Reflections on higher education

Author: Asad Zaman
Publication Year : 2015

A hugely surprising message was delivered by Dr Rodger Randle to an audience of vice-chancellors from across Pakistan in his video conference lecture on “Modern Practices and Trends in American Higher Education (HE)” on February 6. He praised the dedication, commitment and educational skills he had seen among leaders of the HE sector in Pakistan. He emphasised that this was not a casual statement, but based on several visits to Pakistan, and on his extensive experience and comparisons with HE sectors in the US and Brazil. His description of the American experience was not meant to be taken as a model; rather he cautioned that we should be very careful about what models we choose to emulate. He stated that our HE personnel have the talent, capacity, creativity and flexibility to become global leaders; in particular, he praised the dynamism and vision of DR MUKHTAR AHMED, the current head of the Higher Education Commission. His only hesitation was based on the question of whether we would have the self-confidence to make radical changes necessary today. He encouraged us to innovate, and to “not be fearful of experimentation” — in effect, attempting to create the self-confidence required for a global leadership role. Based on my own experience with higher education in Pakistan, I offer some suggestions for the types of changes which are essential for progress.The very first requirement is to re-create a culture which values and prizes scholarship above other achievements. The educational systems of pre-colonial India were one of the wonders of the world. Foreign scholars from many lands travelled to India in search of higher learning. Even remote regions in Sindh had numerous madrassas, famous for a variety of specialised skills. In those days, the madrassa curriculum included all subjects, including logic, rhetoric, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, physics and mathematics. Learning was highly respected by all three major cultures: Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. There was consensus that it was the responsibility of society to educate all those who sought education. Furthermore, it was the responsibility of the learned to share the gift of knowledge and educate others. Because of the love of learning, a huge variety of academic activities formed part of the social fabric. As there was no printing press, books had to be copied by hand. Copyists of all ranks, from princesses to peasants, felt honoured to be part of the process of transmission of learning. There were many private libraries, and it is reported that people running from threats of invasion would load up carts with precious books while fleeing town. William Dalrymple quotes an early colonial period British observer saying that “a lowly clerk gave his children an education that we would only give to princes in England”. George Leitner wrote A HISTORY OF INDIGENOUS EDUCATION IN PUNJAB, which provides detailed statistics on how our efficient indigenous educational systems were systematically crippled and destroyed by colonisation.As Allama Iqbal wrote, the treasures of our heritage have not only been lost, they have also been forgotten, so historical accounts like those cited above create surprise, doubt and scepticism. The above brief summary is not to reminisce about a glorious and legendary past, nor is it to revile imperialists or colonialism. The harmful effects of increasing commercialisation and the spread of the market mentality are being felt all over the world. Many observers, including arch-capitalists like George Soros, have blamed the global financial crisis on greed. The commercialisation of the education sector has led to the poisonous idea that we acquire knowledge in order to earn money. Schools have replaced posters stating ‘Enter to Learn — Leave to Serve’ by ‘Enter to Learn — Leave to Earn’. Only 30 years ago, doctors would have been embarrassed to admit to practising their profession to earn money from the misery of the sick. Today, a doctor who says that he/she wishes to serve humanity would often be REGARDED WITH SUSPICION AND MIGHT EVEN BE CONSIDERED A HYPOCRITE. We desperately need alternative models for education. This is the purpose of revisiting our past educational traditions, to find elements of models which can be adopted for use today.Creating a culture of learning requires coordinated efforts on several fronts. Resources from our heritage are well adapted to society, and hence more likely to bear fruit. There is a huge amount of literary and poetic tradition, which celebrates learning, and this needs to be popularised. An essential required reform is to make much more use of Urdu in higher education. This has always been strongly resisted by the ruling elite, who derive enormous benefits from their mastery of English. However, the language barrier places insuperable obstacles in the path of education for the masses. The use of Urdu can connect us to our heritage and also help create the courage and self-confidence needed to innovate. More attention should be paid to the vast number of students from Pakistan who excel in learning, making and breaking academic records of various sorts. Academic shows, competitions, awards and projection of Pakistani academics would all play a role in creating an environment, which encourages the search for learning for its own sake. A concerted effort by diverse sectors of society could create an environment that respects knowledge and the producers of knowledge, which is a pre-requisite for progress.Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2015.

The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

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