Nothing ever goes quite to plan. The plane to Lahore was late — and then arrived earlier than the time that airport staff were telling me it was due. The taxi was waiting for me at the other end, but unsurprisingly, the driver did not know where the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was. I sometimes wonder if taxi drivers all have their minds erased every day, a blotting out of everywhere they have ever been. Large and prominently signposted campus eventually found it was a deep dive into a very exclusive bubble — and a few surprises.
After over 20 years of living and working inside and on the borders of the education system in Pakistan, I was a little surprised at myself for never having visited the nation’s leading management university. I was also surprised to find that it is a private institution, not government run, and is supported by the corporate world that its students and alumni circulate in.
There was a bite to eat, a detailed briefing by my hosts and a dreamless sleep before my introduction the next morning — after a breakfast in a cafeteria sponsored by a global soft-drinks brand – to the students that make up The Hatchery.
This innovative programme seeks to bend the minds of the best and brightest around the problem of creating paid employment for people less fortunate than themselves. My job was to provide each of them with a constructive critique of their work thus far.
It was quickly obvious that the words ‘deadline’ and ‘urgency’ were not at the core of their vocabulary. Neither was timekeeping. They were good at good ideas, rather less good at shaping them into practical reality and most had the completer-finisher skills of the average housebrick. Thinking out of the box was not high on the agenda either and the narrowness of their vision was striking. There were exceptions to all of the above, but few.
Discussions with faculty members between bouts of mentally torturing their students suggested that they recognised the deficits and the problems that they faced and also recognised that the Hatchlings were themselves ill-served by the education they had received prior to coming to LUMS.
Critical and analytical thinking does not come naturally to most of us; it has to be both taught and learned, and challenging the intellectual status quo is quite definitely not encouraged. Placing 18 young-ish men and women in a position where they have to send their minds off around corners that are unmapped, is inevitably going to expose their ability to navigate terra incognita. Or not. And most of these people were at a cartographic loss, never mind being unsure which way up you hold the compass.
By Sunday morning and the last group of victims having sloped off hopefully with an enhanced sense of — at the very least — urgency, it was time to wrap things up. All needed to sharpen their presentational skills and few had considered what their responsibilities might be as future employees. There needs to be a very swift understanding that any application for international funding that does not include a gender component is going to fall at the first hurdle. And despite my having given them each a hard time, we parted the best of friends — I think.
A weekend in the LUMS bubble, the very peak of academic management in Pakistan, was a salutary experience. The students I met were not stupid, far from it. In every case I would say they were of above-average intelligence. Not all of them came from privileged or moneyed backgrounds either; they were a reasonably cosmopolitan bunch. They had got their places at LUMS on the basis of merit rather than patronage, but what they all shared was a common educational heritage and therein lies the problem not just for LUMS, but for every higher education institution in the country.
If children from an early age are not taught to think rather than just be passive receptors of education, then by the time they make it to university, there is a vital item missing from their mental toolkit. It was that missing tool that I reached for — and grasped little but fresh air.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2014.