One can say that there are three things that influence you the most during youth, which eventually shape your opinions, your values and behaviour in society. First there are your parents and your family in which you grow up. Then there is your peer-group consisting of your friends you talk to and through whom you get in contact with issues not present in your family life. And thirdly there is your school, the place where you spend most of your time. Especially your teachers and their opinions and the textbooks you study will form your way of looking at topics and seeing the world – at least I experienced it that way.
I remember a discussion going on in my history class in Germany two years ago. We were talking about the fact that only ten years earlier the DDR (the former communist part of Germany belonging to the Soviet Union until 1989) was partly represented in German history textbooks as an all in all bad state influenced by Russian spies who wanted to weaken West Germany during the Cold War. In class we were discussing how difficult it is to write an objective history book which is not based on prejudices and emotionally-charged perceptions. Fortunately, by now German history textbooks mostly do not contain hate material any more. But still it was a long process until that could be achieved.
Today, two years later, I find myself in Lahore, doing an internship at the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) and working on a project regarding textbooks of Pakistani schools to analyse hate material included in books. Again I am into the same discussions and I find the situation in Pakistan with regard to school books definitely worth talking about.
NCJP started their studies on biased education eight years ago when in 2006, the National Education Policy was framed. So far two reports have been published (in 2009 and 2013) revealing a shocking fact: After the first report the number of lines containing hate material against religious minorities and neighbouring countries increased instead of being reviewed and modified. For example, in books of Urdu language and Pakistan Studies for grades 7 to 10, there were 15 lines containing hate material in 2009 which increased to 86 in the following years. Actually, it seems like some person of influence read the report and thought "We can do better than that…” Peter Jacob, Executive Secretary of NCJP, sums it up as follows: "The textbooks are not only blind to the fact that Pakistan is a multi-religious country, but also carry several distortions, angling and twisting of society.”
The Pakistani minority teachers association has boykotted to review the manuscript for the subject ‘Ethics’, which is prescribed as an alternative to Islamic Studies for religious minority students and has demanded the government to allow every student to study their own religion and to remove biased material from textbooks.
Right now, NCJP is working on a comparative analysis of private school textbooks and public school ones. "The key findings until now are that hate material in private school textbooks (Oxford and Cambridge) is 30% less than in public schools”, Aila Gill says, responsible for the ongoing study.
All over the world the same question has to be answered: How can students possibly develop a sense of justice and an objective view on their neighbouring countries and on religious minorities living amongst them when the state provides textbooks contradictive to even the National Constitution? (For example Article 20 guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens, but still there are textbooks referring to Hindus as "enemies”; see Friday Times, August 23-29, 2013).
During my stay in Pakistan I learned how important the work of Pakistani NGOs is, which work hard to change fundamental problems like biased education, increasing extremism and injustice. However, the main power to improve and update education policy still lies in the state’s hands. Hopefully, reports like the ones published by NCJP as well as the ongoing media attention the topic receives (Dawn, Express Tribune, BBC etc.) will make people in charge realize that the spreading of hatred in public schools is not of any help for winning elections but weakens society as a whole.
Over the last years a new approach gained strength: Writing history textbooks in cooperation with neighbouring states. In 2006 for example, a German-French joint history book was published. Nowadays, BBC News titles "Textbook approach to Asia’s disputes” (18th February, 2014). The article reports on the working process of "agreeing on a common past among the South East Asian Countries” and their plan to publish a common history textbook for South East Asia. Wouldn’t that be a task for the subcontinent as well? Definitely, it is ambitious and a long way to go but I think it is crucial for students to get as much information as possible to make up their own opinions.
School is about learning and becoming who you are. For that you need an atmosphere which allows that. In my opinion joint textbooks are a great step forward. Yet, reading the reports of NCJP, one point becomes obvious: A lot of work has to be done.
Article 26, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
If you are interested in reading the whole report mentioned above please contact Aila Gill, NCJP.