Writing textbooks for students who are in a formative stage of their lives is serious business. Errors and omissions on the part of the writers, due to ignorance or self-complacency, are pardonable and can be corrected. However, when textbooks are written with the express aim of misguiding pupils and indoctrinating adherence to the status quo – support for the regime in power, glorification of war, self-righteousness, hatred for other religious and ethnic groups – it becomes a criminal act where an entire generation is spoiled at the altar of vested interests of the powerful few. Furthermore, the ability to ask questions, which lies at the core of the learning process, is throttled by discouraging students from challenging dogmas and conventional views. This strain of malicious intent is particularly visible in social sciences in Pakistan where disinformation is deliberately disseminated.
The entire process of writing textbooks is closely monitored by the state, whereby government employees write books that are approved by the Ministry of Education and then published by the Textbook Boards. Hence there is no room for any deviation from the ‘official version’. During Zia’s 11 years of infamy, the name of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was omitted from the textbooks, while the same texts were all praise for Zia, extolling him as a pious man chosen by God to make Pakistan a fortress of Islam. Pakistani textbooks are also notably silent when it comes to the detrimental aspects of military rule, although there is ample criticism of the democratic system. There is virtually no content pertaining to civic virtue and education in democracy.
There is also far more material on the reasons and outcomes of wars with India than on the constitution, issues of governance, political economy, society and culture. There seems to be an implicit appreciation of violence and wars as a means to resolve international issues, and the significance of national security and the pivotal role of the armed forces is constantly highlighted.
India and the Congress are made synonymous with Hinduism, whereas there is no mention of the fact that there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan and seven Presidents of the Indian National Congress were Muslims. Facts are also twisted about the Mutiny of 1857, which was an Indian war of independence rather than some sort of a ‘jihad’ undertaken by the Muslims alone.
The education system as a whole discourages critical thinking, since challenging what is written in the textbooks is not allowed. Instead, the main concern is for students to attain maximum marks. Hence the teachers and pupils are primarily focused on adopting strategies which ensure high grades. Rote memorization is one common tool. Our students get so used to it that even while appearing for the CSS exam you find them mugging. The situation is so grim even at university level that teachers who try to impart knowledge and invoke independent reasoning are disliked by most of the students, while those who tell them which questions to prepare for the exams (along with the answers) are the most revered ones. In South Punjab, university teachers considered going on strike when they were asked by the Vice Chancellor to conduct research. ‘Notes’ are the most prized item and the common denominator which binds all stakeholders in the system of education.
In the absence of cognitive development at the abstract level, dogmas and clichés are what we are left with to offer. When we fail to critically appreciate a phenomena due to lack of an adequate reasoning ability we replace it with high sounding words, slogans, and boastful pretentions, that are totally devoid of any substance. All this is couched in high emotionality, which further incapacitates us to think critically. Hence we transform into living beings with little thinking and high emotions.
And such individuals are the product our education system is bestowing upon this nation. Just look at some members of our academia, our men of letters, our politicians, our judges, our media persons, the generals and the mullahs, all weary of rational thinking, not only charged with emotions but also displaying arrogance and self-righteousness. Intolerance is the natural consequence which today is so pervasive in our society.
Schools are the nursery of the nation, and as long as we do not replace the contents of our textbooks by setting aside our vested interests, by being honest and truthful and portraying the facts and not concocted stories, we will not be able to produce useful members of civic society who are creative, innovative and productive, with a scientific approach towards their discipline and towards life. However if we fail, the alternative is too horrifying to contemplate in a society which is already breeding intolerance at an alarming rate.
(Waseem Altaf is a human rights activist.)
(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 7)