No Minister, Yes Minister

By Anjum Altaf

The Minister for Education has written an opinion defending the Single National Curriculum (Debating the SNC, The News, September 8, 2020). It fails in its objectives but I am grateful to the Minister for providing a revealing insight into what governments in Pakistan think and desire and how they work.

First, the latter, taking the SNC as illustrative of policy making — substituting the chicken-and-hen scheme or CPEC just reiterates the point. Governments make policy behind closed doors with a manufactured consensus and announce it as a done deal. If there is a storm of protest, it is considered a substitute for the debate that should have taken place during the deliberation on the policy.

The so-called ‘debate’ is negotiated with a lot of handwaving, parrying every question with an answer, usually incoherent and mutually contradictory, confident in the knowledge that given the balance of power not an iota is going to be changed in the policy. And there is no budging from the one-sided claim that the policy is absolutely the best in the word.

So it is with the SNC, crafted by the fabulous 400, whose date of implementation has been announced, the contract for the model textbook awarded, and which is declared to be “outstanding” and “as good as any.” Meanwhile the pseudo-debate rolls on, the arguments falling on deaf ears.

The Minister claims “we studied many international curricula and also got feedback from Cambridge. We also had help from professionals of some major educational institutions of the country.” But he is not willing to disclose which international curriculum forms the basis for the SNC, what was asked of Cambridge and what was the response, and who were the professionals from the major educational institutions of the country. (We do know that Bill Gates was the one who blessed the chicken-and-egg scheme that was to address poverty much as the SNC is intended to address inequality. CPEC, which is to address underdevelopment, still remains shrouded in mystery.)

This is par for the course and we have lived with it for over 70 years in many reinvented versions of Naya Pakistan. But what is of much greater interest is what the government thinks and that can be read so clearly in the Minister’s narrative. The Minister claims that different types of schools lead to “different worldviews” and these different worldviews have contributed to our “internal conflicts.” How sweetly amusing when one views all the bitter conflicts taking place between those who have been to exactly the same schools — all the Aitchisonians and enlightened Oxbridge Blues abusing each other and at each other’s throats, all educated in the Queen’s English from day one and singing Jack and Jill to impress visitors from abroad.

So the Minister believes an attempt should be made to reduce these “perceptual divisions” to minimise “conflict in society” and he thinks a SNC is the way to achieve that “desirable state.” No wonder, he concludes “national curricula are prescribed in almost every developed country. The list is endless but France, UK, most of Europe, China, Japan etc all have a national curriculum.”

What can one say in the face of the Chinese having to put their ethnic minorities into reeducation camps despite the national curriculum, the French having to crack down on the Yellow Vests as well as deal with Marie Le Pen, and the UK having to negotiate a desirable state with the Irish and the Scots. How naive can one get? If all it took to get to a desirable state was a national curriculum, wouldn’t Donald Trump be hugging Barack Obama?

After all that big talk, the apologia that follows is both mind boggling and heartbreaking: “It has been correctly pointed out that the disparities in our education system are not just because of the curriculum. The environment, the facilities, the teaching standards, and in many cases the home environment are fundamentally different. This is true. Making all schools somewhat equal is an impossible task.”

“But that does not mean that no attempt should be made to at least prescribe the same learning standards, benchmarks, and outcomes, in a common language, for all children. This would give everyone a somewhat equal opportunity – perfectly equal is impossible.” “The single national curriculum is an attempt to level the playing field somewhat.”

I am touched immensely by the three ‘somewhats’ that tell the entire story. How has it been determined that the most effective measure to level the playing field is the curriculum and not the environment, the facilities, the teaching standard and the home environments that are “fundamentally different”? And if the government really wants to level the playing field fast (are you kidding?) why not just switch tomorrow to having all entrance exams in local languages as well as English? Why change the curriculum and wait 15 years before the playing field starts getting leveled ‘somewhat’?

As for the SNC being “outstanding” and “as good as any,” how is that claim to be validated? Is the Minister’s word enough when a whole host of experts in education argue that is actually very bad? The eminent educationist, Dr. Tariq Rehman, has this to say: “Let me be blunt for a change: I think this pursuit of sameness in the name of equity and justice is a blunder…. it is a dark alley we are entering. I hope I am wrong but this is my honest opinion.”

This is a dire warning based on sober reflection and spoken from the heart. It is shared by many others. The only honest resolution of the disagreement is to submit the SNC to a panel of independent experts in early childhood education and to abide by their verdict. The dishonest resolution is to start casting aspersions on the critics and calling them names. But, as we also know from over 70 years of experience in Pakistan, honesty does not come cheap in this country.

The Minister’s narrative makes very sad reading. This tried-and-failed belief, which flies in the face of all evidence, that making everyone think alike is the solution to the very real problems caused by think-alike authoritarian elites squabbling with each other to see who can rip off the most in the least time is intellectually depressing. It is a sign, in the words of the Minister, of “effete intellectualism that does not take into account realities on the ground.”

With this kind of thinking at the top, what is there left to hope for?

This opinion appeared in The News on September 15, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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