Nov 14, 2010

The historical present

Formal educational curriculum does not make us into better humans or serve a progressive nation-building project

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

I feel compelled to write about the bomb blast in Karachi on Thursday night, even though there is so little for me to say. What needs to be said has been said so many times before that I am tempted to say that the written word has become somewhat meaningless. Yet there is no question that those with a conscience must continue to raise their voices, both against the never-ending 'war on terror' and the mangling of history that is directly related to the current spiral of violence that blights this country.

As a teacher, I have come across thousands of students that have suffered through primary and secondary curricula and have had their critical faculties stunted. The situation is undoubtedly not as dire for students who have attended elite private schools, but let it be said that there is a trend towards parochialism amongst our privileged classes that cannot be matched by the public school-going mass. This is in part because the former have limited contact with the state that they eulogise but more importantly reflects the interest that this elite has in maintaining the status quo and the official ideology that props it up.

To reiterate: I believe that there is a direct link between the millenarian monster that has been unleashed on society and the steady eviction of real history from our educational curriculum. Enough has been written about the latter that I do not need to repeat the details here. It should suffice to say that under Zia-ul-Haq's regime the educational curriculum was fundamentally revised to reflect the ideological needs of the dictator, and ever since history has disappeared from this country. Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat now rule the roost.

I want to focus on the impacts of this enormous change on the attitudes of students and how these attitudes filter down into the rest of society. An average student exposed to 12 years of Pakistan Studies basically learns how to blame everything bad that happens in Pakistan on the proverbial Hindu conspiracy. Partition is depicted as a triumph of the Muslim mind and collective will in the face of almost insurmountable Hindu intransigence. Subsequently, the Hindus have conspired with just about everyone else to undermine Pakistan (by launching three wars of aggression and initiating other direct and indirect assaults against Pakistan's core interests).

It would be one thing if the distortion of facts was the only problem with this narrative. More lethal is the effect of such 'learning' on the working of the mind. The 'hate-Hindus' story simply does not tally with what students are made to believe was the logic for creating Pakistan in the first place. Yet this basic contradiction is never confronted. In all of my time as a teacher I have found very few students who have been able to reconcile the fact that Pakistan was ostensibly conceived to allow Muslims the peace of mind and opportunities for independent development which they apparently lacked in a united India with the persistence of the 'Hindu threat' after partition.

In other words, if it was necessary to create Pakistan to free Muslims from majoritarian tyranny then why has the sovereign state of Pakistan been unable to build a future for itself free from the spectre of Indian hegemony? If one argues, as our establishment intellectuals do, that India's evil designs have prevented Pakistan from moving beyond the bitter legacy of Hindu-Muslim rivalry in the last few decades of British rule, then surely these intellectuals made a mess of their prediction that all would be well once the Muslim mass secured a separate country for itself.

Unfortunately, asking students to think deeply about what are at one and the same time historical and contemporary questions is often considered tantamount to heresy. Of course, things have improved a fair bit over the years and much more space exists within the academy and popular media to undertake critical analyses of our historical present. But because students do not develop their critical faculties in their formative years it becomes difficult for them to come to terms with revisionist narratives later on.

One of the most common reactions I have witnessed when students are confronted with such contradictory perspectives is to revert quickly to what they have been trained to think. In short, they resort to name-calling and directly or indirectly assert the involvement of the proverbial foreign hand. There is a stark unwillingness to think deeply about the numerous sociological phenomena that are endogenous to Pakistani society (or segments thereof).

As such, then this attitude of the educated classes necessarily trickles down to the rest. When the popular media whips up a frenzy about this or that attack and craftily invokes the foreign hand, the TV-watching public is already inclined to subscribe to this narrative. In effect, popular narratives and the more 'considered' ideas that do the rounds in our schools, colleges and universities mutually reinforce one another. While this is not necessarily a state of affairs unique to Pakistan the extent of the consensus is what troubles me.

To come back to the Karachi blasts: the inability of our educated classes to look beyond the foreign hand theory precludes a meaningful alternative approach to dealing with the phenomenon of millenarian violence. And ultimately until and unless a critical mass of people, particularly from within this educated class, starts to offer an historical-structural analysis that recognises how and why facts have been distorted will we be able to work towards a long-term resolution of the social conflicts that produce suicide bombers and the like.

Even where educated circles harbour relatively progressive opinions vis a vis our neighbours, the knee-jerk tendency still exists. It is not enough to simply assert that the Pakistani state should be secular -- what needs to be understood is the ambiguity that allows the other side to make just as compelling a case. This requires the elite to recognise that simply isolating their children from the public school-going mass of children actually reinforces the problem. Besides it is not as if the elite schools necessarily offer an alternative narrative. For those who continue to say that one of Pakistan's major crises is the illiteracy of the masses, I beg to differ. The formal educational curriculum does not make us into better humans, or serve a progressive nation-building project. It reinforces our prejudices and stunts our critical faculties. Why then do we put the blame for all of our many problems on those who do not go to school and become flag-bearers of official ideology?

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