Making ‘O’ levels Pakistan Studies textbooks available to all

Published: February 2, 2016


PHOTO: REUTERS The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

The biases inherent in our official Pakistan Studies textbooks are no secret. They teach students that India is the enemy, that it is ‘evil’ and has no redeeming qualities; that the world is out to get us. There is a lot that they don’t teach as well: critical thinking, that history is rarely black and white, that different historical sources may give different renderings of the same event. Yet, frustratingly, recent efforts at curriculum reform have failed, although marginal improvements have been made.

Why? Because the official curriculum is a deliberate tool of the Pakistani state’s nation-building project; because religious parties throw a fit every time there is some progress, as they did recently in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P); and because rewriting textbooks from scratch is hard. But what if excellent alternative textbooks already existed, and the only thing we needed was a translation?

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Those excellent texts are the ‘O’ levels Pakistan Studies textbooks — the required one written by Nigel Kelly, and a secondary one by Farooq Naseem Bajwa. I recently reviewed these, and my latest research paper compares these books with the Matric textbooks in detail. There are big differences between the two sets of books — probably not a surprise to many. I list some of them here.

First, the Pakistan ideology, that central premise and starting point of the Matric textbooks — that the sole basis of Pakistan is Islam — is nowhere to be found in the ‘O’ levels books. This ideology was not born with Pakistan, but was a concept constructed by the Jamaat-e-Islami and introduced into textbooks in the 1970s and early 1980s via a University Grants Commission directive.

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Two, the evolving historical and political story of Partition is told in the ‘O’ levels books rather than the linear narrative presented in the Matric books. The Cambridge texts describe periods of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. Kelly mentions Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s initial pronouncements about Hindus and Muslims being one nation, and also mentions Jinnah’s initial opposition to Partition before explaining how events changed their minds.

Third, the ‘O’ levels book shows the positive side of India and Hindus (along with the negatives). Upon Partition, when India withheld the cash it owed Pakistan, “Gandhi was determined that the division of assets should be as fair as possible. He objected to what the Indian government was doing”. The book states that Gandhi began a hunger strike, and as a result, the Indian government paid Pakistan the remaining Rs500 million it owed us.

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Fourth, the ‘O’ levels books quote Jinnah’s critical statement: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” They also mention his title of “protector-general” of minorities. It is then no surprise that Dr Tariq Rahman found in his 2002-03 survey that ‘O’ levels students have more tolerant views of minorities relative to Matric students — with 66 per cent of ‘O’ levels students versus 47 per cent of Matric students supporting equal rights for Ahmadis, 78 per cent versus 47 per cent for Hindus, and 84 per cent versus 66 per cent for Christians.

One criticism of Kelly’s book, and the official ‘O’ levels curriculum, is that it could cover a longer historical period. Currently, it covers the history of the subcontinent from the Mughal Empire onwards. Bajwa’s book casts the widest lens on pre-independence history, (briefly) covering Hindu empires, the Indus Valley civilisation, and the Persian and Greek invaders of the subcontinent.

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But the pluses of the ‘O’ levels books are not confined to content: the style and methods are equally important. The Matric books present no sources, primary or secondary. There is no sense of historical research, of historians’ and governments’ motivations in representing history one way or the other. But the Cambridge Pakistan Studies curriculum aims to “develop (an) understanding of the nature and use of historical evidence”, and the authors present an abundance of it in the textbooks — old speeches, the writings of prominent figures, historians’ accounts. Kelly reports how the same historical event is represented differently by different sides in the story — how 1857 was the “Indian mutiny” for British historians, but the “war of independence” for Indian historians. Questions are repeatedly posed to the reader — how, what, why — and these do not necessarily have one right or wrong answer. Students are asked to reconcile different accounts of the same event, and to draw their own conclusions.

Why is it that we treat one set of students — the elite ‘O’ levels students — as intelligent, but do not treat the vast majority of the country’s students the same way? Why must the Matric students be relegated to learn at a level many rungs down the ladder, and probably many levels below their abilities? It is morally unconscionable that two sections of our student population live and learn in the words of Dr Rahman as “denizens of alien worlds”.

