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Fresh thrust on social sciences and liberal arts

Academics question quality of education and lack of level-playing field for the youth of Pakistan, laying emphasis on the importance of fostering a sensibility for social justice at a conference at Habib University

Fresh thrust on social sciences and liberal arts

Closed doors of narratives that open only for a select few, and educational disciplines that act as isolated bubbles — that is the academia we mostly see. But in a postcolonial world, Pakistan is seeing a fresh thrust on social sciences and the emergence of liberal arts educational institutes. When scholars open their doors to the public and invite them to engage in conversations that problematise and aim to solve issues, you know that there is progress.

Talking of Pakistan’s struggle with education at the core of development, postcolonial higher education is an often ignored part of it. “One of the major demerits of postcolonial education has been that ‘education’ has almost exclusively meant ‘technical education’. In contrast, pre-modern forms of knowledge were very sensitive to the fact that knowledge was an end in itself rather than a means to something else,” said Dr Shahram Azhar, Assistant Professor, Social Development and Policy at the Habib University (HU), Karachi. Recently, HU held its third ‘Postcolonial Higher Education Conference’ highlighting the specific historical and educational challenges of the postcolonial world, under the theme ‘The Inheritance of Injustice’.

The educational system replicates and reproduces the inequality that exists in society, and this is completely unacceptable. A country that does not provide opportunities to its weakest members of society cannot prosper.

Sharing his views with TNS, Azhar added that resultantly, we have ended up with people with a lot of technical expertise but the inability to creatively apply those techniques to our unique social and economic conditions. “We’ve essentially been trying to copy and paste Western models of knowledge and thinking. What we have inherited is a colonial way of reasoning about the world; colonial education was precisely the production of knowledge for colonised subjects, rather than citizens.” In a world where the aim of learning is earning, Azhar’s words ring true.

In a divided and polarised Pakistan, liberal arts and a better thought out system of education can play a positive role. “The place where Pakistan finds itself today is rife with ethnic and class bias, gender disparity and religious bigotry. People often blame this on lack of political leadership but one of the reasons for this intolerant attitude and lack of civic responsibility is our failing education system. From the earlier dictatorial times when state funding would be diverted towards the sciences and very little towards social sciences, it has set in an attitude towards education as a means to an end instead of an end in itself,” said Dr Sabyn Javeri, award winning writer and faculty member at the HU, who was part of a panel at the conference. Her paper was on “Teaching Feminist Fiction in the Pakistani Undergrad Classroom.”

Speaking to TNS, Javeri said that one of the things that a Liberal Arts education does is that it provides you wholesome, all-rounder access to learning. “It is interdisciplinary, a mix of science and humanities. It promotes broad-mindedness, tolerance and pluralism, which is very necessary in a country as diverse as ours. This singular approach to studying where science students are not exposed to literature or even the fact that reading out the text book is not encouraged, is promoting a dangerous, extremist mindset.” She said that encouraging students to question was a core advantage of this system.

Azhar’s views echo the same thought. “A liberal arts education, like that at the HU, strives to change the irrational way of looking at education by incorporating a sensibility for social justice, equality, egalitarianism, peace, and tolerance in students so that they can creatively apply the technical knowledge that they acquire to improve the lives of others around them.”

However, unless the academia and scholarship play their part, achieving the goals Azhar mentioned, seem impossible. In his opinion, while academic scholarship can play a central role in fostering pluralism, it would depend, in turn, on the degree to which it can foster a sensibility for social justice. “This must happen at multiple levels: at the level of producing new research and knowledge, at the level of designing curricula that transfer that knowledge to students, and at the level of how that knowledge is transmitted to students. We have to develop sensitivity to diversity; religious, cultural, political, linguistic, gender, class — within our education systems and this must happen at all levels of the process of producing and disseminating knowledge,” said Azhar.

However, reality remains that while such an educational system is the ideal, few have access to it. Azhar candidly termed the current level of inequality in Pakistan’s social system ‘vulgar’.

“The educational system replicates and reproduces the inequality that exists in society, and this is completely unacceptable. A country that does not provide opportunities to its weakest members of society cannot prosper,” Azhar said. She finds this very disturbing. “On one hand we have world class universities like the IBA, LUMS and HU, but how many people have access to them? With the level of state education, only pupils hailing from a certain class, pass the stringent tests of these prestigious institutes. Yes, there are scholarships and equal opportunity policies, but how many from under-privileged backgrounds have the awareness to make use of these policies. And even within class, there is gender bias.” A conference like this one really helps, she said, adding, “People are thinking about it and that’s always a good sign.”

Talking of solution to this jarring disparity, Azhar mentioned multiple solutions that require a multi-pronged approach. “First, it calls for active participation of the well-to-do sections of society. They need to step up and create other charitable institutions that make it possible for members from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds to access higher education.

“Secondly, we need more state support. Ultimately, a model like the HU can only be replicated at a higher level via state support as there are limits to what private institutions can do,” he said.

As a third tier of the solution, he mentioned the need to democratise education and educational institutions. Students, then, must be made to participate in the process of deciding what they study, the policies that govern their lives, and how those policies should be executed. “We cannot have a democratic society if schools, colleges, and universities are undemocratic.”

A quote in this article was erroneously attributed to Sabyn Javeri. It has been corrected. 

Farahnaz Zahidi

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The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, gender and peace-building. She works in the field of Corporate Communications.

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