Many think that our education rot is irreversible. Among countless other problems, one stands out: school textbooks written and produced in Pakistan. These are probably the world’s worst. For decades, children have studied from books printed upon smudgy newsprint replete with mistakes, stuffed with material containing hate against other people and religions, and impoverished of actual subject content.

There is now a ray of hope. Last week, two towering piles of books from the Punjab Textbook Board somehow found their way on to my desk. Many bear the imprimatur “Punjab Chief Minister’s Programme for Education Reforms” stamped on their front cover. This immediately sent to me a negative signal – what business is it of any minister, prime or chief, to advertise himself using public money? But having flipped through thousands of pages, I must reluctantly concede that the sin of self-promotion stands ameliorated.

The new books are cleanly printed on paper of decent quality, typographical errors are infrequent, and coloured cartoons show smiling girl children in class. Earlier textbooks typically showed docile boys facing grim-faced elderly teachers. My heart gladdened at suggested science experiments that are both interesting and doable. And, instead of beating the tired old drum of Muslim scientists from a thousand years ago, one now sees a genuine attempt to teach actual science – how plants grow and breathe, objects move, water makes droplets or freezes.

On the history front, one feels instant relief. Pakistan’s date of birth has thankfully been set at 1947 and away from 712 – the year Arab imperial conqueror Mohammed bin Qasim set foot in Sindh. Schoolbooks during General Zia-ul Haq’s years contained this claim and no subsequent government dared reset the clock. Astonishingly, one book frankly admits that Muslims fought against other Muslims and ascribes the Mughal Empire’s downfall after Emperor Aurangzeb to his quarrelling sons rather than eternally scheming Hindu Rajputs.

But here is the wonder of wonders: an Urdu translation of Quaid-i-Azam’s famous speech of August 11, 1947, has finally found its way into at least one social studies book. This declares that religion is a matter for the individual citizen and not of the state. The speech had hitherto been kept hidden for fear of polluting students’ minds and weakening the two-nation theory. Whether it will actually be covered in matric examinations is difficult to say; if not, then students and their teachers will not take it seriously.

An improvement, but flaws remain

Of course, not all is well and troubling issues remain. Books for teaching Urdu as a language read as if they are meant equally for teaching Islamiat; there is only passing reference to the ancient civilisations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa; why East Pakistan sought independence from West Pakistan is unexplained; and there is a continued blackout of Operation Gibraltar – the Kargil-like venture of General Ayub Khan to liberate Kashmir that precipitated the 1965 war. I might parenthetically mention that weeks ago, while speaking before 250-300 students at the GIK Institute (supposedly among the best universities in Pakistan), only nine said they had heard of the operation.

But these remaining flaws, though serious, pale in comparison to what children were forcibly fed in earlier decades. Samples: “Make speeches on jihad and shahadat”, “Acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan”, “Know about India’s evil designs against Pakistan”, “Visit police stations”, and “Collect pictures of policemen, soldiers and National Guards”. (These quotes are from pages 154-158 of the Curriculum Document for Classes K-V, National Bureau of Curriculum and Textbooks, Federal Ministry of Education, 1995.)

The older curriculum helped create a militant, intolerant mindset. A generation later, Pakistan saw jihad-obsessed youngsters emerging even from mainstream schools. Willing to kill and be killed, they are now everywhere and have to be crushed with Islamic-sounding operations like Zarb-i-Azb and Raddul Fasaad (for which great credit is claimed). Terrorist networks of students and teachers that target policemen, soldiers, and ordinary citizens have been discovered within many colleges and universities.

Stifling education

The eventual revamping of Punjab’s school textbooks owes to a belated realisation that thousands of Pakistani lives were needlessly lost to militancy fuelled by hate material in textbooks. Many years will be needed for the new books to produce a more enlightened, less xenophobic generation. This welcome step needed to be taken sooner rather than later. I have no knowledge of the blacked-out province of Balochistan but Punjab’s bold move has not been matched by other provinces.

Sindh remains frozen. Its education ministry and the Sindh Textbook Board have long set the highest standards of laziness, depravity and stupidity. An earlier analysis of the Sindh Textbook Board’s science books was published in Dawn newspaper two years ago. It has had zero effect; matters are just as grim there today as then.

Those who rule Sindh continue to stifle education. Sindh could have outraced Punjab by taking advantage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which frees the provinces from the federal diktat. Instead, secretaries of education in Sindh who worked to improve things were defeated and shunted out. Sindh’s misfortune has been the ideology-free, money-grabbing Pakistan Peoples Party, which oversees a system based upon patronage and unlimited corruption.

With Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s cleaner administration, one expected better. The earlier Awami National Party government had considerably softened textbooks in the province. But after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf entered into an alliance with the Jamaat-i-Islami (and now possibly with arch-conservative Maulana Samiul Haq), there was drastic back-pedalling. For example, there are newly added chapters in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa textbooks that glorify Ghazi Ilm Din – who preceded Mumtaz Qadri by almost a century – for murdering a blasphemer. This will gladden the hearts of those in Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s dharma, who have paralysed Islamabad now for over two weeks and will surely swell their future ranks.

No country with a reasonable standard of education would think much of celebrating the publication of decent schoolbooks. Like having air to breathe or water to drink, these are considered givens. But with Pakistan being what it has become, let us be happy with what Punjab has done and hope that people in other provinces will insist upon the same or better.

This article first appeared on Dawn.