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A forgotten educator

Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, the first principal of Government College Lahore and a great promoter of oriental art and literature, is out of our memory radar just because he was a ‘Foreigner’

A forgotten educator

A few days ago, I was researching on the development of modern education in the Punjab in the nineteenth century, and came across a rather interesting series of correspondence relating to the teaching hours of Dr Leitner, the first principal of Government College Lahore and the main mover behind the establishment of Punjab University. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was a Hungrarian Jew who became one of the foremost oriental scholars of his age, and a great promoter of oriental art and literature.

Born in 1840, he was a linguist from his childhood and was fluent in Arabic and Turkish, among other languages, by his teenage years. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that ‘He had learned fifteen languages by the time he left school and apparently knew fifty at the time of his death.’ He participated in the Crimean war, and at its end proceeded to England to study at Kings College London. After obtaining his higher education there, he was appointed professor of Arabic and Muhammadan Law at the young age of 21. Thereafter, he received his PhD from the University of Freiburg and in 1862 became a naturalized British Subject.

It was while professor at Kings College that Dr Leitner was asked to travel thousands of miles to become the first principal of Government College Lahore, the first institution of higher learning in the Punjab. This was indeed a daunting task as his tenure would set the tone for the development of modern education in the Punjab. His fifteen years in India were largely responsible for the development of modern education, where learning in both Western and Oriental languages was promoted and learning for its own sake, rather than just for cramming and examination, was promoted.

However, very soon (1865) Dr Leitner got in trouble for not teaching enough class hours. The Director of Public Instruction (DPI) complained to the Punjab government that ‘…I cannot help consider Doctor Leitner’s great remissness in the discharge of his duties, and insubordination, to notice…’ The Director of Public Instruction then noted at length ‘Dr Leitner joined as Principal of the Government College at Lahore sometime in November 1864, and, for the rest of the term, until the Christmas vacation I did not press him at all to take any regular share in the instruction…I was…content that he should only take a very small share of the work of actual tuition until the College and School reassembled in January 1865; but I then found that Dr Leitner apparently wish to continue as before…I felt it my duty to point out this anomaly to Dr Leitner, and to request him…to make better arrangements by giving himself a larger share of the work…’

Official interference in university affairs — especially the appointment of Vice Chancellors and other university administrators — is something which still continues in Pakistan, and is a real stumbling block in the development of education in the country.

Dr Leitner took a dim view of such governmental interference in his work and wrote a terse reply. He noted ‘…I am of the opinion that I am quite competent, both from my position and former experience, to arrive without much assistance to the exact knowledge of the exigencies for time, and manner of treatment of every subject taught in the Lahore College…It is certainly desirable in a principal to supplement the tuition given by his Assistants, whenever he can do so with advantage to the students. This I have done by delivering seven lectures a week…’

Leitner further noted that any more teaching on his behalf would actually not be beneficial either for the college or the students, as it will take away from him other tasks and affect quality. He wrote ‘If I have misconceived my duties, and if Government directs me to give more tuition where there is neither room nor advisability for it, I shall, of course, retrace my steps, but not without the deepest regret at a necessity which will have compelled me to lower the standard of the College, by having to cram where I had hoped to educate.’

Dr Leitner’s comments further incensed the DPI who then instituted a committee of investigation against Dr Leitner.

While I do not want to go into further details of where this tussle led, the above information raised, and raises, a few issues which are still pertinent today.

First is the issue of academic freedom. For long varsities have battled (and sadly often lost) the cause of freedom from government control. In the case above, even though the DPI’s motives were noble, in that the wanted to ensure efficiency and wanted to get his money’s worth, the fact that the DPI was not a university professor himself, or had any experience therein, prevented him from really understanding why it was going to be counter productive to have Dr Leitner teach more than seven hours a week, in addition to his other duties.

Official interference in university affairs — especially the appointment of Vice Chancellors and other university administrators — is something which still continues in Pakistan, and is a real stumbling block in the development of education in the country. The government’s job is to promote development but allowing academics to do their work at a pace and plan of their choice is the best way. Too much government interference, as is evident at times in Pakistan, only promotes crony academics, and does a disservice to the cause.

Second, in order to promote real academic work, academics need to only teach a limited number of hours so that they can devote adequate time to the development of scholarship in their discipline. Since Government College was the first such institution in the Punjab, the DPI might be comparing it — unsurprisingly — to the other schools under his charge and the number of hours given to the tuition there by principals. However, a college, and especially a university, is very different from a school. Where in the school a teacher can teach straight for several hours, it is impossible to do so in a college/university, because the role of the college/university is not simply to transmit knowledge but also to create and discuss it.

Transmission of knowledge can easily happen in back to back classes, but creation and discussion of knowledge cannot easily happen in a crammed environment. The DPI in 1865 was largely unaware of it, just as most university administrators are unaware of it in Pakistan today. If one simply notes the teaching hours of most colleges/universities in Pakistan today, one would be shocked at the number of hours they have to teach. Such force-fed knowledge will not lead to the creation of new knowledge, and that we can see clearly in our country. The quality of ‘scholarship’ produced in Pakistan is testament to the adverse effects of long working hours which force professors to produce substandard work which usually wastes paper rather than adding to the corpus of knowledge.

Third, Dr Leitner’s comment that if he is forced to teach more he would have to ‘cram where I had hoped to educate,’ is spot on what is happening in Pakistan today. Today, students in Pakistan are cramming rather than being ‘educated.’ They might have memorized a lot of information, but have limited tools of analysis and even more limited ability to think beyond a defined frame.

This factor was even more evident to me when a few days ago a rather good student I was talking to could not answer the question, ‘Where was the Simla Agreement signed.’ I repeated the questions about six times and yet the student — a BA honours student, was at a loss as to where the Simla Agreement was signed! Most of our university graduates — even though they claim to be educated in English — cannot write a few sentences of idiomatic English; most of our students are still unable to analyse a paragraph of information unless they have ‘learnt’ or ‘studied’ it before; and most of our students even know a little about the history or geography of their own city, let alone their country.

This is indeed the sad state of affairs, where every year we add perhaps millions to the number of the ‘educated’ but fail to actually ‘educate’ many. We are happy to note the statistics but uneasy when the real worth (which is little) of those degrees is pointed out to us.

In the nineteenth century, Dr Leitner was trying to educate Indians to not only learn Western arts and science but also to remain well versed in their own literature — something which he spent all of his life trying to promote. Even outside India, Dr Leitner set up the Oriental Institute in Woking, which later in 1889 became the site of the first mosque in the United Kingdom, the famed Shah Jahan mosque, built though a gift of Her Highness Shah Jahan Begum of Bhopal.

His 1882 book, History of Indigenous Education in Punjab, and his several books on Dardistan (Kashmir area) still remain key in their fields and his 1889 tract Muhammadanism refuted many of the baseless attacks on Islam by Westerners. Today, however, we have forgotten all his contributions to education in India, and especially the Punjab. Even the modest proposal of renaming Kutchery Road — the road on which Government College stands — Leitner Road, was shot down because of him being a ‘foreigner.’ I, for one, will take such a foreigner over a so-called local anytime.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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