Thursday, 23 March, 2023

Progressive Education or Permanent Retrograde?

  • Dr. Farzana Mahmood
  • 2nd February, 2023 02:24:23 PM
  • Print news

Few years back I watched the biopic “Agora” with great enthusiasm, which now comes into my mind amid the textbook controversy. The central character of the movie Hypatia is a female Greek philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century when science, politics and religion are in conflict and religious doctrines are often interpreted according to the interest of the vested groups. Hypatia attains respect for her accomplishments though she went against the norms of her society. She would use the robes of the academic elites in public that only men were allowed to use. This feminist experiments the heliocentric model of the solar system by dropping an object from the mast of a moving ship demonstrating that a possible motion of the Earth would not affect the motion of a falling object on Earth. The Christians oppose the heliocentrism on religious ground and prohibit Hypatia to teach at the school. Later the leader of the Christians plots a public ceremony to subjugate her, where she is asked to accept Christianity, which she refuses. The religious leaders instigate the mob stating that Hypatia is a witch and eventually she is murdered. This particular time in the history and the story of Hypatia has a lot of relevance with our contemporary reality. Despite scientific and technological advances people are persecuted in the name of religion and fundamentalism and communalism still abounds.

The recent spread of misinformation regarding inclusion of evolution theory in the school textbooks is a glaring example that fundamentalism is creeping in our education system. Although evolution in the textbooks is described in a simple manner, false propaganda continues to spread on social media which refers humans originated from apes. The History and Social Science Inquiry textbook of class six specifically mentions that humans were not originated from monkeys (page, 21, 24 and 113). Page 24 of the book precisely says-‘people gradually evolved in various stages……humans did not originate from monkeys.’ The Science Investigative Study textbook of class seven (page-3) delineates evolution in very simple words-‘.... …..over millions of years, these small changes occur from generation to generation, eventually resulting in new organisms with characteristics that are very different from their original ancestors. Thus the process of change in organisms over a long period of time is called evolution’.

The new curriculum included transgender people since they are alienated from our society and their rights are often ignored. This inclusion should help our students to learn how to treat transgender people with dignity and without discrimination. Apparently the curriculum introduced some progressive elements into the textbooks to prepare our next generation to sustain in the era of globalization. This was done taking into consideration our societal context and mandates of the Constitution. The Constitution gives the authority to establish universal system of education and recognises non discrimination on the basis of gender.

Nonetheless, statements were made claiming that ‘certain contents of the textbooks have distorted our culture’ and ‘children will be atheists after reading the books’.  A member of parliament from Jatiya Party criticised the inclusion of evolution in the books and said ‘it is an anti-religious propaganda that humans came from monkeys'. He also said ‘As Muslims we are children of Adam. There is no chance of being monkeys. It (Darwin’s theory) is an insult to Islam’. Moreover he demanded that a blasphemy law should be enacted in this regard. The BNP standing committee members condemned the contents in the textbooks that hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslim. It is utterly frustrating and scary to observe that the major political parties condemned with hatred without even reading the books. Most important they misused religion, made false claims to create controversy and to imply that the incumbent government is anti-religious.

Spreading false propaganda and abusing religion for political gain is not something new for Bangladesh. Even during the 1971 war religion was used by the Pakistani rulers to persecute the innocent Bengalis, specially the religious minorities. After Bangladesh was created evolution became a subject of study at the university level under the regime of the secular Awami League government. After the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, it was changed. In Chittagong University the fundamentalist students forced the cancellation of the course on evolution. The student wing of Jamat-e-Islam Bangladesh fueled the conflict between the “Evolutionary” theory and the “Creationist” theory. Later Around 2001 the chapter “Evidences of Evolution” was removed from the HSC biology course.

Questions regarding what should be taught about evolution in educational institutions have been and still contested in many developed countries including several states in the U.S.A. In Arkansas, one of the conservative states of the U.S.A., the issue of evolutionism vs creationism has been debated for long period. Though previously few states banned the teaching of evolution or recommended that evolution should be taught alongside creationism, several Supreme Court cases have obstructed these options.

In Pakistan the Jamaat-e-Islami over the years has recommended many changes in textbooks including removal of theory of evolution from science books. They also demanded banning of images showing women in skirts, jeans and T-shirts. Even though Pakistan has a small number of Christians, textbooks no longer include photos of a Christmas tree and holiday cards. Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan announced that curriculum should reflect and promote the religious identity of the nation. Thus the mainstream education in Pakistan is hate mongering, exclusionary, devoid of imparting any universal values, objectivity and critical learning (Nayyar, 2003).

Despite the abundance of knowledge that the evolution theory offers, still there remains controversy regarding its validity. Therefore, a mutual collaboration, that defends the methodical independence of science from other disciplines such as philosophy or theology and at the same time, acknowledges their mutual influence and the necessity of both perspectives to draw a complete picture of reality (González, 2009) can be effective in many countries. Because lesser understanding of life’s development and cultivating sectarianism and discrimination through education or ideology can produce medieval minded generation devoid of tolerance and humanity.

If we want to compete with developed countries and give our children the chance to enjoy the benefits of globalization, the need for progressive education is further intensified. If we want to enhance gender equality, establish a secular social order and eliminate communalism then our education system should reflect these values. Any humane approach towards the marginalized transgender community or simple explanation of life’s development should not be propagated as anti-Islamic. It is not acceptable that political elites and their fundamentalist allies would misuse religion or religious sentiments of our people to enhance their agenda at the cost of the future of our next generation. If we fail to resist the conspiracy of the fundamentalist forces and vested interest groups now, in near future we might witness our scholars facing the fate of Hypatia and our society going back to medieval period.

(The writer is a lawyer and researcher)

Source: Sun Editorial