SNC — Off With Their Heads

By Anjum Altaf

As an academic, I welcome the defence of the Single National Curriculum (The SNC as ‘the way forward’, The News, October 15, 2020) offered by Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Shaikh, an assistant advisor in the Ministry of Education. It provides a ‘teaching moment’ illuminating not just the SNC but other more important things besides.

Let me deconstruct it piece by piece, and leave it to the readers to derive the lessons.

The opening paragraph says a lot: “Facts take a backseat when a handful of people view well-intentioned developmental agendas through lens smeared with suspicion and an urge for professional recognition.” 

One sentence reveals so much about how our governments act — Ignore the argument; attack the character, integrity, and motivation of those asking questions.  

Think through the charge that has been leveled: Those who disagree with the SNC are distorting facts in order to obtain professional recognition.

Consider the fact that one of the leading critics is Dr. Tariq Rehman, a Humboldt Laureate, HEC Distinguished National Professor, Dean of Education at a leading university, the first incumbent of the Pakistan Chair at the University of California at Berkeley, a scholar honoured by the Government of Pakistan with a Pride of Performance Award for Research and a Sitara-i-Imtiaz. Does he need any more professional recognition? Can he be credibly accused of distorting facts?

Or consider Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, another critic of the SNC. A PhD from MIT, holder of the UNESCO Kalinga Prize and the Abdus Salam Award, conferred an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia and a Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan which he declined. What is the professional recognition Dr. Hoodbhoy is seeking by questioning the SNC and from whom?

What is the government saying about itself by leveling charges of this kind? That it cannot defend its ‘well-intentioned development agenda’ on its own merits and can only malign the critics instead. Reflect on the fact that being well-intentioned does not guarantee being right or sensible. Zia ul Haq was very well-intentioned and ended up inflicting tremendous damage on the country. Mr. Shaikh is free to present his arguments if he thinks Zia ul Haq’s well-intentioned agenda was the best thing that ever happened to Pakistan.

If well-intentioned disasters are to be avoided questions posed by eminent scholars like Dr. Rehman and Dr. Hoodbhoy ought to be welcomed and taken seriously. A government that really wishes to design a robust policy should care when scholars of this calibre are unconvinced. It should strive to find the reasons for their reservations. 

Citizens, on the other hand, should be concerned when their governments are so impervious to open discussion and so afraid of questions from eminent scholars that their first reaction is to launch a character assassination just short of labeling them anti-state. 

In the normal course I would have stopped reading the opinion after the first paragraph but Mr. Shaikh has complained that arguments “can only be appreciated upon in-depth study and not mere skimming of its contents.” I will therefore soldier on, more so because I want students to use the opportunity to learn how to discriminate between weak and strong arguments.

Consider this justification of the SNC offered by Mr. Shaikh: “It is clearly intended as a first step towards paving the way for all children to access a level-playing field whether they are in public or private sector schools or madressahs and the multitude of other educational institutions throughout the country.”

If the curriculum in Aitchison College and Government School No. 2 in Dharampura is made the same would that be the first step to a level playing field for the students of the two schools? If the government truly wishes to level the playing field is this really the most innovative first step it can think of? Are qualified citizens allowed to suggest some other first steps that might be more effective in a much shorter time frame?

And here is Mr. Shaikh’s defence of last resort: “Most of the criticism of the SNC, coming forth so far, is modernist backlash based on a misperceived notion of Islamization through a heavier content of Islamiat in the SNC as compared to before.” Surprise, surprise — the proponents are pro-Islam and the critics are anti-Islam with a ‘misperceived’ notion of Islamization. Case closed. But what exactly is a well-perceived notion of Islamization? One that accords with the views of the government? Did Zia ul Haq have a well-perceived notion of Islamization? Can this issue be debated without the questioners being stoned to death? 

Consider now this pronouncement from Mr. Shaikh: “It is pertinent to note that a curriculum emanates from within a society and is based on its needs and aspirations for the education system to deliver context specific relevant learning within national and global considerations.” What does this mean? How does a curriculum emanate from within a society? Like a plant that grows out of the soil? But that plant could be a flower or a weed. What convinces the government that its product is the best there can be and is so wonderful that it cannot withstand the scrutiny of eminent scholars who have to be demeaned? Wouldn’t any alternative curriculum also not emanate from the same society?

Mr. Shaikh considers it sufficient that the SNC was made by “a galaxy of 400 star performers” and that these “champions of change, unparalleled in their field of expertise,” were “driven by a common dream.” Dr. Rehman and Dr. Hoodbhoy, for all their credentials, did not make it into the top 400 star performers in the country. Or, I suppose the condition of subscribing in advance to a common dream ruled them out.

As Mr. Shaikh says: “At a time when concrete steps are being taken under an all-inclusive (sic) participatory approach for updating the blueprint for our children’s education, it is obligatory on all stakeholders to join hands for the national dream of the SNC.” It is not to question what qualifies as a national dream. It’s but to do and die. Here we have a reenactment of the charge of the light brigade now comprised of the valiant four hundred. 

Defy your obligation Dr. Rehman and Dr. Hoodbhoy and your fate would be the one pronounced by the Red Queen. “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.”

This opinion was published in The News on October 28, 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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