Mehmal Sarfraz Column: Distorting history

Dec 04, 2015, 07:37 IST | Mehmal Sarfraz

At Pakistan’s first international education and cultural festival, School of Tomorrow (SOT) — held in Karachi last week — I moderated a session titled, ‘Teaching History and Social Studies in Intercultural Societies’. The three panellists included a physicist who is also a professor, an architect and a journalist. The discussion was made interesting because all the panellists were quite open in highlighting the fact how we teach children distorted history from day one. While we were discussing history and social studies being taught in Pakistani classrooms, I was reminded of a quote by Roger Schank. Mr Schank — a radical educator, Artificial Intelligence theorist and cognitive psychologist based in the US — pointed out something very interesting in an interview recently. He says: “We are taught made-up history by our respective governments. All history is a bunch of lies; we are living in a fictional world.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the CoP 21 summit at Paris. Pic/PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the CoP 21 summit at Paris. Pic/PTI

Thus, his views on history can be applied globally. All countries glorify their ‘heroes’ and their textbook histories are narrated from their own point of view.

For example, we are taught that we have won all wars against India when that is not the case. In order to make any semblance of history, we have to unlearn what we are taught in our textbooks and re-learn history as a result. One of the panellists said that historical accuracy is important because we need to learn from our history so we do not repeat the same mistakes in the future but by misrepresenting history for face-saving purposes, we completely defeat the purpose of teaching history. His point is thought-provoking. Why do we want to teach children something based on factual inaccuracies? We are ruining young, impressionable minds as a result of state policies. Instead, we are inculcating intolerance and bigotry in our children. In a country like Pakistan, where two-thirds of our population is 35 years of age or below, when we teach lies to our children, we end up destroying our future. It is important that society as a whole should pressurise our education boards and the state to change our textbooks. The media, too, must play a pivotal role in challenging the state’s official discourse vis-à-vis history.

On another note, reports in the media indicate that Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to visit Islamabad next week. This news comes on the heels of the brief meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and PM Modi on the sidelines of the Climate Change Summit in Paris. In its editorial on the Nawaz-Modi interaction, DAWN newspaper notes: “Unstable ties with India can have all manner of damaging consequences for Pakistan, including inside Afghanistan where the Pakistani state is trying to find a stable outcome over the long term.”

If Ms Swaraj visits Pakistan, it would be seen as a positive development in our diplomatic relations with India. In recent months, ties between the two neighbours have gone from bad to worse. Even cricketing ties between India and Pakistan have suffered as a result of state policies despite the fact that sports should be kept away from politics. Ms Swaraj’s visit would be a welcome step as we should never close the doors to dialogue.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at

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