The rest is history

Published: April 25, 2010

In the absence of liberal academic institutes in the country, students are ill-prepared to apply critical thinking.

A common refrain is that a developing nation does not need historians or philosophers. It needs engineers and entrepreneurs. Or that a nation torn asunder by historical and religious questions does not have any space for critical inquiry into history or religion. This is not surprising. Seen through the lens of Development which sustained Pakistan through the 50s, 60s and 70s, and through the lens of Security which has governed the last 30 years, liberal education in the humanities is hardly conceived of as essential.

For the past 63 years, we have defined History as Pakistan Studies and Philosophy as Islamiyat. As a result, we lack not only the skill of self-criticism but also suffer from a crisis of identity and civic belonging. In 2009, we lost two of Pakistan’s great historians, K. K. Aziz and A.H. Dani who represented an ever-dwindling number of trained professionals with the requisite critical and linguistic skills to investigate history. It isn’t simply that their legacies are not cherished, but that there do not seem to be any institutional mechanisms through which new historians and new social-scientists can emerge.

This endemic lag is itself encapsulated within the greater failures of educational institutions in the last three decades. Take my own case. At the age of 19, my parents sent me abroad for higher education. We were sent in our hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps more, to become doctors, engineers, and later, IT specialists, economists, managers. There are no figures or any concrete data about this lost generation of Pakistanis which stretch from the late 1980s to 2001. Anecdotally speaking, not that many of us returned. Not only am I an emigrant, I am also the son and grandson of emigrants.

My grandfather migrated from the other side of Punjab and my father was among the first few to embark for the Gulf States in the early 1970s attracted by the high salaries for his engineering skills. Those petro-riyals would secure his children’s future through higher education. His dream begotten was formed from hardened disappointment concerning the state of higher education in Pakistan a sense of crisis that has not left us. The Punjab University, the F.C. College, the Government College of the late 1980s were political ghettos dividing the (then, outlawed) student movements into chaotic camps. My FSc and BSc classes were little more than roll-call gatherings.

My Mathematics professor, my Physics professor, my Statistics professor urged us to sign up for their respective tuition centres and purchase their respective study guides. My parents, who had personally known every single teacher I ever had, met with each of these professors. They paid them the money required and eagerly deposited me at the tuition centers. I learned how to deconstruct the final paper, before I learned a single bit of differential equation. In the meanwhile, my mother kept a prayer vigil to keep me safe from the campus violence. I was sent abroad because, in the eyes of my parents, they had no choice.

The upward mobility of the middle class demanded a hard science professional degree and such things were not easy to come by in 1991. So, they did what they thought they must and packed off their son to distant shores. In spirit, this was not remarkable considering the long history of knowledge migrants who had been crisscrossing Asia and Africa since the thirteenth century. In reality, this was entirely new representing a telling lack for a struggling postcolonial state to secure its own middle class. Have things changed in the two decades since? The tuition centres of early 90s are now colleges giving out their own diplomas.

The colleges are now universities haggling for foreign credentials. Every neighbourhood has their own choice of B.B.A, C.P.A, M.B.A, C.S. degree mills stuffed into bare-cement multi-storied buildings with classrooms bleeding into each other and, outside, an impromptu parking station overflowing with cars and motorcycles. There appear to be many choices for any student, all private, all secure. The tyranny of high marks in Metric or FScseems to have disappeared. Private universities like L.U.M.S., Ghulam Ishaq, Mehran etc. purport to give you an international education (at international rates) in your own backyard.

Science, Engineering and Medicine attract even foreign students to Pakistan (though this nation reels everyday from the work of an earlier generation of imported students). However, this proliferation of universities, most with glowingly rendered international connections, a world-class faculty and incredible fees cannot be taken as a sign of progress. In September 2009, Nature magazine published a comprehensive review, authored by noted social scientists, of Pakistan’s higher education reforms since 2002. It noted some stark realities underpinning the supposed abundance: Chronic underfunding of higher education was just one of the challenges identified. Other concerns were a lack of political will for meaningful reform, a lack of appreciation for the role education can play in development, ineffective governance systems, political interference in university administration, weak institutional leadership and, at the university level, a lack of performance culture and accountability.

Concomitant critiques from the likes of Pervez Hoodbhoy articulated greater chasms between the goals of reform and their results; the faculty were startlingly being segregated between haves and have-nots, the research was sub-par and the curriculum lacked rigor. Less readily apparent in both the abundance of for-profit universities and in their collective shortcomings is the lack of a liberal education in any of these curriculums. As a historian, I believe, rather fundamentally, that a liberal education, one that foregrounds critical inquiry, investigations into the human condition and a multiplicity of views is the cornerstone of any open, democratic, civic-minded and liberal society.

