While listening to a qawwali by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one feels that contemporary music on radio or TV these days is mediocre in comparison. Same is true when one compares it with giants likes Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Pathanay Khan and others of previous generations. Sports being no different where Jahangir and Jansher once ruled the world of squash, or the institutions of PIA or Punjab University were ranked high in their respective sectors.
Pointing to his rendering of Amir Khusro’s poetry, Farid Ayaz, a surviving old school qawwal, articulates this phenomenon as “not that those who can render it (vocational) exist anymore but I am afraid that those who can even understand it (academic/intellectual) don’t exist anymore.”
To understand this culture of mediocrity, I assess higher education as a case for the production of the privileged classes. The issue pertaining to social and family norms needs little discussion as it was aptly portrayed in Amir Khan’s film “3 Idiots”, whereby the choice of education and career is seldom one’s own, leading to a lack of drive with the primary interest of getting a piece of paper — the degree. More important though is state’s apathy towards provision of academic and career counseling at school, college and even university levels.
Neither infrastructure of schools nor attendance of students can inspire them to become critical thinkers driven towards doing something new and different. Instead, the quality and dedication of teachers, pedagogy, curriculum and the cultural environment are the real differentiating factors. To this effect, one can understand the current situation of societal stagnancy through three examples: one, the decline of sports as once the inter-collegiate cricket finals boasted one of the biggest events of the city of Lahore with the likes of Wasim Akram playing for Islamia College Civil Lines; two, the decline of critical thinking, reasoning and discussion as the debates at Islamia College Railway Road could extend for the whole day till after midnight; three, the decline of citizenship as students aspiring for student union president at Government College Rawalpindi would need to speak extempore in front of the whole student body on a topic picked from a jar.
Thus, one can’t just blame the individual (student) who is no longer provided the opportunity, rigour or self-confidence by the institutional landscape. This is exactly what Farid Ayaz stated by giving credit to his elders for giving him rigorous musical and intellectual training that is no longer available.
Still, the above discussion does not completely explain the lack of “spirit” to change, leading to a perpetual cycle of mediocrity breeding mediocrity. For that our very conception of education needs assessment so that it’s relevant to critically engage with our reality. The concentration on language (English/Urdu) at the expense of comprehension precludes critical thinking; complete lack of experiential learning and a disconnect between vocation and academics lead to both the undermining of vocational and knowledge generation without any relation to ground realities.
Lastly, the treatment of students as children (rather than adults) impedes the development of responsibility in them because rights and responsibilities are part of the same coin. This explains why the vast majority of universities that offer degree courses in Environmental Sciences don’t even have waste management and waste segregation at source, or those with Mass Communications/Journalism programmes don’t have student newspapers.
Thus, it is no wonder that the civil bureaucracy stopped thinking and executing governance reforms long ago. Instead, it limited itself to pushing files while borrowing ideas from the international financial institutions (IFIs) or donor agencies. It is also no surprise that the new government’s slogan of “Naya” (new) excludes discussion on the overarching strategic vision and calculus of the security state which has kept us begging and insecure for four decades while perpetuating political mediocrity by quelling social movements that critique this disastrous direction.
Still we incessantly quote the rise of China while failing to acknowledge or comprehend the transformation of strategic vision, and innovative spirit injected into its body politics by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and its rigorous institutionalisation in the 1980s.
As Malek Bennabi states, “Genius is but the eruption of the obscure effort ascending across the entire social spectrum of a society for spouting at its summit.” We fail not because of a lack of individual brilliance but because of our general ecosystem that is built on the shamelessness of mediocrity. It is heavily stacked against producing a change.