Pakistan’s intellectual deficit

Published: September 17, 2013
The writer is associate editor of South Asia Magazine and holds a BA in international relations from Boston University

The writer is associate editor of South Asia Magazine and holds a BA in international relations from Boston University

In the modern world, progress is measured predominantly through economic might, which brings with it powerful reward systems of global influence that often mask human rights violations or tyrannical regimes. It is an undisputed fact that every society, regardless of its current stage of development, requires its doctors, engineers and businessmen to progress.

In Pakistan, few young people today choose to enrol in the social sciences given the associated instability and uncertainty in the job market. Compounding this problem is the society’s unwavering emphasis on pursuing lucrative careers in finance or business as opposed to attaining ‘softer academic degrees.’ Few would choose to orient themselves towards a degree in political science or agricultural planning; fields that remain critical and increasingly relevant to Pakistan’s development.

Pakistan’s academic curriculum tends to belittle creativity and hamper intellectual growth thus producing students who are unable to think beyond conventional means and unmotivated to take initiative. Those who do, become the exception rather than the norm. The social sciences impart critical analytical skills and encourage rigorous research; skills that are essential for nation-building.

The problem with Pakistan is two-fold. The first is production. Ranking 113 out of 120 in the Global Literacy Rate, Pakistan’s youth literacy rate stands at 70.7 per cent, which also includes those who can solely sign their name. The country fails to produce young people (in significant numbers) who are motivated to enter non-traditional fields and build careers in media, technology, development, foreign service and politics, amongst others. Exacerbating this particular problem is the lack of independence, stability and respect associated with such fields. Pakistan needs, for example, more security analysts, tech-entrepreneurs, responsible and trained journalists, creative thinkers, agricultural experts but none of this will be possible unless the state allocates a level of responsibility and independence, the collective mindset encourages pursuing such disciplines and most importantly, if education is given its due importance.

The second problem is that of retention. As a country, Pakistan is unable to retain, accommodate and value those who hold unconventional degrees in human rights law, women’s studies, international development, political science or agricultural planning (amongst others) because expertise in such areas essentially threatens the status quo that in effect threatens the moulded seats of old power. Those who return with the much-needed expertise are promptly disenchanted by the system, betrayed by the bureaucracy and wary of their futures. Those who graduate with such degrees from Pakistan are cognisant of the absence of merit-based professional growth and choose to pursue careers outside the country. A strong argument can be made that in a country where parliamentarians can hold office with fake degrees why should the potential student bother earning a degree in political science when more profitable industries such as banking or medicine can provide both stability and respect. Though the trend is slowly reversing, even now in renowned Pakistani universities, business schools tend to show higher student enrolment than social sciences departments.

Few would choose to pursue a career in development and aspire to become the next Parveen Rehman, focus on global health and strive to end the polio crisis, or choose to work in the media with a desire to inject professionalism and responsibility … and manage to succeed.

It is then not the collective failure of aspiring individuals but rather the characterisation of a system that rigidly holds on to the status quo, regardless of how archaic, immoral and harmful it may be. Few with such expertise (that remain lacking in and critical for Pakistan) would choose to build careers in a country that fails to acknowledge the crisis it is currently entangled in and where bureaucratic shortcuts are the norm. Pakistan can no longer afford to ignore its ‘intellectual deficit’ problem, which itself will take years to balance unless it desires a future with more number crunchers and less social scientists.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Falcon
    Sep 18, 2013 - 3:48AM

    While I understand the dilemma author is referring to, it seems to me that all nations have to go through this evolutionary process where resource hunters / warriors / modern number crunchers precede artists and social scientists. There are 2 reasons for it: one is that economic context & social safety net needs to exist to sustain survival of these individuals. Secondly, the definition of achievement in society needs to change from material possessions to that of creativity / ideas / knowledge. In a way, societies behave like individuals in Maslov’s hierarchy where survival is the first priority and self actualization the next and basic needs have to be met first before higher level desires are pursued & nourished.


  • Mohammed Yusuf
    Sep 18, 2013 - 8:38AM

    Excellent article. Crisp and to the point. Sadly, in Pakistan is it not a sin and blasphemy to think out of the box? Creativity and ground breaking discoveries and inventions can only be made if one is a rationalist and question each and every thing. Questioning of anything, especially dogmas and religion-influenced “inventions and science” is a taboo in your country. Once you come out from the cloak of religiosity, then maybe your people will be able to appreciate the real value of education in all fields.


  • Ahmed
    Sep 18, 2013 - 10:25AM

    @Mohammad Yusuf

    Everything is not because of religion. Religion is not stopping students of LUMS from becoming great economists neither is it stopping engineers of NUST to become leaders in tech. But have they done anything considerable? NO. Why? Because of the universities ! NOT because of religion.


  • Arifa
    Sep 18, 2013 - 11:07AM

    I am not sure your argument about Social Sciences being ignored is correct. All over Pakistan the largest number of people in Universities are in the social sciences (by far). There are just too few slots in sciences and engineering or medicine. Even in a top place like LUMS, under Dr Adil Najam the School of Social Science and Humanities became the LARGEST school, far more students there than in management.


  • Sep 18, 2013 - 11:10AM

    Well written piece with a very valid point. When the society travels down, it is not just in one field, all fields go down. First casualty is priorities. Academic Pursuits suffer first, by becoming irrelevant to a a young person’s career choices. Universities have become more tution centers preparing young people for the job market rather than sources of critical analysis and birth places of ideas. HEC hailed by many as the great revolution in education is a calamity that has just made quality a numerical affair.
    Pure Social Science Research is considered a waste of time. Theory or philosophy considered irrelevant to reality and unnecessary.By Policy relevant research is meant propagating policies of the State.


