We often hear, in public and private conversations, that Pakistani culture and politics will become better with the increase in access to education. This is nothing new: almost all nations offer “education” as a panacea: as something that can solve most of their socio-economic problems. In the last decade or so, huge investments have been made in higher education in Pakistan, but a shift in public culture is not so visible. In fact, the culture has become markedly more violent and troubled. So, why is the rise in education not leading to a more egalitarian and progressive culture? And why is it that in some cases, some of the most highly educated youth end up being terrorist sympathisers, like those who murdered Sabeen Mahmud?
Besides other reasons, it is the lack of a humanistic education that causes so many of our ideological and material problems. But let me clarify my terms: What do I mean by humanistic education? Simply stated, a critical humanistic education focuses on the humanities disciplines that include, but are not limited to: literature, history, and philosophy. But simply including these subjects in our college curricula is not enough. Humanities must be taught to encourage critical thinking, to learn to accept cultural differences, and to encourage the habits of questioning all master narratives. Very rarely are humanities taught in such a way or with this aim in Pakistani universities.
In such a didactic model, students learn the habits of democratic life
Furthermore, like in the US, most of the higher education funding in Pakistan is reserved for Science-Technology-Engineering-Match (STEM) disciplines. I guess the idea behind this investment is to train and develop a workforce that can compete globally and contribute locally. But if this workforce does not develop the habits of critical thought, then no amount of scientific knowledge would make them into the kind of enlightened and tolerant citizens that any modern nation-state absolutely needs to sustain itself.
There is a vast corpus of research on the role of humanities in what Gayatri Spivak, the renowned postcolonial scholar, calls “training the imagination” of our students. In such a didactic model, students not only learn the subject matter, but also learn the habits of democratic life.
On the day of the successful testing of the US atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project, said, “I am become death: the destroyer of worlds.” So, on the day that he had achieved his scientific mission, which was the creation of the bomb and its successful launch, Oppenheimer does not speak like a scientist. As a scientist he should have been proud of his accomplishment. He speaks as a humanist.
Thus while science can give one the knowledge to build or to destroy, only a humanistic education can equip one to know the difference between destructive and salutary acts.
Both Pakistan and India became independent nations because of the hard work of their leaders (and of course their followers) who understood the functioning of the British political system and thus could challenge the British within the rhetorical logic of their own system. Jinnah and Nehru are both good examples of this. These leaders were a product of the British humanistic tradition, but sadly they failed to replicate the very educational system that had produced them.
Now, in the early education sector, private schools do encourage critical thinking and focus a lot on humanities, but in most of the cases, these schools rely on a purely Western curriculum. The students are not really trained to be responsible citizens within Pakistan, but are trained to perform better in foreign universities. A culturally grounded humanistic education would enable the students to know the world but without developing a disdain for their own culture. Thus, a critically aware humanistic education would enable the students to encounter cultural differences without feeling threatened by the difference itself. And this capacity to live with differences is crucial to all modern democracies, but especially for Pakistan where sectarian, regional, gender, and other differences are currently being mobilised to pit our citizens against each other.
But of course, there is yet another question that I must answer. Precisely, how is literature supposed to make us better human beings? In his book Radical Pedagogy, Dr Mark Bracher asserts that we all, in one way or the other, attempt to safeguard our identities and move about in the world with an imperceptible knowledge of all threats to our identities. In order to bring about change in our worldviews, knowledge alone is not enough. We must alter our self-serving narrative through attentive didactics. It is in this attempt to reshape our personal and collective narratives that a humanistic education becomes crucial.
For an average Taliban foot soldier, the narrative is oversimplified: the world is divided between the followers of their own sect and “the rest”. The rest are evildoers and wrong – a threat to the purity of one’s faith. No amount of uninformed education can alter this worldview. Only an informed education that slowly displaces this exclusivist narrative with a more inclusive narrative has some hope of transforming such destructive subjectivities.
Now, all these individuals with a purist view of faith and culture can be trained to be scientists, doctors, and engineers and all that knowledge would probably not alter the narratives upon which the edifices of their selves are built. Only a critically informed humanistic education would have some hope of altering and transforming the core narratives of such people.
On the whole then, for a country like ours, while it is absolutely necessary to develop technological, medical, and other scientific expertise, it is also extremely important to revitalise education in the humanities so that we can produce the kind of human subjectivities that are, besides their scientific training, also trained to imagine and practice life in an increasingly diverse and complex world.
First published in The Friday Times.
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