Global Pairings, Globalist Perspective

Comparing Textbooks: Even Afghanistan Scores Better Than Pakistan

Societal struggles and reform often take unexpected turns in vast swaths of land stretching from the Middle East into Central Asia.

Takeaways


  • Primary and secondary Afghan textbooks appear to be a relative bright spot amid all the gloom about Taliban’s rule.
  • A recent survey of Urdu-language Afghan textbooks pointed at them being light years ahead of what Pakistani schools offer.
  • In contrast to Pakistani books, current Afghan textbooks teach different schools of Muslim religious law separately. They also keep religion out of secular subjects.
  • 99% of madrassah students in Pakistan will never use math or science professionally. So why use the same books and force students to take the same exams?
  • Turkish curricula have increasingly replaced concepts related to evolution, cultural openness and tolerance towards minorities with notions of jihad, martyrdom in battle and a neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkist ethno-religious worldview.
  • The irony is that Saudi Arabia’s most recent textbooks could point Pakistan in the right direction.

The Taliban have yet to fulfil their promise to allow girls to return to school. However, primary and secondary Afghan textbooks appear to be a relative bright spot amid all the doom and gloom about the group’s rule.

Intriguingly, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and Pakistani human rights activist, concluded from a recent survey of Urdu-language Afghan textbooks that they were light years ahead of what Pakistani schools offer.

Mr. Hoodbhoy argued that the Taliban were unlikely to change the textbooks in use anytime soon. Afghanistan’s brain drain includes many teachers, writers and editors.

Systematically organized content

In addition, the Taliban don’t have the wherewithal to produce a new generation of textbooks. The group, moreover, is unlikely to have fundamental problems with the books that sugar-coat its brutal rule before the 2001 U.S. invasion.

The science books for classes 1-12 that cover mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science surveyed by Mr. Hoodbhoy were in his words “clear and pleasing with systematically organized graphs and colored illustrations.”

He noted that “Pakistani textbooks are very different. For years, my colleagues and I have begged our education authorities to drastically revise locally published textbooks. All are faulty in content, poor in pedagogy and badly presented.”

Abysmal state of textbooks in Pakistan

Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a physicist and education consultant, analyzing the Pakistan government’s troubled effort to introduce a single national curriculum came to a similar conclusion.

“Textbooks provided by the state are of abysmal quality, both in content as well as in presentation. Pakistani textbook boards have repeatedly proven unable to provide good-quality learning material,” Mr. Nayyar said.

Messrs. Hoodbhoy and Nayyar’s assertions are backed up by a decade of independent Annual Status of Education Report surveys that lament quality of learning in Pakistan’s public, private, urban and rural secular and religious schools.

Keeping religion out

In contrast to Pakistani books, current Afghan textbooks teach different schools of Muslim religious law separately. They also keep religion out of secular subjects.

In Pakistani textbooks, particularly those developed as part of the government’s flagging effort to create a single national curriculum, Mr. Hoodbhoy argued that “religious topics permeate books teaching Urdu, English and general knowledge.

Quite senselessly, madrassahs and ordinary schools are yoked together. While all students should know how the modern world works, 99% of madrassah students in Pakistan will never use math or science professionally.

So why use the same books and force students to take the same exams? This means the government is shooting for a lowest common denominator, lower than even the existing one.”

Education reforms

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan affirmed Messrs. Hoodbhoy and Nayyar’s criticism when he earlier this year announced education reforms that would Islamicize syllabi across the board from primary schools to universities. Critics charged that religion would account for up to 30% of the syllabus.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision

Prime Minister Khan recently reinforced his vision by promising religious scholars to involve them alongside educational institutions in the creation of a character-building of society.

Mr. Khan coupled that with a pledge to ensure that no laws would be adopted as long as he was in office, including ones intend to counter domestic violence and forced conversions to Islam, that are “in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam.”

Turkey for company

Mr. Khan’s Pakistan is in good company. Turkey, increasingly a Pakistani ally, was once a model of secularism with an education system that taught evolution, cultural openness, and tolerance towards minorities that included Kurdish as a minority language.

Turkish curricula, however, have increasingly replaced those concepts with notions of jihad, martyrdom in battle and a neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkist ethnoreligious worldview, according to an analysis of 28 textbooks.

The conclusion from this is that the international community would likely do well to pay as much attention to Pakistan and its education system as it does to Afghanistan given that the two countries are intertwined at multiple levels.

Saudi Arabia has progressed too

Another irony is that Saudi Arabia’s most recent textbooks could point Pakistan in the right direction.

Current Pakistani textbooks are products of a world in which Saudi ultra-conservatism empowered by Saudi funding made deep inroads into an already deeply conservative Pakistani society.

That is, however, changing. Saudi schoolbooks are no longer what they were several years ago.

Conclusion

In a just-published study, IMPACT-se, a Ramat Gan-based research group that has been analyzing Saudi textbooks since 2003, reported that as a result of reforms “twenty-eight lessons featuring demonization of the other and religious intolerance were (recently)removed or heavily modified” in Saudi textbooks. “An entire textbook unit on jihad was scrapped. While problematic material remains in Saudi textbooks, these represent profound changes in these categories.”

That is the kind of overhaul that is long overdue in Pakistan and no doubt would also be beneficial in Afghanistan.

If textbooks are indicators, Afghanistan may prove to be only one of South and Central Asia’s problem states. Long perceived as problematic, Pakistan could be the other.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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