I believe that the health of any civil society rests upon a perceived consensus on human rights, human dignity, and dialogue and discourse. These are all qualities that are only nourished through placing a cultural and societal emphasis on a broad liberal education. While we have a number of institutions engaged in Fine Arts, there is no bastion of liberal education in Pakistan. There is no space for the Engineering or Medical student to learn how to think, to ask the Big Question, to participate in the life of the mind. But there is no greater need, at this juncture, than the need for critical humanistic scholarship.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Prashant Keshavmurthy
    Apr 26, 2010 - 6:05PM

    Traveling through India by train, I have often met young men and women who, on seeing me reading a novel, asked me which competitive exam I was preparing for. If these youth find intellectual forms of leisure unintelligible, it is because they have made up their minds on what it means to be human. And their idea of the human, reduced to a bare minimum of functions as it is, would denominate reading fiction and the arts and humanities more generally a waste of time. It’s no wonder that the politically indifferent or conservative middle classes of India are largely engineers and suchlike technicians just as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar had an “engineer” before his first name.
    On a related note, it strikes me that the difference between post-colonial and pre-colonial forms of religiosity lies in that the latter had a more or less open-ended idea of the human. That is why even Aurangzeb – the alleged bigot – personally avoided music (without turning this into public policy) only because he knew it so well and loved it so much rather than because it was useless or an impediment to progress. Now, compare this to all the Marxists Intezar Hussein speaks of in his ‘Chiraghon ka dhuan’ who ushered in the demise of khayal singing in Pakistan because they thought it was a remnant of feudalism and thus “reactionary”.
    The Islamic Republic of Pakistan needs austere aesthetes like Aurangzeb, not barbarically efficient technicians.Recommend

  • mahira chishty
    Apr 26, 2010 - 8:49PM

    Being a product of and teaching in the higher education sector of Pakistan, I cannot agree with you more. We are creating mindless drones that produce mediocrity. And its not the students to blame, its these sub-standard so called universities that indoctrinate and do little to encourage independent thinkers.Recommend

  • Apr 27, 2010 - 2:29AM

    i can’t find fault with most of your arguments. just wanted to add my own experience as a student at IBA and LUMS.

    in both institutions, 90% of the students were worried about finding jobs and securing a future, which makes things quite difficult for intellectual growth. but there are moments when students really get a chance to feel the joy of learning something new – a lot of those moments were created by professors who had learnt the rigors of proper academia from abroad etc and had brought those ideas back to pakistan, using them to explain local concepts to us. even simple, seemingly obvious things like the role of castes in pakistani society, or the historic underpinnings of the creation of pakistan etc. the problem is that such professors are in the minority, and they seem to lose heart/interest etc because there are so few like them.

    there is a whole raft of brilliant young pakistani academics abroad – such as like yourself – who would really have a huge impact if they came back. of course, i’m not stupid enough to believe that a few people would be able to undo endemic institutional problems besetting pakistan. but i’m also not going to start hoping that the government will take the lead in the changes we need to makeRecommend

  • Kashmali Khan
    Apr 27, 2010 - 12:26PM

    Whilst I agree in most parts, and particularly for the need of a liberal arts/humanities education to build a tolerant, open society, there remains largely a disconnect between the labors and fruits of a such an education. In a vastly stratified and segregated society, the practical nature of things demands a tangible return for tangible educational endeavors. As such, humanities and liberal arts becomes a luxury for the privileged. Furthermore, as an Anthropologist, I have been taught to death about the structure of things and the techniques to deconstruct these structures. This exercise though indeed enlightening-albeit sometimes stifling- is primarily a critical one, rather than itself a constructive one. So whilst I agree that all disciplines must be learnt through the foundations that they stand upon- i.e philosophy- i am not one to criticize those engaged in the Sciences, or engineering, or our ‘technicians’. If they can build a dam in our country- God bless their souls! Yet to agree with all of the above, it is higher educational institutes and university hot-houses- that in receipt of funding and endorsement, and concomitantly, agendas- engage in a uniform and homogeneous indoctrination. Such an education does not celebrate cultural diversity or even promote tolerance, but seeks to eliminate it.Recommend

  • Sharjeel Jawaid
    May 27, 2010 - 4:30PM

    We must appreciate that before becoming a good professional one must become a good person. During the Seventies, at NED Engineering College Karachi we had two non technical subjects; english and economics. Hardly anyone paid importance to them. Only after entering professional life we realized the impotance of soft skills in daily life which we had to acquire the hard way. This is not the way successful nations educate their children. Their schooling includes a mix of core subjects with social sciences and competitive sports. Thus on graduation they are equiped to face the challenges. In contrast are our graduates produced as a result of rote learning, have zero competence when it comes to real work.Recommend

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