  • snb
    Sep 18, 2013 - 11:19AM

    Agreed. Further, while there’s certainly a dearth of critical and creative thought, it’s not a ‘sin’ or punishable offense by any means. Ask the leaders behind initiatives like, off the top of my head, Coke Studio, Teach for Pakistan, Uth Oye, Kuch Karo, etc etc.

    In my experience teaching, most people/students don’t know they can or should think critically and creatively about problems. That’s a symptom of a bigger problem (education, civic engagement, maybe power) that needs to be explored further, but creativity is appreciated. It’s certainly not a punishable offense.


  • W
    Sep 18, 2013 - 11:30AM

    Thank you Arsla for writing this article. As a young person, I fought against many odds to study abroad. I had the option of staying there after I graduated but my love for this country drew me back. I have many friends (some of whom who have been to the top universities of the world) like myself who also chose to come back but I am now regretting my decision for I feel Pakistan is pushing us all away. We have so much to give and we try but our country is alienating us and we are only finding jobs where we are really not being allowed to utilize our full potential. When you write “Those who return with the much-needed expertise are promptly disenchanted by the system, betrayed by the bureaucracy and wary of their futures”, I feel every word. I love this country but I am also a scrupulously honest person and will not compromise on my morals at any cost. I am now seriously considering looking for jobs abroad.


  • Naeem
    Sep 18, 2013 - 11:50AM

    We need to pursue studies in all fields, the problem is not that of people not pursuing social sciences but the issue is the quality of our education. Majority of students enrolled themselves in social sciences just to get a “degree” for getting any sort of job without having any aim/goal or career to develop. If ones talks to those graduates they have no real knowledge of what they studied in the college/university. Universities such as LUMS which do provide quality education is beyond the reach of majority who would like to get enrolled in such institutes. It is the job of HEC to look into the quality issue and how could government and private sector could would together to impart quality education which is within the reach of common man on street.
    We also need to work on vocational skills training
    Institutes and to encourage people to work on their skills in the field they would like to pursue. Such institutes are important for a country to develop and to compete in the fast developing world.
    It is sorry state when we look at the funding that is allocated by the government, whether at central or provincial level. We all have to bring up the issue of education at all forums to force the government and all those who matters to work on tangible interventions for the improvements that are needed and are long over due.


  • Z.Khan
    Sep 18, 2013 - 3:22PM

    While I understand the dilemma author is referring to, it seems to me that all nations have to go through this evolutionary process where resource hunters / warriors / modern number crunchers precede artists and social scientists.

    I also agree with you but how long nation to confront the evolutionary process? In case of Pakistan it looks to me this process has not even started since 65 years. Evolution results in concrete gains. Thsoe who opine it started then where are the gains?


  • Saima
    Sep 18, 2013 - 4:51PM

    Pakistan needs development specialists and Social Scientists like Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan, founder of Orangi Pilot Project.


  • Falcon
    Sep 18, 2013 - 5:15PM

    Agreeably the process is slow in our case. Typically 65 years in the life of nations is not too much. Once we have politico-economically stable environment, the desired change will accelerate (I would say give it another 15 – 20 years).


  • Z.Khan
    Sep 18, 2013 - 6:32PM

    I doubt something likely to happen even in next 15-20 years.


  • amoghavarsha.ii
    Sep 18, 2013 - 7:46PM

    ” If you are afraid to ask, you are ashamed of learning ”
    I think pakistan students are afraid to ask,
    ask meaning, asking critical, penetrating, questions which removes there ignorance.

    First Pakistan society should remove this fear from the young minds.


  • blackRose
    Sep 18, 2013 - 9:02PM

    A good one for sake of good one but I think writer is missing a crucial link.Entrepreneurship is successful in countries where governments supporting and sponsoring resources for young innovators like banks giving loans in such cases. Entrepreneurship is successful in risk orientated environments like that of Pakistan but due to lack of support from institutes I think its better to stick to jobs before you create your resource pool.Please comprehend ground realities.


  • Sajida
    Sep 18, 2013 - 10:08PM

    @blackRose Migrant funds can be used to start businesses. That s what happened in Zhejiang province.Maybe being entrepreneurial is not in culture like it appears to be in the Chinese culture.


  • Sohail
    Sep 19, 2013 - 12:03AM

    Sorry but that’s an apologetic excuse. We all are clearly aware of examples of other nations reaching peak economic growth in less than 65 years. The only thing that drove them was sincerity, determination and above all honesty. And sadly, we lack all of these traits! The only things we as Pakistanis are good at are xenophobia, self-righteousness, and making lame excuses about and blaming non-existent ‘elements’ for our screwed up state of affairs.


  • littlegiant
    Sep 19, 2013 - 3:32PM

    @falcon: Evolutionary progress leads to incremental improvements whereas in case of Pakistan it’s leading towards gradual worsening. I think you are referring to sudden disruptive turn-around rather than evolutionary improvement.

    And materialistic driven achievements are what the world in the 21st century considers true success no matter which nation you look towards. There has been a serious decline in those who pursue social sciences in the west over past 2 centuries and the social science fields are generally considered inferior – just have a quick google search and you’ll see if you for some reason are unaware.


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