Islamabad: Pakistan`s public education system has become a major barrier to the US’ efforts to defeat extremist groups, because of a curriculum that glorifies violence in the name of Islam and ignores basic history, science and math, American and Pakistani officials claim.
Islamic schools or madrassas are being blamed for their role as feeders to militant groups. Pakistani education experts, however, say the root of the problem is the public schools in a nation in which half of adults cannot sign their own name.
A large percentage of Pakistan’s population refuses to believe that Muslims could be responsible for horrific crimes, choosing to believe that India, Israel or the United States is behind the violence.
The United States is hoping an infusion of cash, part of a USD 7.5 billion civilian aid package, will begin to change that, and in the process alter the widespread perception that Washington`s only interest in Pakistan is in bolstering its military, reports the Washington Post.
According to education reform advocates here, any effort to improve the system faces the reality of intense institutional pressure to keep the schools exactly the way they are.
They say that for different reasons, the most powerful forces in Pakistan, including the Army, the religious establishment and the feudal landlords who dominate civilian politics, have worked against improving an education system that for decades has been in marked decline.
"If the people get education, the elite would be threatened. If they make education available, the security establishment`s ideology may be at risk," says Khadim Hussain, coordinator of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy and a professor at Islamabad`s Bahria University.
That ideology, Hussain said, involves the belief that non-Muslim nations are out to destroy Pakistan and that the Army is the only protection Pakistanis have from certain annihilation.
Those notions are emphasised at every level in the schools, with students focused on memorising the names of Pakistan`s military heroes and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, but not learning the basics of algebra or biology, he said.
The nature of the education system is reflected in popular attitudes toward the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups that in recent months have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Pakistan, many of them targeting civilians.
When Hussain challenges graduate-level students for proof, they accuse him of being part of the plot, he said.
"Telling students they need to use evidence and logic means that you are definitely an agent of India, Israel and the CIA," he said. "They don`t understand what evidence is."
The madrassas have multiplied in Pakistan as public education has deteriorated. But madrassas still educate only about 1.5 million students a year, compared with more than 20 million in public schools.
If Pakistan is to improve its dismal literacy rate and provide marketable skills to more of the estimated 90 million Pakistanis under the age of 18, it will have to start in the public schools.
The United States plans to spend USD 200 million here this year on education, the US Agency for International Development`s largest education program worldwide.
The money comes from the Kerry-Lugar Aid Bill, which was passed in late 2009 and promises Pakistan USD 7.5 billion in civilian assistance over the next five years.
The funds are intended to signal a substantial shift from earlier years, when US assistance to Pakistan was overwhelmingly focused on helping the military, which is battling the Taliban and al Qaeda in the nation`s northwest.
US officials say the money will be spent on a combination of programs, including infrastructure improvements, teacher training and updates to the curriculum. Unlike in past years, the money will not be filtered through non-governmental organisations and contractors but will be given directly to Pakistan`s government, officials say.
The idea is to improve the capacity of the nation`s fledgling civilian-led administration, and to promote trust between the two nations.