Deeply affected by war, conflict, and violence that has been going on for almost four decades in the country, Afghanistan's education system remains fragile with outmoded teaching styles. The curriculum is incompatible with the current status quo and needs of a conflict-affected generation in Afghanistan. Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, however, reconstruction efforts have led to substantial progress. For instance, before 2002, one million or fewer students, almost all of the boys, were believed to attend public schools. However, in 2019, over 9 million children were enrolled in school (including over 3.5 million girls). Yet, according to a 2019 UNICEF annual report, almost 2.2 million school-aged girls are out of school in Afghanistan. While the number of students enrolled in schools is essential, it's even more critical to ensure that the education system doesn't make them vulnerable to extremism and violence.
This policy brief explains the flaws in the current education system of Afghanistan. It provides policy recommendations to revise the system and curriculum towards promoting tolerance, acceptance, and respect for diversity.
Education is simply an instrument, one that could be well used or abused. Afghanistan's 40 years of conflict has made its people— especially teenagers— very vulnerable to extremism and terrorism. War and violence have particularly exposed women and girls to abuse, including gender-based violence. The practice of child marriage remains prevalent in the country. If critically examined, Afghanistan's conflict has been symptomatic of deeper issues around the lack of a culture of tolerance and respect for diversity in all its forms. Unless these deeper challenges are adequately addressed, and unless Afghan society starts embracing and engaging with diversity in constructive ways, violence cycles will likely continue. The citizens of Afghanistan will not fully enjoy sustainable peace with well-functioning democratic institutions time soon. That said, Afghanistan can build a more tolerant and open generation that respects diversity, believes in gender equality, and isn't vulnerable to extremism and terrorism by reforming its education system in a meaningful way.
War has a profound effect on both the human body and human behavior. Research shows that armed conflict and violent people tend to have more violent action and are more vulnerable to extremism. States can prevent the spread of extremism and violence among its citizens and change people's behavior with a decent education system that meets the needs of its people and is designed according to the status quo of the country. In the context of Afghanistan, the education system does, in some ways, promote acceptance and diversity. It mostly does the opposite. It promotes extremism and introduces violence as a positive value. For instance, in mathematics, the students are taught two guns plus two guns equals four guns. However, the current curriculum and education do not teach about respecting women's rights, gender equality, or diversity, so they are not portrayed as threats. A reform of the education system is needed.
Since Confucius and Socrates, educators have recognized the double purpose of education: to impart the meaning and significance of the past and prepare young people for future challenges. When we could still assume that what we learn in school will last a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills were rightly at the center of education. Today, when we can access content via search engines and when routine cognitive tasks are being digitized and outsourced, the focus must shift to enabling people to become lifelong learners. Lifelong learning is about continually learning, unlearning, and relearning when the contexts change. It entails continuous processes of reflection, anticipation, and action. Reflective practice is needed to take a critical stance when deciding, choosing, and acting by stepping back from what is known or assumed and taking different perspectives. Anticipation mobilizes cognitive skills such as analytical or critical thinking, the ability to foresee what may be needed in the future or how actions taken today might have consequences for the future. Both reflective practice and anticipation contribute to the willingness to take responsible steps in the belief that it is within the power of all of us to shape and change the course of events. This is how the agency is built. Modern schools need to help students continuously evolve and grow and find and adjust their place in a changing world.
Schools now need to prepare students for more rapid change than ever before for jobs that have not yet been created, tackle societal challenges that can't yet be imagined, and use technologies that have not yet been invented. They need to prepare students for an interconnected world where students understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being. By strengthening cognitive, emotional, and social resilience, education can help people, organizations, and systems persist, perhaps even flourish, amid unforeseeable disruptions. It can provide communities and institutions with the flexibility, intelligence, and responsiveness they need to thrive in social and economic change.
That said, unless Afghanistan's education system is revised into something that uses non-violent approaches to tackle the challenge of extremism and violent behavior, the current conflict in the country may last way longer than its citizens expect.
Sharif Safi is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.
This article has also been published in Dari by Afghanistan Today. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.