Well-rounded education

Are we doing justice to our future, or are we trying to create an overspecialised workforce?

Muhammad Hamid Zaman May 09, 2017
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

At the recent annual meeting of the South Asia Institute at Harvard University, I was on a panel on “Science in South Asia”. Fellow panelists had expertise both as researchers and students coming from the South Asian system, and they talked about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the people of the subcontinent. As expected, the conversation on science and engineering quickly turned to higher education and the challenges with the pipeline of students. One specific question dominated both the discourse and my thoughts, “Is our curriculum appropriate and adequate?” Are we doing justice to our future, or are we trying to create an overspecialised workforce?

We, in Pakistan, continue to follow archaic methods of filtering students through pre-engineering and pre-medical tracks, and make sure that any foray into biology and math is nationally disallowed. But even during the undergraduate training, there is an emphasis on aggressive overspecialisation.

Let us illustrate this point with a comparative analysis between curriculum at a Pakistani institute and one from the US. Since we all want our children to become doctors or engineers, let us take engineering as an example, the one I am quite familiar with as well. On average, the number of credit hours required to graduate in engineering at a US university are roughly the same as those required by HEC and adopted by major Pakistani institutions (somewhere in late 120s or early 130s). But that is where the similarities end. While at US universities a student in engineering would take 15-18 courses in the major, in Pakistan that number is nearly twice as much. More concerning is the fact that at a US institution students take three times as many courses in humanities and social sciences compared to Pakistani students. If you take out Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat, the exposure of our students to art, humanities and social sciences reduces to one course during the entire four years! Thus, not only are we forcing our students to take twice as many technical courses, we are also depriving them of an education that makes them a creative, understanding and thoughtful citizen of the world.

The data about our national innovation success does not support our curricula practices either. Having twice as many engineering courses is not making our students smarter, more innovative, twice as likely as their global peers to end up in good graduate schools or twice as more likely to find lucrative jobs. In fact, there is broad agreement that science and engineering students need to take rigorous courses in social sciences and humanities to not only become better citizens but to also become better engineers and scientists. As someone who has served on admission committees, taking twice as many courses does not make any student a more attractive candidate. Similarly, large multinationals are more likely to recruit based on creative abilities and not the speed of regurgitation of specific formulae.

Why do we do that? Why do we force our best minds to take one more course in engineering at the expense of language, art, history or culture? Why do we make them do a few more numerical problems but sacrifice their ability to think, engage and reflect on who we are. There is no one answer, but it is broadly based on our view of science and engineering as disciplines that are more about information and less about freedom of thought and creativity.

Pakistan needs brilliant minds in science and engineering for an inclusive and healthy future, and for that to happen we need to ensure that our students have the freedom to think, reflect, analyse and create.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2017.

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khalid khan | 4 years ago | Reply An excellent effort Sir. The mindset needs to be changed. Our planners have no real vision and urgency for reformation of education. Still we are singing the old songs,
Raees Ahmad | 4 years ago | Reply The situation in education is more bleak than narrated.
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