Pakistan: Public Education Under Siege – OpEd


Some public school teachers in Punjab province approached me to speak about the enhanced requirement of teaching enhanced nazra (recitation) of the Holy Quran and Islamiat in Arabic in the country’s already beleaguered public school system. The authorities have mandated that nazra must be taught with correct Arabic pronunciation in public and private schools. Nazra teaching is a legacy from the Single National Curriculum (SNC) initiative launched by the government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

To meet the strict nazra guidelines, the School Education Department submitted a proposal to the government to recruit 70,000 Arabic teachers from madrassas as part-time nazra teachers. Madrassa graduates are deemed best qualified to teach nazra Quran because it requires a deep knowledge of tajweed (authentic intonation and pronunciation).

But the government could not hire religious teachers due to a lack of funds, so school authorities have ordered teachers who teach English and science to fill the gap, learn Arabic and perform the duty of madrasa graduates. The frustrated teachers who spoke to me also pointed out that the volume of Islamiat content in the curriculum has grown exponentially. It affects compulsory courses like Urdu and English, and forces non-Muslim students into Islamic education in violation of their fundamental rights.

Imagine the difficulty of being a student in Pakistan’s chaotic and poorly funded public education system. Disadvantaged and malnourished children attend school in horrific conditions such as crumbling infrastructure and lack of sanitation facilities and clean water, shortage of teachers and textbooks, pervasive poverty, and inept administration — it is not a surprise that many throw in the towel — Pakistan has one of the highest drop-out rates in the world, at 41% for primary schooling and 22 million children remain out of school. A telling sign of a failing state is its failure to educate its children.

“Education is a vital investment in the future,” said Pakistan’s early leaders — it is an important lesson sadly lost on successive Pakistan governments. It is widely acknowledged that young people and nations benefit from an enlightened education policy because it promotes cohesion and diversity. The ultimate reward is productive citizens with a broad vision who become a critical building block of civilized societies and national progress. Moreover, developing human capital specializing in various fields is vital to a country’s competitiveness in a global economy.

Not so in Pakistan, where a paltry 2.0% of the GDP is spent on education compared to a whopping 4% on defense. Currently, the education system in Pakistan — the three-tier system of a few private schools, collapsing public schools, and growing madrassas — is inward-looking, regressive, and dogmatic. The madrassification of public education is reflected in textbooks and curricula that promote a culture of extremism in the minds of the students.

Pakistan’s constitution prescribes free and compulsory primary education for all children, but this remains an unrealistic goal. Instead of addressing glaring deficiencies that keep over 60% of Pakistanis illiterate in a country with a growing youth population, governments indulge in populist gimmicks.

Calls for ideological education in Pakistan grew steadily after independence — unsurprising in a Muslim state and conservative society. The first all-Pakistan education conference in 1947 proposed that the educational system should be inspired by Islamic ideology and teachings. It took a great leap forward in 1977, under the Islamization project launched by military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq widely held responsible for infusing fundamentalism, intolerance, and violence into society. Education policies have not remained immune as the government decided to re-educate students about the state’s official ideology and Islam with an increasingly fundamentalist bent.

The government stressed that the aim of education would be “to foster in the hearts and minds of the students a deep and abiding loyalty to Islam.” It decided to introduce Arabic at the Middle level and made teaching Islamiyat and Pakistan studies compulsory at the undergraduate level. The educational authorities accordingly undertook to review the entire curricula to ensure suitable content on Islam and the ideology of Pakistan.

Various governments have tried to make up for the modern education deficit by devising education policies not to produce global citizens but to produce practicing Muslims. The result is that the main focus of the Pakistani education system is to instill holiness and obedience in students, not the ability to think critically, analytically, rationally, and logically — various textbooks and curricula reveal an increasing emphasis on religion with diminishing room for pluralism and secularism.

While the politicization of religious education is not a new trend in Pakistan, it is a critical but unspoken reason for the country’s dysfunction and extremist image. A major factor in the overload of religious education and the decline in the quality of science and humanities education is the growing political power of religious leaders, who promote religious education and denigrate secular education as conflicting with Islamic principles.

Furthermore, cynical leaders in nexus with religious leaders, eyeing increasing power and vote banks, have pushed the Islamization of society and education as a ploy to divert the attention of the people from such alarming conditions as high corruption, dreadful governance, mismanagement, and economic meltdown, to name a few.

Pakistan’s public education needs urgent reform with more funding and more objective textbooks devoted to the subjects of mathematics, science, and humanities. Its school children deserve an inclusive system without ideological leanings that encourage a shared understanding of religious beliefs and human rights. Undoubtedly, it is a huge task in the charged political, economic, and social climate especially when political will is non-existent.

This article was published The Friday Times

Saad Hafiz

Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected].

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