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There are legitimate concerns about how feasible it would be to teach a challenging ‘O’ levels curriculum in Pakistani government schools, with underpaid, undertrained and poorly motivated teachers to Matric students who have never been challenged to think for themselves, and with class sizes that make discussions difficult. But the books can be simplified, at least for a transition period, and made accessible to a Matric audience. Chances are that Matric students will adapt quickly to the challenging curriculum. Teachers will need to be trained extensively and critical thinking introduced early on in the system.

There is also a political barrier to surpass, with nay-saying religious parties. We need a strong government to push such a reform. But it is the way forward. The answer to our dual education systems lies not in moving to the local Matric system for all, but moving students up to the better system, one that helps create more intelligent, thoughtful and tolerant students.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd,  2016.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Muhammad Mohsan Waqas
    Feb 2, 2016 - 11:12PM

    I disagree with this opinion. Recommend

  • Feb 3, 2016 - 2:28AM

    Insightful and incisive – the author is a scholar to be watched.Recommend

  • Dong
    Feb 3, 2016 - 3:46AM

    I do agree that the narratives about minorities in our text books is absolutely criminal but as a student who has studied matric recently. I assure you that during Pakistan studies we DO study about Jinnah’s first support for a single nation and then why he started fighting for a separate nation.Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Feb 3, 2016 - 5:24AM

    @Muhammad Mohsan Waqas:
    Here, here, I second your learned opinion.
    The author needs to reformulate her statement.Recommend

  • A Citizen
    Feb 3, 2016 - 8:34AM

    Totally agreed. Recommend

  • Feb 3, 2016 - 9:14AM

    Textbooks of elite private schools have biases and errors too. Diversity of Pakistan is largely missing in it and most critical thing is rural bias in it. Praise for colonial rule, Cold war etc also shows preferences of authors. portraying elite private schools and their textbooks as model is also another fallacy Recommend

  • Nouman Ahmad
    Feb 3, 2016 - 11:42AM

    It would have been better if the solution to the most important factor, the objection by religious parties would have been presented. Recommend

  • Feroz
    Feb 3, 2016 - 12:07PM

    There was no “Ideology of Pakistan” in 1947. It was some mischief mongers with their vested interests who created and propagated such an Ideology, not sure any such Ideology was approved or passed by any Parliament. That is where the problems originate from, contents of textbooks is merely a manifestation of this Ideology. Without addressing this basic issue and neutralizing it, none of the educational reforms will bring the desired change in mindset.Recommend

  • Ahad
    Feb 3, 2016 - 12:35PM

    Well professor you are correct in your indications, but you might also notice that Government textbooks leave enough room to accomodate the text of it’s counterpart O levels.

    So it boils down to where one studies; the school, the city, the ethnicity and class are all effective variables that determine how Gov. PS is taught.

    As for the potential drawback of self-reading and comprehension among students, nothing, had that been the case we would be professors like yourself. I
    I am no O level myself.

    Ofcourse it should be fixed, but you being a policy lady no better than anyone that a whole has to change before the needed thing gets addressed. I mean will you face the wrath of the sword win things get ugly? Recommend

  • Ali S
    Feb 3, 2016 - 12:45PM

    @Muhammad Mohsan Waqas:

    Of course you do – like most Pakistanis who got a govt school education, you’ve been too thoroughly brainwashed to face the truth.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 3, 2016 - 3:53PM

    There is a lot that they don’t teach as well: critical thinking, that history is rarely black and white, that different historical sources may give different renderings of the same event.

