Debating the Idea of a Unified National Curriculum 

By Karim Aman

Like several other vital issues, academia in the country seems divided upon the question of a unified national curriculum. A veil of mystery surrounds the details, and a few in the government circles may be aware of the complete pictures of the proposed amendments; that’s why half of the public discourse seems to be based upon assumptions and the other half on political correctness. Both the liberal and the conservative voices in the country are expressing their concerns about the unified curriculum.

Concerns of the “liberal” sections seem to be based upon the long history of curricular reforms guided by political motives. The country has been suffering from the issues of extremism, polarization, and deteriorating quality of education induced by undue experimentation with the national curriculum during the last seven decades. They have a valid point in demanding a greater debate and developing a consensus of all stakeholders upon the fundamental principles that should guide our national curriculum reform initiatives. The development sector in the general and education sector, in particular, has suffered due to a lack of capacity, focus, and insufficient resource allocation over the decades. There are severe infrastructure issues, teachers’ capacity building problems, and academic leadership challenges in underdeveloped or rural areas of Pakistan. A well-devised curriculum when lands into the hands of incompetent teachers and careless educational administrators running schools without a conducive learning environment and resources may backfire. It is in this context their demand for combining the curricular enrichment agenda with the education sector reforms doesn’t seem unjustified. Some liberal voices go beyond the technicalities of curriculum revisions and have expressed their doubts about the timing of the initiative.

On the other hand, a heterogeneous mixture of conservative voices sees the multiple systems of education and curricular frameworks as a root cause of anti-nationalism, increased fragmentation, liberal extremism, social injustice, and class system. They argue that a wave of hypernationalism has swiped away several countries around the globe, including our immediate neighborhood. In this situation, offering a national narrative in the curriculum on key existential issues, including our federal and territorial integrity, and our Pakistani identity seems an unavoidable choice. No country in the world can afford to lose sight of the moral development of their offsprings, teaching them the rule of law and responsible citizenship. Formal education around the globe is considered as programming of society. Hence, some degree of indoctrination and selective understanding of history in the curriculums is evident even in the most democratic and liberal societies, and Pakistan should not be an exception. Multiple systems of education and curriculums, on the one hand, may foster competition and offer choices. On the other hand, it may also function as a source of social injustice and class system.

The idea of a unified national curriculum is not something new. It is prevalent in several countries around the globe for quite a long time. As a result of globalization, curricular milestones are getting global now, and ECED milestones proposed by UNICEF are one of the examples. We need to aspire not only for a national curriculum but a global one that prepares our children as global citizens. A unified national curriculum should not be, in principle, a matter of concern. Instead, the discourse should be focused upon the curricular premises and principles that should guide a unified national curriculum.  These principles may include but not limited to, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, technological competence, global citizenship, cosmopolitan ethics, pluralism, equal opportunities, and national integrity. These principles may function as a mediating ground between liberal and conservative voices expressing their polarized concerns for curricular reforms. We need to aspire for the minimum learning standards in numeracy, literacy, arts, technology, and exploration at the national level. At the same time, we may need to have a component of the curriculum that responds to the richness of our local cultures, languages, religious interpretations, demography, grassroots level democracy, and responsible citizenship.

The uphill task for both the liberal and conservative voices is not to draft a curriculum, but to strike a balance between conflicting perspectives on identity, nationalism, and religiosity. It is easier to revise the curriculum and develop consensus for subjects such as basic sciences, mathematics, and geography, but that might not be the case with other disciplines such as literature, social sciences, and Islamic studies.

Our liberal friends may need to understand that equal opportunity for quality education is the right of every child. One of the critical components of equal opportunity is a unified curriculum and the availability of learning resources irrespective of the urban-rural divide. We may need to understand that regardless of the varying degrees of religiosity, religion is a reality of our context, and a majority of the people, in one or another way, may want to see some element of their faith identity be reflected in the curriculum. The critical question that may be asked is, what values, perspectives, and religious world view should our curriculum aspire to develop? In the age of hypernationalism, the notion of national integration may not be neglected. Principles on which national integration should be based may be debated, but not the idea of Pakistan as a country and Pakistanis as a nation.

Our friends with a conservative view may also need to understand that Pakistan is a beautiful mosaic of cultures, interpretations of faith, and histories, and without respecting the diversity, the ideal of national integrity may not be achieved. We need to nurture a generation with balanced attitudes who can seek happiness, excellence, and success, and they are torchbearers of the caring, humanistic values of their faith that teaches humanity and compassion. Our curriculum reforms should enable our children to be confident about their identity. Still, at the same time, they have the right knowledge, skills, and dispositions to function in a multicultural and multifaith global context that is driven by technology, expertise, innovation, and data. We all, irrespective of our ideological differences, can develop a consensus to integrate ethics, pluralism, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, love for the country, care for the human life and environment, social justice, democracy, creativity,  learning, de learning, and re-learning as guiding principles in our curriculum.

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