All across Pakistan’s national discourse – in lavish drawing rooms, or sensational talk-shows, and even rustic street-corners – people continue to reverberate the sentiment that there exists one single solution to Pakistan’s multi-faceted problems; a sort of key that can open the door of prosperity, and forever banish the darkness of our age. And that this key to all of our problems is ‘education’. Education, it is argued, will create better governance, stronger institutional democracy, better electoral choices, increased economic activity, decrease in the unemployment rate, greater tolerance, and therefore lesser extremism.

As a result, it is important to understand the purpose and dimensions of the education debate, and to also assess the broad underpinnings of its reform.

Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger of Harvard Law School, during a course titled ‘Progressive Alternatives’ commented, “the purpose of education is to recognise a tongue-tied prophet in every child.” Keeping aside its blasphemous connotations, this statement embraces the collective idealism of every society, and puts forth a hope that every single individual, if educated in the ‘correct’ way, has the potential – even destiny – to change the fate of humanity.

This naturally begs the question: are we living up to the promise of education in our society? Do our schools encourage students to ‘untie’ their tongues, and unshackle their brains, in order to reach their fullest potential? Are our curriculums conducive to higher learning? Will our children grow up to imbibe the ideals of a perfect society? Will our project of education open their minds to pluralistic thought? To tolerance and equality? Will they grow up to further the frontier of thought? Will they be citadels of intellect, and bastions of moral courage?

The short answer, at least presently, is: No.

The problem, in this regard, exists at two distinct levels. First, the curriculum of educational institutions across Pakistan disseminates an intolerant, narrow-minded and biased (even bigoted) idea of history, politics, religion and even sciences. And second, the ‘culture’ in most of our leading educational institutions stunts debate, discourages political speech, deters the dissemination of avante gard ideas, and prohibits questioning beyond the prescribed circumference of faith.

The first of these two issues – curriculum review – is legal in nature, and thus easier to resolve. Under our now (amended) Constitutional scheme, each Province has the power to review the curricula being taught in schools within its territorial jurisdiction, and prescribe the subject-matter for classroom study. In this regard, while a centralised (Federal) curriculum is determined for homogenous education across Pakistan, but the Provinces have the constitutional authority to prepare and publish the manuscripts/textbooks (in accordance with the curriculum) for each class. In exercise of this power, the Province of Punjab, for example, had earlier passed a Punjab Curriculum Authority Act, 2012, (for review and selection of textbook manuscripts) and with Punjab Textbook Board Ordinance, 1962 (for printing of the textbooks). In 2015, however, these two statutory authorities were merged into one, through the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board Act, 2015. And since the curriculum as well as the development of textbooks is governed through legal instruments, the process of review and overhauling is simply a question of political will. In this regard, to ensure eradication of bias and bigotry from the minds of our students, a clear break from the past is needed; an embracing of a curriculum that promotes pluralism, does not vilify other religions or nationalities, does not portray the militant of the Afghan war as heroes, does not idolise dictator generals as saviours, does not preach hatred against people of other nationalities and races, and instead encourages the questioning of the age-old ideals of glorified martyrdom.

All this can be done with the stroke of a pen – a singular incident of legislative will, coupled with a concerted exercise of executive authority.

The second issue – discouraging the freedom of thought and expression – is cultural in nature, and thus perhaps harder to ‘fix’. Educational institutions, all across Pakistan, seem to be pursuing a policy of chilling political speech and participation of students in our national discourse. Student petitions to hold vigils, to organise rallies, to endorse causes, and support movements is discouraged on campuses. Conferences such as ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’ were banned outright in all educational institutions, including LUMS. The administration and faculty of even the most liberal educational institutions are afraid to scratch controversial issues. Discussing the blasphemy law is taboo. Teaching comparative religions is forbidden. Saadat Hasan Manto and D.H. Lawrence are perverts. And questioning the policies of our intelligentsia is heresy.

Under the chilling pretext of taboo issues, our educational institutions have lost sight of the fact that the endeavor of education necessarily entails a conscious effort to engage with and participate in the ongoing national discourse; that student bodies, all through world history, have been the engine of social progress and political development. And that without such participation by students in our socio-political debate, we will be producing a generation of doctors, engineers and lawyers, all of whom are disconnected with the pulse of modernism, and inert as to the growing and grave trends in our society. This impotence of moral and social conscience, will also spell the death of political evolution and institutional progress, without which no country or generation can ever hope to achieve its fullest potential.

For the longest time, we have been told – by politicians, social-workers, and intellectuals – that education is the silver bullet against militancy, intolerance and extremism. That with education, we will be able to overcome the menacing problems that our nation faces today, and graduate to a life in the promised sunlit uplands of democracy. But if Al-Qaeda members are being arrested from the graduate schools of Punjab University and NUST, if members of the LUMS student-body and faculty harbour sympathy with ISIS, if political science students from Karachi University are suspects in ethnic target killings, then we must concede that our educational curriculum and institutions are failing in eradicating the evils of our society. The silver bullet, in the circumstances, is just a myth. And those of us who still have faith in the future of this country, are simply deluding ourselves as to the promise of an educated society.

To stem the rot, and cure an already cancerous malady, our educational curriculum and culture must change. And the responsibility for this change rests with thinking members of the academia!