The Political Economy of the SNC

By Anjum Altaf

As an educationist, I am appalled by the Single National Curriculum. As a Pakistani, I am disappointed but not surprised. I have articulated my reservations in a series of opinions. They have to do with the process (non-transparent and non-participatory, excluding the principal stakeholders) and the pedagogy (old-fashioned, privileging memorization over thinking). But it is equally important to explore why the SNC has taken this particular form.

I was discussing the SNC with a successful, well-educated executive and asked if she would put a child she was responsible for, say a grandchild, into a school teaching from the SNC. Absolutely not, she said without a moment’s hesitation and with a shudder of dread. I asked if, in her opinion, any senior bureaucrat in grades 20, 21, or 22 would enrol a grandchild in a SNC school. Absolutely not, she said again. She was less sure of politicians — they are such a motley bunch, she said.

This does need a survey to nail down comprehensively but I am reasonably confident how the results would come out. Successful people want their children to be successful and they know the education that can deliver achievement privileges thinking and not memorization. It is no surprise that the successful people have made sure the main plank of the SNC — equality across schools — has been consigned to the dust bin. They can now breathe easy that the O/A Levels and the IB schools shall remain undisturbed.

I don’t have any quarrel with such an attitude that is an outright rejection of the SNC. But the question that follows is why the successful don’t agitate for a similar quality of education for all children, not just their own? After all, every child is a citizen with equal rights entitled to the same set of opportunities guaranteed by the state.

It is not a given that education for poor children has to be poor in quality. Retired Chief Justice Jawwad Khawaja and his wife run the Harsukh school for children from villages around their home. They have enough confidence in the Harsukh curriculum to enroll their own grandchildren in the same school.

The only plausible explanation for the SNC is that Pakistan is not one nation but two — that of the rulers and of the ruled. The rulers need to learn how to think in order to lead while the ruled need to memorize the lessons of obedience in order to be good and contented followers. The more so, for the rulers are not rulers because of any exceptional talent or achievement on a level playing field but because they have inherited the mantle in a milieu in which all competition is effectively crippled.

A more frightening thought is the following: Forty percent of children below five in Pakistan are stunted, among the highest percentages in the world. This fact has been known to the state for decades and nothing has been done to redress it. Is the SNC then designed for children who are already doomed and cannot handle anything that requires creative thinking?

Or, is the SNC designed for the poor to further cripple the remaining competition and to mould them into pliant followers? This might also explain why people who come up with these kinds of educational programmes never ever consult those for whom the programmes are intended. They decide for them, which, in reality, means that the designs are intended to maximize the privilege of those with the power to decide.

This denial of participation is particularly striking in a country that professes Islam, a religion with such a heavy emphasis on consultation especially of those for whom something is being decided. How does one explain such an un-Islamic practice in an Islamic country except by questioning the sincerity of the Islamic pretensions of its rulers?

My suggestion to the Minister for Education is to live up to the Islamic ideal and engage in a broad-based consultation with citizens. The Minister might want to assemble the leading members of his team and engage in an in-depth debate with a set of leading experts like Pervez Hoodbhoy, AH Nayyar, Tariq Rahman, Rubina Saigol, and Zubeida Mustafa. The debates would be held in all the major district towns of the country spread over a period of twelve months with the audience comprised predominantly of parents whose children are to be the beneficiaries of the SNC.

I wouldn’t presume to know where the parents would come out at the end but, at the very least, their silence should not be passed off as approval. It is patently unjust to decide something so momentous for others without a sincere consultation. Avoiding such a debate and rushing ahead with a show of force is a sign of weakness that undermines both the democratic and the Islamic credentials of the government.

In closing, an apt couplet from Ghalib (not all memorization is bad but no one imposed it on me before I could understand what it meant):

kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN / miri aavaaz gar nahiiN aati
why would I not scream because I am remembered / only when my voice is not heard

This opinion appeared in The News on September 4, 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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