‘Critical Reflection on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction’ is a remarkable work by Anjum Altaf, one of Pakistan’s most prominent educationists. The book consists of several essays in which he prompts readers to contemplate the deteriorating state of education in Pakistan, the stagnant curriculum, and the prevailing inequality in the education sector. Altaf raises numerous questions about the Single National Curriculum (SNC) in this book, highlighting its flaws. The book is divided into four parts.
In Part 1, the author emphasizes the rights of children. He poses a significant question: What if we considered children as political actors with the right to vote? If we adopted this perspective, the situation would be different, as children would have the ability to raise their voices and demand their right to quality education.
The second part extensively explores the SNC. The author astutely remarks that if a national curriculum were a panacea for the problem of national disintegration, then there would be no rise of Scottish and Irish nationalism in the United Kingdom, which also has a national curriculum. The same principle applies to Pakistan. The state must acknowledge that a national curriculum is not the sole solution. Instead, embracing diversity in education leads to a more cohesive society.
The state should learn from Zia’s experiment of imposing a national curriculum, which focused more on instilling morality in students rather than providing education. The state needs to recognize that morality cannot be imposed on society; it naturally develops through proper education. That is why the first directive from God was to read, not to be moral.
Furthermore, the author criticizes the process of formulating the SNC. He believes that parents, skeptical minds, and prominent educationists in the country were not consulted during the development of the SNC. Moreover, the government employed a team of 400 individuals who were underqualified and lacked seriousness in crafting the curriculum. If the government truly aimed to create an excellent curriculum, it should have included critics such as Pervaiz Hoodbhoy and Tariq Rehman, who have tirelessly worked towards education reform in Pakistan.
The author also highlights that the SNC is not different from the previous curriculum. Like its predecessor, it fails to develop critical thinking skills in children. The entire focus of the curriculum is on enhancing rote learning abilities. Moreover, historical inaccuracies from the past have been repeated in the curriculum. For instance, the outdated version of the separation of Bengal remains unchanged. At this point, the author raises a significant concern: the SNC will produce children who lack the ability to think outside the box. This reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where prisoners only perceive a distorted reality and mistake it for the complete truth. Our children will face a similar predicament. So, instead of boosting the cramming abilities of the children, the author opines there is a dire need to identify innate qualities of every child and teach him accordingly.
Turning to the Madrasah debate, the author expresses the belief that instead of bringing modern education to Madrasahs, as intended by the SNC, the opposite will occur: schools and colleges will transform into seminaries in the future. This is a cause for concern. The author does not oppose the presence of Madrasah education in the country, but firmly believes that such religious seminaries should be regulated by the state. The state should establish policies for Madrasahs and provide them with a curriculum.
The third part of the book focuses on the medium of instruction: which is more beneficial, English or Urdu? The author reiterates the viewpoint that until grade 5, the language of instruction should be the child’s mother tongue. After that, a foreign language should be introduced into the curriculum. The author supports this argument with solid evidence from scientific research. Numerous studies have demonstrated that teaching a child in their mother tongue aids in their intellectual development. Furthermore, many countries around the world follow the “Mother Tongue Plus Two” formula, where children are initially taught in their mother tongue and later introduced to foreign languages. European countries serve as a fitting example of this approach. The author also suggests that from an early age, children should be taught that English is merely a language, which helps boost their confidence. The author strongly opposes the inclusion of Arabic in the curriculum. It is just like telling a diabetic patient about the benefits of electric cars. If the government aims to teach Islam to children, it should translate the scriptures into Urdu and other native languages. The author also disputes the notion that Urdu language can foster national integration. If Urdu was able to induce national integration, then why Bengalis protested when asked to adopt Urdu.
The fourth and final part of the book comprises the author’s thoughts on the future of education in Pakistan. The author advises the government to recognize that education is primarily about developing cognitive abilities in students. It should strive to create an inclusive and pluralistic society rather than a hyper-religious one. The author also suggests that the country should follow the examples of Switzerland and Hong Kong, where children are educated in their native languages and their cognitive abilities are nurtured through proper education.
In summary, this book provides a comprehensive examination of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) and, to some extent, the education system in Pakistan. Upon delving into the lives of various renowned figures—scientists, scholars, philosophers, and revolutionaries—I discovered that many of them produced their great works in their native languages, which were later translated into other languages. Imposing foreign languages on children ultimately hampers their critical thinking abilities. For instance, in Pakistan, many students find themselves trapped in the pursuit of fluent and excellent English. In the long run, they may become fluent speakers but lose their cognitive abilities to discern truth from falsehood. Additionally, in this era of globalization, indigenous languages are gradually disappearing and being replaced by English. The only way to preserve these languages is by instilling an appreciation for them in our children. From a young age, I have heard the saying that nations are built in classrooms. It is essential to reflect upon the kind of nation we are constructing. Do we wish to create a nation of individuals who can mindlessly memorize entire pages in minutes, or a nation of enlightened minds capable of achieving wonders in the long term? Did China attain its developed status by focusing on learning English? It is high time for us to contemplate these matters. Education should always revolve around filling minds with exceptional ideas, rather than simply filling them with water.
The writer graduated from the School of Law, Quaid-i-Azam university. He is currently practising law with a special interest in socio-economic and political developments of Pakistan.