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Pakistan’s education ‘reforms’ are privileging the madrassa system

Khaled Ahmed / Share:
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

In July, Pakistan saw another so-called reform in education. The government of Imran Khan decided to conclude its “unification” of the three “systems” of education (Urdu medium schools, English medium schools and the madrassa) predictably imposing more of the madrassa on the other two streams. It announced an Islamic course at the Master’s level and allowed raids on printing presses in Punjab province to confiscate “hostile” publications. Because education is a provincial subject, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are bound to bear the brunt of this “reform”, being ruled by Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

Teachers labelled “liberal” and “secular” are the first to be rendered jobless under the looming reform. Nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy and another “science” teacher have been sacked from a Lahore university as a foretaste of what is to come. Hoodbhoy’s thesis is that the reform will make the madrassa dominate the other two streams and that an already “religiously oriented” educational system will be further Islamised. Pakistan’s universities are not recognised outside Pakistan because of the heavy ideological content in their syllabuses and the daunting presence of religious-fundamentalist elements in them.

The problem with education in a Muslim state is its reluctance to impart “analytical and critical” thinking. When a Pakistani educationist sits down to frame textbook content, he is scared of the “critical” trait of the human mind. His objective is to prevent the student from applying a “critical” yardstick while analysing “ideology”. The recent law allows the Punjab administration to form vigilante groups that could assault publishing houses to cull “objectionable content” and destroy it and subject the publisher-writer to punishment.

Pakistan is not alone among the Muslim states to have an educational system hostile to “free knowledge”. The Arab world is equally crippled while Iran and Turkey have succumbed to Islamism and its anti-knowledge worldview. The other negative factor in the Muslim world is the frequent incidence of war that upsets the intellectual conditions required for education, replacing it with “propaganda”. There is also the rise of Islamism that damages the edifice of rational learning. Boko Haram, an Islamic revival terrorist organisation active in several states in Africa, attacks “rational” (read English-medium) institutions and translates its own name as “English-medium education not allowed”. The other factor negating education is the incidence of violence in the shape of war and civil war. In the case of Pakistan, there is little money left after “fighting” or “preparing” for wars and there is simply no money left in the kitty for education after meeting the expenditure on the armed forces. In the Arab world too, there is frequent war during which no one thinks of education.

Teachers too are a problem. Most of the primary school teachers in Pakistan are madrassa graduates who have acquired knowledge that equips them for no secular profession. Children in most state-funded schools get poor training in mathematics and history as fact-based narrative. The state sector education mostly relies on brainwashing as teaching methodology. Looking for good teachers is a problem of the Islamic world where war and high birth rate outstrips the capacity of the state to produce good teachers capable of imparting “modern knowledge”.

In an article in Arab News, Zaid M Belbagi wrote: “Compounded by record levels of teachers reaching retirement age alongside unprece- dented numbers of children entering the education system, UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics indicated that 1.6 million new teaching posts will need to be created in the Arab world if universal education is to be achieved. This figure is likely to increase.”

Huma Yusuf in Dawn (May 7, 2018) states: “The threats to critical thinking and debate come from many sources: So-called state functionaries, student wings of religious political parties, firebrand students wielding blasphemy charges, politicised academics, complicit university administrators and even right-wing media commentators who name and shame educational institutions, forcing them to go on the defensive and resort to self-censorship to protect students from mobs.”

It is curious that English and its “logical-sequential” discourse should disturb Imran Khan, who frequently lambasts modern “liberal” Pakistanis. His clubbing together of the three systems of education in Pakistan and squeezing “one system” out of them is typical of the Muslim educationist who is scared of English as a purveyor of rational thought.


This article first appeared in the print edition of The Indian Express. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.


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