Pervez Hoodbhoy


A biology textbook is normally expected to teach biology as science, meaning a scientifically based study of the structure, growth and origin of living things. But what if such a book instead says science must follow ideology and loudly denounces the core principles of biology, condemning these as wrong and irrational?


Published in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year, a biology textbook declares that “The theory of evolution, as proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, is one of the most unbelievable and irrational claims in history”. Ridiculing the notion that complex life evolved from simpler forms, it claims this violates common sense and is just as “baseless” as assuming that when two rickshaws collide “a motor car was evolved”.


Colliding two rickshaws will, of course, never result in a motor car. That’s common sense. But what does this have to do with the prokaryote-eukaryote transition (which the authors are trying to refute)? More importantly, common sense isn’t good enough for science. Didn’t common sense once tell you that the sun moves across the sky, the earth is flat, and that being out in the cold produced colds? Common sense didn’t tell you that smoking was dangerous. Evidence did.


Evidence through years of patient observation — not common sense — led to Darwin’s theory of evolution and to Newton’s laws of motion. Take them away and biology, as well as physics, instantly collapses into a meaningless jumble of facts. Robbed of fundamentals, biology ceases to be biology and physics ceases to be physics. They cease to be branches of science.


If the quoted textbook was just one of a kind, I would not have written this article. But almost all books have this attitude. Another KP textbook says “A person in a stable and proper state of mind” cannot accept the wild theories of Western science. By corollary, only mad people can. A physics textbook of the Sindh Textbook Board categorically states that the universe sprang instantly into existence when a certain divine phrase was uttered.


Anti-science does not live in our textbooks only. Many Pakistani science and maths teachers are uncomfortable with their vocations. Whether in schools or universities, they obtained their jobs by possessing requisite certificates and degrees. But not all agree with what they are paid to teach, or even understand it. It should surprise no one that most biology teachers in Pakistan either do not — or perhaps dare not — touch upon human evolution.


Other teachers also feel torn between science and faith. Qari N. was a mathematics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University and my neighbour in the QAU housing colony. He was a soft-spoken and deeply pious man who wore his shalwar well above his ankles and would rebuff customary embraces after Eid prayers, declaring them to be bid’at (an innovation, hence disallowed).


His PhD in mathematics notwithstanding, the gentle qari would say to his M.Sc students that although it was his job to teach, yet mathematics was not to be trusted. He rejected not just mathematics but all Western cultural contaminations, including modern medicine. A chronic diabetic, he refused to see a regular doctor and instead put his trust in a hakeem who prescribed several spoonfuls daily of pure honey. Sadly, I was unable to make it to his funeral because of my busy class schedule that day.


Ideological discomfort with science largely explains Pakistan’s total absence from the world of creative science or technology. But there are other competing reasons, foremost among which is corruption and extreme incompetence in the field of textbook publishing. I do not think there is another country in the world that miseducates its young so badly.


Over four decades, I have collected scores of school science textbooks, both Urdu and English. Most have been produced by the Punjab and Sindh textbook boards. You can guess how many copies need to be printed for a population of 200 million people, as well as imagine the profits from even a small markup. These are ideal conditions for corruption and incompetence to thrive in government education departments.


One year ago, my article ‘Burn these books, please!’ was published in this newspaper. It pleaded that our students should be kept away “from the rotten science textbooks published by the Sindh Textbook Board (STB), an entity operating under the Sindh Ministry of Education. Else yet another generation will end up woefully ignorant of the subjects they study — physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology.”


The article caught the attention of the current Sindh secretary of education, a man who appeared committed to change. He invited me to be part of the Sindh government’s education advisory board, an honorary position which I instantly accepted. A Karachi-based philanthropist offered to underwrite expenses needed for a massive revamp of textbook development and also paid my airfare to attend a committee meeting. There was some excitement, and a faint ray of hope that one hoped was not that faint.


The first meeting was duly held, and then subsequent ones. Unfortunately, the committee’s secretary made sure nothing would really move. Many promises were made but none were kept, critical issues were left unaddressed, and endless bureaucratic hurdles were devised.


One year later I see that our efforts — including those of a US-based Pakistani academic — had been neatly sabotaged. Now I hear over the grapevine that the committee has been dissolved. It doesn’t matter if it has — the lack of seriousness was apparent from day one. When foxes are charged with protecting chickens, the outcome rarely surprises.


The Sindh education ministry is beyond reform. It cannot deliver good textbooks for Matric and FSc. Adapting, subsidising, and translating internationally produced ‘O’ and ‘A’ level science books — used presently by only a tiny sliver of upscale Pakistani schools — is the only reasonable way to go. Those who protest that this amounts to a Western cultural invasion should be asked to produce their own science. In the meantime they shouldn’t use electricity or mobile phones, and travel only on donkeys and camels. Instead of antibiotics or insulin they could, like my former neighbour, opt to use honey.


The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

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