What are we teaching our children?
While curriculum and quality of education issues have especially been highlighted since 9/11, albeit from a rather narrow perspective, concerns about what we are teaching our children have been around for much longer. And even now the post-9/11 emphasis, triggered by concerns about terrorism, is more focused on issues of madrassah reforms. But, from quality of education perspectives as well as domestic citizenship and harmony reasons, we should be more worried about what is taught in all of our schools and how it is taught, irrespective of whether these are public or private schools.
Although we keep arguing that majority of the country lives in rural areas, yet very few of the lessons in our textbooks depict or talk of issues related to rural life. It might be the case that the state, by emphasising city living, is and wants to encourage urbanisation, but since popular rhetoric of the state does not support this, we have to assume that this neglect of rural life has more to do with policymakers’ and writers’ biases and little to do with thought-through objectives. When these lessons do not confront the reality of rural children, how can we expect them to relate to their lessons?
There have been a number of studies that have touched on issues of low quality and biases in curriculum as well as books. But these analyses have seldom gone down to analysing actual lessons in textbooks in detail to have a better idea of what is being taught. Aamir Riaz, in a recent (August 2011) Urdu report titled ‘Hum Apnay Bachon Ko Kiya Parha Rahey Hain? Punjab Textbook Board ki Nisaabi Kutb Barey ik Jaeyza’, done with the support from Actionaid and Jaag, has gone to this level. The observation given above, about lack of coverage of rural life, is coming from Aamir Riaz’s report. Aamir Riaz took 34 books, approved by government and published by the Punjab Textbook Board in 2010, from four subjects (Urdu, English, Islamiyat/Ethics and Pakistan Studies/Social Studies) from Class I to Class X and analysed them using a number of questions that, apriori, seem reasonable.
Students should have contextualised knowledge, there should be positive lessons on all religions, all sects, across gender, across geography, there have to be lessons on tolerance, civic participation, democracy, rule of law, and so on. We should not be giving our children distorted picture of our history and should not be filling their minds with hatred or keep them ignorant about our rich cultural background. Aamir took these ideas and looked at our books to see what information and values are we providing to our children.
Aamir Riaz reports that he analysed all 871 lessons that these 34 books had. He found that there was hardly any lesson in these books that reported anything positive about other religions, or had good characters based on non-Muslims. What message are we giving the minorities of the country? Equally, if not more, importantly, what are we teaching our children? That good characteristics only occur in Muslims and non-Muslims are not good Pakistanis? On the cultural side too there is very little about Punjabi culture in these books and few of the folk heroes, folk tales, Punjabi literature, and the Sufis of the Punjab make it to the textbooks and even if any do they make a very sanitised appearance.
Almost half of our population is female and we talk a lot about female education and reducing gender education gaps as a priority, yet the textbooks seem to take little notice of these goals. There are very few lessons where the main characters are women, and even fewer where they are role models. Women are never pilots, cricket/hockey players, academics, journalists and leaders of industry in our textbooks.
Aamir also points a huge number of factual errors. And some of them are not just biases or errors of omission: they are deliberate and outright lies. Apart from taking things out of context and quoting selected sentences that fit the ideology that the state wants to project, historical speeches of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Dr Mohammad Iqbal have been misquoted. One can lament the closed-mindedness of writers when they quote things out of context, but actual distortion of historical documents is a criminal act. But, in our desire to demonise ‘the other’ we are not only willing to censor our heroes but actually lie about them too.
Then there are factual errors such as on the same page in one book the authors write we lost the war in 1971, but go on to say that we have fought three wars on Kashmir and won all of them.
There are strong biases against political governments but the military dictators are more neutrally portrayed. Even when prime ministers have done something that the nation chooses to be proud of (the nuclear explosions of 1998, the construction of the motorway, or the Islamic Summit of 1974) the names of prime ministers under whom these things were initiated are not mentioned by name. But usurpers, all of the military dictators, are named and in some cases we tell children that they took over government out of necessity.
There are hardly any positive lessons for the students about public participation, public mindedness, spirit of voluntary service, spirit of involvement in national and other larger causes. Does the citizen not have some responsibilities also, apart from rights? The responsibility to pay taxes, to be involved, qua citizen, in the political process, to hold public office holders accountable, and to ensure the state not only delivers on its mandate, it also does not overstep its bounds. Beyond the state, the citizen has to be involved with other citizens on provision of public goods such as development of community feeling and an enabling environment and so on. Though a lot of this education happens at home and in the community, school lessons have a role here too and our textbooks need to be cognizant of that. But they currently are not.
Aamir Riaz’s report points out the importance of focusing our attention on textbooks as they are one of the main vehicles through which we control/manage what children are exposed to. Biases, mistakes, errors of omission and commission in textbooks come back to bite us in the form of poor education for our children. Aamir did the analysis for four subjects for the Punjab textbook board and he found a large number of major issues here.
One can be sure we will find similar issues with other textbook boards across the country, and with other subjects too. And though Aamir so far has not covered textbooks being taught by private schools, produced by private publishers, but some of the same problems are bound to be there too. We have to not only correct these errors, we also have to figure out how to make the procedures for producing textbooks a lot more robust and reflective of the needs of our children. We ignore this issue at our own peril.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]