OVER A COFFEE: Culture: the sacrificial animal? —Dr Haider Shah
The main aim of primary level books is to encourage book reading and establish a lifelong friendship with books. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistani books no such consideration is noticeable
Like many unresolved controversies, there are many polarised views about our national culture. What is Pakistani culture is an issue that needs an analysis in its own right and I leave it for some other occasion. Here I want to emphasise the national trend of sacrificing culture at the altar of religious fervour.
Just a few days ago, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote a nice piece in a local English daily about the quality of school education as reported by the recently conducted empirical study titled the ‘Annual Status of Education Report’ (ASER). The report paints a dismal picture, as about 40 percent of the students are found unable to read or write a basic sentence in Urdu or their mother tongue. Dr Hoodbhoy discusses the futility of an education system that is based on serving and promoting an assumed ideology rather than encouraging genuine learning. I was also planning to write something about the same issue as I felt very upset after making some unsuccessful attempts aimed at finding some learning material for my young primary school children.
I am one of those Pakistanis who live abroad and wish to see their children retain their historical roots. The desire does not come from obsessive patriotism but has a more rational basis. Studies have shown that children who are proficient in two languages on average outperform those who speak only one language. Moreover, a language is a gateway to a new culture and knowing more languages is always an asset in the shrinking multicultural world today. I was, therefore, filled with the desire of teaching my children Urdu and Pashto so that they do not remain deprived of the opportunity of studying the literature of Pakistan one day.
I began my search with the help of Google to find out if there were good online Urdu teaching facilities available. The experiment proved partly discouraging and partly educative. It transpired that we Pakistanis are obsessed with teaching religious lessons with the help of much software. The most common service offered is learning the Quran and stories about various religious personalities. It appears that formal teaching of Pakistani languages is a very low priority as obsession with Arabic and its teaching has eclipsed any concern for our own languages. Consequently, there is hardly any language teaching material available for our children in this digital age. After much research I stumbled upon a children’s magazine in Urdu published by a national newspaper. The contents of the magazine reminded me of K K Aziz’s book, The Murder of History, in which he had catalogued the propaganda-based textbooks with very low quality of paper and unimaginative subject matter.
Much anecdotal evidence suggests that children rate Urdu as one of their least favourite subjects. Perhaps they are not to blame for that. The textbook writers in Pakistan forget that teaching young minds is a delicate art requiring imagination and ingenuity. All over the world books written for primary school students are therefore colourful and attractive. Authors writing books for young children are very attentive to the cognitive needs of budding imaginative minds. One sees animal stories, colourful cartoon images and other attention grabbing material in books meant for children. The main aim of primary level books is to encourage book reading and establish a lifelong friendship with books. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistani books no such consideration is noticeable. Instead of giving importance to the learning needs of children, there is a clear display of obsession with stuffing the young minds with morality and religiosity lessons. Open any textbook or a magazine, and you will first find a poem in praise of God, i.e. Hamd, in dry and dull poetry. Then is the turn of a ‘naat’. Following these there will be countless lecturing lessons on various religious themes. A few stories about religious personalities and moral quotes adorn other pages. It is thus not surprising that children feel completely disconnected from such books and cram the lessons under the threat of caning or other punishments.
The Pakistani diaspora living in the western countries is caught between the competing demands of religious and cultural identities. The former has emerged as a clear winner. The most defining concerns of Pakistani communities relate to hijab (headscarf) for women, building mosques in every second street and establishing Islamic centres. If you wish to learn about the local culture of Pakistan, you will hardly find any institutional arrangement. There are no lessons in Pakistani music and other fine arts. The local colours of Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi and Baloch culture are nowhere seen in any centre set up by the Pakistani community. One can see more black amama- or burqa-clad women in Birmingham and Bradford than in Pakistan. At times one feels that Pakistanis are trying to become more Arab than the Arabs.
The Arabised cultural identity assumed by Pakistanis is not only devouring our national cultural heritage but is also becoming a nursery for terrorism-prone propaganda for the ever angry radicalised youth. Recently, a UK court awarded jail terms to nine youngsters of Pakistani origin who had received training in Pakistan and wanted to carry out terrorist acts in London. The stereotypical identity no longer reflects the universal message of love of Bulleh Shah, Rahman Baba or Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. One does not know what the Pakistani missions are doing abroad, other than stamping passports.
Dr Hoodbhoy mentions that the textbooks are interested in teaching “Alif se Allah, Bay se Bandooq and Jeem se Jihad”. Children’s books need to be purged of all such radical agenda-driven material. Children are more at home with a mouse, duck or a puppy character in their books. In this I find Ghamidi sahib’s stance very appealing. He rightly says that the purpose of our early education should be to make our children become good human beings. Once they become good human beings, they are more likely to become good Muslims as well. Perhaps the textbook writers can follow this very rational advice and produce books that meet the psychological needs of young children. A book needs to be readable before it can be of any use. Children are most sensitive to this basic requirement of a good book.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org