    And tell us madam, how does one teaches a developed homo sapien born as an intelligent specie, the critical thinking or create more intelligent student out of as you state, and what exactly is the basis of your research having specialised in economics with a doctrate? You madam represent the neo liberals of the Brooking institute whose goal is to politicise every avenue of learning, thereby indoctrinating the masses in the globalised world, which is not very different from what occurred during the moghul era and the colonial period after and during successive military Governments of Pakistan which in fact was formed in the name of Islam.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Saleem
    Feb 3, 2016 - 3:59PM

    The basic premise of this argument is the statement “Because the official curriculum is a deliberate tool of the Pakistani state’s nation-building project” and my simple question is that …WHY NOT . A better comparative study would be to analyze the textbooks in other countries as well . Does the British history books tell them about how Britian went around in its hunger for raw material and would it go in detail to explain the dirty games behind it ? Or otherwise that is the ‘version of history’ that Britain wants its students to learn for the nation building .Recommend

  • Saleem
    Feb 3, 2016 - 4:01PM

    @Ali S , yes you are correct- like few Pakistanis who studied in elite schools and were brain washed into thinking that they are superior. What you have studied is ‘critical thinking’ and what others are studying or what others are saying is not the truth but ‘brainwashing’.Recommend

  • Naveed
    Feb 3, 2016 - 5:02PM

    Agreed that text book reforms needed but severely biased and flawed opinion by the author. Recommend

  • Blister
    Feb 3, 2016 - 7:39PM

    Britain has no official British history textbooks. Students prepare for the projects from which ever source they can and advised to put the references in their work to the sources. The sources usually are very variable and that provide different perspectives. Every project report is different and goes after a different angle and some will surprise you as they do blame the west for a lot of ills in the world. Because there is no official book for british history the scope remains very wide and you may be surprised that they love their country as much as you might feel like you love yours. Hopefully there will be a time we will learn that criticism is more constructive than patronizing. Needless to say I fully agree with the views of the author.Recommend

  • Mir Ali
    Feb 3, 2016 - 8:52PM

    Yes please. I’ve been telling this to ppl for years now. Recommend

  • Ahad
    Feb 4, 2016 - 2:40AM

    @Saleem: i remember the setting in my Modern World History (1500) course at a Canadian Universty.

    The professor actually read out the account of a colonial commander, who spoke on the justification of colonialism.

    The class was so transparent that many were left ashamed; as if they were responsible. And those who were offended protested by skipping the following class.

    The following week all were present and to the occassion the professor said, “If you don’t like History you can always drop my course.”Recommend

  • Feb 4, 2016 - 9:33AM

    Media & Textbooks plays an important role in making and destroying a society in the world of nation states. you may call them new gods. read this link about media and hate speech in Pakistan

  • Shakil Chaudhary
    Feb 4, 2016 - 1:03PM

    @Saleem: No offense, but you are being polemical. I studied in Urdu medium schools and vouch for the fact that Pakistan studies is a tool to brainwash students into hating Hindus and India. Can you honestly deny this? Prof. KK Aziz has documented inaccuracies and biases of Pakistani textbooks in his “The Murder of History.”

    You have unfairly made fun of critical thinking skills. These are extremely useful skills. Unfortunately, they are alien to an overwhelming majority of Pakistan. One can argue that nobody is completely free of bias, but you cannot deny that some individuals and states are more biased than others.

    I did my master’s in media and communications at the London School of Economics. In my paper entitled “Is it possible to cover war objectively”, I sincerely praised the BBC in the context of Falklands war. My supervisor was not too pleased. He provided me the biggest lesson into Western education system by saying: “It is good that you have praised the BBC, but it is not a perfect organization. You should have explored its constraints and weaknesses.”

    This is in sharp contrast to Pakistani education system. A friend of mine was doing his MPhil at Quaid-i-Azam University. His thesis was on Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. His supervisor told him not to mention Suhrawardy’s independent Bengal scheme because in supervisor’s infinite wisdom it somehow undermined the ideology of Pakistan.

    In conclusion, I would compliment Madiha Afzal on writing this thought-provoking column. Recommend

  • Fatima Sajjad
    Feb 7, 2016 - 10:39PM

    As someone who has taught O level Pak Studies , I would not recommend the text as ideal , the books may be better than Matric books but they need a lot of improvement . Imortantly CIE Pak St examination system must be improved and made more like World History exam. The current system tests mostly cramming and writing speed rather than application of knowledge learnt.Recommend

  • AR
    Feb 8, 2016 - 4:21PM

    It seems that Ms. Madiha is of the view that all Pakistani history makers are biased and all western historians are unbiased. Following article by Dr.. Asad Zaman shows the true face of foreign historians.

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