What’s Wrong With the SNC?

Before I list my problems with the Single National Curriculum (SNC), let me accept that its proponents are completely well-intentioned and want the best for our children. But let me also add the caveat, to which all reasonable people would agree, that good intentions by themselves are never sufficient as a justification. Good intentions can also lead to terrible disasters.

No one can doubt the good intentions of Mr. Jinnah. Yet his decision to impose a single national language set a tragedy in motion. Such disasters do not distinguish between the secular and the religious. Zia ul Haq was the most Islamic of our rulers as well-intentioned as anyone else. History will be the judge of what his educational interventions have done to this country. The liberal Mr. Musharraf was no doubt well-intentioned when he led the country into Kargil turning it into an international pariah state.

Intentions are irrelevant in the end and only those who are unable to defend their positions on grounds of logic and coherence assume a self-righteous posture construing criticism as an affront to their intentions. Intentions are particularly irrelevant when the stakes are as high as they are with an education policy for the country. The lives of millions of children would be set on a path from which there would be no return for the cohorts who are launched on it.

Given the stakes, the first signal of good faith would be to involve the entire country in the discussion. There is no justification for presenting a fait accompli with already determined dates of implementation and prescribed model textbooks. A non-transparent process with no participation of the actual stakeholders and no disclosure of its deliberations is a sure sign the proponents are afraid the output would not stand scrutiny from either the public or experts in early childhood education.

This lack of confidence in the product is obvious from the weak arguments being put forward in its defense. Yes, 400 people were involved but who were they? By and large, politicians, bureaucrats, school owners, textbook publishers, madrassah managers and the like, not experts in early childhood education.

Yes, the provincial governments might have signed off but how much confidence should one repose in the legislators who signed off on the tahaffuz-e bunyad-e Islam bill without reading it?

The clearest sign the proponents feel unable to defend the SNC is the pushing of the religious button, a time-tested strategy of last resort. The critics are damned as belonging to a tiny secular elite (ashraafiya) that still honours Mr. Jinnah’s statement that religion has “nothing to do with the business of the State.” (Note how the intentions of the critics are being questioned — what is sauce for the goose is obviously not sauce for the gander.) The proponents, themselves as much a part of the ashraafiya as the critics and by no means ajlaf or, God forbid, arzal, are, by contrast, Islam-loving, more one presumes in the Khadim Rizvi camp. 

The Islam-loving ashraafiya is happy to enlighten the Islam-haters (by gratuitous labelling) that the hopelessly confused Mr. Jinnah was overruled first by the maha-Islamic Mr. Zia-ul-Haq and then set right by the national assembly in 2016 which determined that even more religion ought to be taught in schools. This determination is held to be sacrosanct even though the rest of the assembly’s intentions are castigated, it being damned for belonging to a government of thieves. It is not even asked if these members, most of whom are still around albeit having taken a new vow of honesty, bothered to read what they were signing off on in their dishonest days. Not likely, if their Punjab brethren are an example to go by.

In defense of the SNC we are told that it is nothing new — it just builds on the one put in place in 2006 by an unrepresentative government itself among those responsible for the very sorry state of education today. But if the state of education is so poor where is the evaluation of the 2006 curriculum that is partly responsible for that outcome? And what makes one believe the same departmental functionaries who masterminded it with laudatory proclamations would now come up with something radically better by tinkering at the margins?

What exactly is the SNC supposed to do? It began with the objective of creating musawat (equality). But now we are told there is no intention to reduce choice in the types of schools in existence. In defense of this backtracking the seemingly clever argument is proffered that even in America it has been impossible to equalize the quality of schools. How can a poor country like Pakistan attempt something so impossible? This argument conveniently ignores the fact that the foundational principle of the American system is inequality which is considered a good thing leading to dynamism, entrepreneurship, and the like. Failure is the responsibility of individuals who do not work hard enough. America has never staked a goal of musawat or of using its system of education to turn the country into the Riasat of Medina. Hiding behind any incoherent argument that comes to hand is a sure sign that good intentions cannot make up for cognitive dissonance and intellectual confusion.

So, if the quality of schools can vary as before, what would the SNC achieve? What children learn (not memorize — the two are distinct) is less a function of the curriculum and more of the quality of teachers, the environment at home, and the availability of resources. How much can a curriculum matter when the basic learning outcomes in cognitive skills are more or less standardized? Systems that have evolved to maximize the cognitive abilities of children, like Montessori and Waldorf, let them learn more or less through play without making them memorize anything they are unable to imagine.

The bottom line is that the lives of millions of children is at stake and there is no margin for making a mistake no matter how well-intentioned. The principal stakeholders are children who are unfortunately unable to articulate their opinion, positive or negative, on the SNC. Given that, it is an ethical imperative to consult in good faith with their parents who have dreams for their children, wish the best for them, and invest hard-earned incomes in their education. Do not presume what parents want their children to learn. Find it out — it is not difficult. Do not be afraid of what experts would think of the SNC. Find it out — it is not difficult.

The future of the country depends on the education of the coming generations. A test of good intentions and of confidence in the SNC is a very wide consultation — I am sure a hadees can be found, if needed by the Islam-lovers, to support this proposition. This is not the time to hide behind religion and divide the country between one kind of elite and another because, when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

Note that the draft of the New Education Policy that was coincidentally just approved in India was open for public discussion for 18 months and received over a quarter of million inputs. Before this phase, two draft committee reports were released as interim documents for perusal by all citizens. You don’t have to be a lover of Islam do something sensible.

Is the big rush in Pakistan an acknowledgement that the SNC would not stand public scrutiny? Is it a contemptuous signal that in the Pakistani democracy it is still power and not argument that rules the day?

I recall a line from very far away:

Itni jaldi kya hai gori saajan ke ghar jaane ki
sakhiyoN ke sang baiTh zara kuch baateN haiN samjhaneN ki

This opinion was published in The News on August 28, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

By Anjum Altaf

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