to madrassahs — the SNC is the point of entry and the RLA Authority the agency to sustain the momentum.

Whether Pakistanis wish to take all these measures seriously or not is up to them.

Second, in this perspective, the pedagogical aspects of the Single National Curriculum are secondary and focusing unduly on them would miss the forest for the trees. For that very reason, the quality of the curriculum has not been given the priority it deserves. The detailed reviews leave no doubt that the objective is not education or learning but grooming a specific type of citizen who does not ask questions and believes in what he or she is told.

There is no need to belabour this point. A very simple test of this claim would be to send the three Pre-1 primers for a verdict to a few neutral international experts in early childhood education. Suffice it to say that nowhere in the world, where education is valued, are children taught like this with the teacher telling them everything in such a mechanical manner. Every child comes to class with questions in his/her head and teaching takes place by working through those questions and tying the threads that lead to discovering interesting answers.

Here is a random sample, an account of a secondary school math teacher: “Anyway, you get the point: the process feels properly Socratic, taking slightly muddled concepts that students already feel strongly about, and providing the right nudges to make them reconsider some of those concepts and make others click together. It is a significant source of satisfaction every year to see just how fast ‘the group’ moves from guessing that a sequence of three coin flips has six possible outcomes (unless it can land on its side, which they also unerringly point out), to calculating the number of four-digit pin codes where all the digits have to be different.”

On top of a bad curriculum is an astounding feature: most Pre-I students are being simultaneously introduced to three foreign languages (Maths, English, and Urdu — Yes, Maths is a language with an alphabet of ten numerals and rules of grammar for how to combine them). And they are being taught one foreign language (Maths) in another foreign language (English) while throwing away all the intuition they bring on the subject from their home language. An observer commented on a teacher showing on the board that adding three ducks to five would give you eight (in Pakistan, he/she would have to explain at the same time what + and = stood for) and lamenting that the latter couldn’t overhear a six-year old in the back saying to another “Yesterday I gave you 10 cards; now you gave me 7, so you still owe me 3?”*

This absurdity of teaching one foreign language in another probably has no global parallel. In an old book (Bazm Ara’iiyaN, 1980) Col. Muhammad Khan narrates the following incident:**

چند سال ہوئے انگلستان کے ایک مشہور ماہرِ تعلیم یہاں آئے ۔ ہم انہیں ایک انگلش میڈیم اسکول دکھا چکے تو کسی قدر فخر کے ساتھ ان کی رائے پوچھی ۔ ان کی رائے سننے کے قابل ہے ۔ کہنے لگے :

“بھئی آپ کی ہمت قابلِ داد ہے جو اپنے بچوں کو ایک غیر زبان کے ذریعہ تعلیم دے رہے ہو ۔ اگر میں انگلستان میں انگریز بچوں کو اردو کے ذریعہ تعلیم دینے کی سفارش کروں تو مجھے یقیناْ اگلی رات کسی دماغی ہسپتال میں کاٹنی پڑے گی ۔ آپ واقعی بہادر ہیں” ۔

After narrating this incident, the author remarks:

خدا جانے اس انگریز کے ذہن میں کون سا لفظ تھا جس کی جگہ اس نے بہادر استعمال کیا!

Changing the language from Urdu to French or German or Chinese in the comment of the English expert would make no difference to the logic of the argument. The point is that no language can provide a better base for early education than the home language and all other languages can be acquired easily later once a solid foundation for learning has been laid. Early childhood education in a foreign language is a relic of linguistic imperialism for which those who indulged in it have apologized.

The Single National Curriculum is nowhere as sophisticated as that of Paul Samuelson nor as overtly instrumentalist as the Jihad curriculum of the CIA/USAID. It is a mind-numbing curriculum intended to cripple genuine learning by taking all joy out of it and to produce obedient citizens who believe and do what they are told. It aims at a puritanical society in which any form of enjoyment is considered a sin which, incidentally, is what gives birth to a hypocritical society with a widening gulf between what people profess and what they do.

This desire for passive obedience overlooks the subtle aspect of human psychology in which the urge for agency and identity is so strong that people who are coerced in this manner ultimately rebel even when that rebellion hurts their self-interest. Keen observers should be able to see this phenomenon repeated in our own politics. That is the reason, why after all the indoctrination in schools, there is so much rejection in Pakistan of orders, whether those of the Prophet (PBUH), of the Quaid-e Azam, of political leaders, or of teachers. The harmful consequence of the denial of a good education is that this rejection of authority takes the form of anarchy and not any constructive shape which requires the critical ability to think and analyze.

We should be prepared for where this curriculum will lead us — either to a paradise that exists in the minds of its proponents or further along the descent into anarchy that its critics foresee. It is part of a political struggle for two alternative visions of Pakistan which is why I disagree with many who favor advising governments to make better policy as if the latter didn’t know quite well what they were doing.

There are a few things that I would certainly like to know. Is the very poor quality of the SNC an outcome of sheer incompetence or does it result from the arrogance that no matter how bad no can do anything about it? The authors of all three primers are the same; their names are listed but not their qualifications. Are they experts in all the subjects or are they experts in early childhood education? How were their services procured and how much were they paid? The publisher is the Nazria Pakistan Trust; what was the process through which its services were procured? The National Review Committee is listed as having nine members. Seven of them are employees of various government departments but two belong to the Aga Khan system, one to the Aga Khan Education Service and the other to the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development. Did the last two actually sign off on these primers? Are there any conflict of interest issues at hand? I am hoping that some activists would seek all this information under the Right to Information Act because, in the interest of transparency, it needs to be in the public domain.

And finally, when I saw under qaaf in the Urdu primer the lesson on Unity, Faith, and Discipline, I was reminded of the sensation created by Khwaja Moinuddin’s 1966 TV hit تعلیمِ بالغان whose memorable image was of the three cracked pitchers bearing the same names. I hope there is playwright among us who can match that play with تعلیمِ کودکان. We badly need to take this issue to the people whose children would be the unwitting grist for this malevolent mill.

* Thanks to Dr. Hassan Azad for this reference.

** Thanks to Mrs. Humaira Inam for this reference.


[author title=”Dr. Anjum Altaf ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Anjum-Altaf.jpg”]Dr. Anjum Altaf is the former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. He is the author of Plain Truths About Early Childhood Education: Letters to Parents (available as an e-book from Little Books) and of Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction (forthcoming).[/author]