The purpose of learning

The quest for intrinsic study without taking practical benefits into consideration is often necessary.

Amin Jan Naim June 10, 2013
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to Senegal, Greece and Yemen

In constructing an edifice of education in our country, it is useful to examine its very purpose. Even in developed countries, with relatively advanced educational systems, fundamental questions about the goals and direction of education are now being posed and considered.

We need to ask whether the aim of our education should merely be the acquisition of skills and information or be something higher. In our schools and colleges, the stress is only on the accumulation and memorisation of vast quantities of details. These often become irrelevant in due course of time.

In the US, the UK and Europe, college education entails the mastering of complex fields of knowledge within a period of three or four years. With rapid advances in the frontiers of learning, such knowledge and skills often get outdated. Most of the facts acquired by students tend to get forgotten or become irrelevant with the passage of time.

If we wish to bring up truly educated persons, our academic institutions need to foster and enable positive intellectual and creative activity instead of a mass memorisation of facts and details. Our youngsters need to be made aware of diverse intellectual and aesthetic possibilities and prospects.

It is a sad fact that very few in Pakistan have deeply studied, for example, the profound and unsurpassed Socratic dialogues. A close encounter, in original, with Plato’s thought nurtures fundamental thought processes.

Ultimately, the purpose of a good education would be to enable people to lead worthwhile lives. By pondering basic questions of ethics and epistemology, a movement in that direction can be facilitated.

Of course, young students would need to get jobs when they grow up. And employers will require capable and well-trained workers. So, what do these higher functions I have alluded to have to do with the practicalities of earning a living? The answer, in my view, is that beyond techniques, technical knowledge and memorisation of vast details, it is crucial to develop critical powers, creativity and the ability to develop new ways of understanding issues.

These factors would be fostered by a salutary intellectual culture and a general milieu of exposure to physics, literature, music, mathematics and philosophy. Such a general milieu is badly lacking in our schools and colleges. We need to rectify this.

Realising that too narrow a focus in higher education is not desirable, more and more universities in Britain and elsewhere are now opting for the classical tradition of a broad-based humanistic education combined with science. Oxford University now offers joint honours degrees allowing a combination of arts and sciences, for example, history and economics or philosophy and physics. British universities now require students who study science as their major to take a humanities subject as a minor and vice versa.

The relative merits of acquiring intrinsic knowledge per se and obtaining education for practical uses need to be evaluated. The quest for intrinsic study without taking practical benefits into consideration is often necessary. It fills gaps in our understanding of the laws of nature which shed light on, for instance, the early universe. Discoveries like the recent one of the Higgs boson particle by physicists, including our Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, not only advance the frontiers of science, but also, ultimately, have practical benefits.

Yet, untrammelled technology can have deleterious consequences and ulterior unintended results as, for example, in the frontiers of modern medicine and genetic engineering. Therefore, questions of ethics and fundamental values also need to be kept in the forefront.

Of course, in the hard struggle of the daily grind, such lofty ideals of a glorious intellectual culture may appear far-fetched. But Pakistan’s progress on the world stage would clearly be possible only if our young people are enabled to enjoy and imbibe the higher dimensions of the mind and thus to make a mark of their own.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2013.                                                                                        

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bball | 8 years ago | Reply

@ibi: please publish my reply. quality is determined by the output not by attaining a misplaced emphasis on so-called subjective 'higher-ordered intellect'. Is it higher order because it contributes to the world and society or is it 'higher intellect' because it sounds nice in drawing gosip that we so excel at as a nation and it provides us with the fodder to throw around at parties? You may play play pingpong games between your left-and-right brain hemespheres - and relish with the 'higher-order intellect' within - but unless you translate it into 'higher-ordered' output, it does little good.

ibi | 8 years ago | Reply

@bball; The fact that you consider a detailed study of Plato a 'lower level of learning' just goes to show that you are perhaps the very product of a lower level of learning yourself.

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