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All hail the SNC

I was on a road trip to the northern areas with friends. We were at a rest stop, our black off-road utility vehicle parked on the side of the road, its tinted windows glistening in the sunlight.

I was drinking Kool-Aid when I received a copy of the official notification bearing the news that the Single National Curriculum (SNC) for grades 9-12 has been finalized – I am going to dispense with the pretension of calling it the National Curriculum of Pakistan, or the NCP, because that was just a rebranding exercise by the incoming PDM government last year.

Grades 9 and 11 will start on the SNC in August 2024. The following year, in August 2025, these same students will continue on to become the first to go through the SNC’s grades 10 and 12.

Over the last few years, educationists and concerned citizens have been vocal in pointing out problems in the SNC and its roll-out strategy. The talk of a ‘single school system’ that was initially part of it and the insistence on subjecting private schools to the SNC have both fallen by the wayside since then. Nevertheless, over five years and two successive governments, the SNC project has continued to roll on. With this most recent announcement for high school grades 9 to 12 beginning next year, the SNC project is almost complete.

As I was standing there reading the notification, a light went on in my head! Maybe we have been looking at the SNC all wrong. Maybe the SNC’s mind-numbing mediocrity is in fact the drug that young adults will need to cope with a life in a brutalized society where hyper-religious exhibitionism is the norm and they will graduate into a workforce and a tanked economy.

Apropos the economy, going forward one of my few criticisms of the SNC is that its scope was too narrow. Boards of Secondary and Intermediate Education offer around three dozen different subjects at the high-school level. The scope of the SNC exercise encompasses only nine subjects (English, Urdu, Islamiat, Pakistan Studies, Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology). This deprives students of the other two-dozen-or-so subjects of the SNC’s mind-altering benefits.

The SNC’s able captains and stewards may also consider folding the subjects of Economics with Islamiyat into one, ever since our present finance minister publicly announced that this country’s economy is run by God (Geo News, “Dar says Allah responsible for Pakistan’s prosperity, development,” January 27, 2023)

I want to be thorough in my praise, so I went through the final versions of the SNC specifications of grades 9 to 12.

All subject curricula now have elaborate lists of learning outcomes attached to them. The benchmarks accompanying them give the reader a good picture of the topical coverage and depth that we can expect to see in the textbooks that should be developed over the course of the next 12 months.

When it comes to Mathematics, I am happy to report that the SNC specification was like a trip down memory lane. I think everything looked a lot like I remember from high school in the 90s. I found it very comforting.

Chemistry was much the same way. The only way I can think of improving on it is by following India’s example and removing mention of the periodic table from the curriculum (Nature, “India cuts periodic table and evolution from school textbooks – experts are baffled”, May 31, 2023). Something worth considering.

While the Physics SNC retains its 30-year-old charm (and contents), my sole concern is with the addition of some new contents about subatomic particles beyond electrons, protons, and neutrons. It is clearly unnecessarily burdensome. After all, when was the last time you interviewed for a government job and someone asked you what your favorite flavor of quark is?

For Biology I relied on Turnitin to analyze its SNC document. I am happy to report that large parts of it, entire paragraphs, are lifted from a patchwork of internet sources, clocking in at a solid 46 per cent on Turnitin. Why write something original, why reinvent the wheel in the age of search engines and ChatGPT?

If there is one thing you need to know to survive and succeed in Pakistani society it is to master Islamiat through 12 years of school and beyond. I appreciate the significant bulking up of its contents under the SNC because it will serve us well should alien powers decide to put their thumb on the scale in favour of right-wing religious outfits in future elections. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

The stated learning outcomes for English have me firmly believing that by 2026, when the first 12th graders will graduate under the SNC, they will do so as native English speakers. My only wish is we could have their teachers go to high school again as well. I look forward to seeing education departments providing schools with the teachers and other resources necessary to deliver such outstanding learning outcomes.

Outside of the SNC specification for English, I have been informed that a message has been conveyed to the relevant champions of the SNC to ensure that the curriculum promotes traditional family values. I believe that means there shall be no acknowledgment of the existence of widows/widowers, divorced/remarried parents, single parents, adoptions, since these do not exist in our society, as we have already seen in the SNC for primary grades.

The Computer Science SNC promises to have 9th graders, many of whom will not have ever had a computer at the schools they will come from much less used one, making webpages in HTML, CSS, and Javascript. All other current buzzwords (AI, Machine learning, data science, NLP, robotics, speech recognition, IoT, Blockchain, and cloud computing) are covered before the end of grade 10 so that all sounds like a good idea.

Last, but surely not least, we have Pakistan Studies. I also requested a renowned professor of Pakistan Studies at a university to comment on the contents of the subject SNC. His summarized comments were that “history is pretty much business as usual.” The section on economic development “contains no mention of class/region/gender whilst reinforcing officialdom’s position on the ‘vital’ role of mega water infrastructure.” The section on cultural diversity “does not introduce any critical debates on contested notions of nationhood/ethnic-nationalism.” There is “no mention of the dictatorships that abrogated constitutional rule, etc” and “no mention of the India-centric history of our foreign policymaking.” It continues to manage to talk about everything under the sun while ignoring the historical elephants in the room, just the way it should be.

I hope that teachers will not let students stray too far afield in giving their answers, just like in the current SSC Civics subject. This year, 5224 students appeared for the Civics SSC exam conducted by the Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Examinations. For question 5, the exam asked “What is a dictatorship? Explain its merits?” Acceptable answers given in the accompanying textbook (not updated since 2002) include 1) quick decision-making, 2) continuity of policies, 3) development, and 4) national unity. That is the kind of guided inquiry I am rooting for in Pakistan Studies as well.

A search of the Pakistan Studies SNC shows that neither the words ‘province’ / ‘provincial’, ‘devolve’ / devolution’, ‘autonomy’ / ‘autonomous’ nor the names of any provinces appear anywhere, as it should be. Any talk using these words would just unnecessarily confuse students. After all, they are only around 18 years of age and become eligible to vote when they graduate from grade 12. We know what’s best for them. Better save all that critical thinking the SNC is teaching them for later in life.

I do wonder though, when everything the PTI did is being vilified, dismantled, or reversed, how is it that the SNC project is the one constant that survived? What are those constant forces that have kept this initiative going? Surely, that is nothing short of a miracle! But I am dwelling on this too much, surely a side-effect of being educated in the inferior pre-SNC era.

And so, to fellow educationists, I say we have lost. Save yourself the heartburn and just go with the flow. Steer into the skid! Students of foreign school systems (Cambridge IE, IB, etc) will regrettably remain deprived of the greatness that is coming to public high schools next year. My parting message to high schoolers: Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. Your software will be updated.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "All hail the SNC," The News. 2023-06-21.
Keywords: Education , Education departments , National Curriculum , Educationists , Nationalism , Pakistan , SNC , PDM