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The university and us

The disappearance of social activists should lead us to seriously consider how we are shaping our universities, and how in turn they are engaging with the society around us

The university and us
“The usual suspects”. — Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

A few days ago, I attended a protest for the release of the disappeared activists at the Lahore Press Club. There, throughout the circumambulation of the Simla Hill I kept wondering what if this had happened elsewhere, what would the reaction have been then?

Taking just the example of the Jawaharlal Nehru University just a few hours journey east, the disappearance of even a single professor of the university would have brought all of academia and large parts of the civil society at a standstill. There would have been daily sit-ins, teach-ins, marches, and other forms of public witness that such activities were against the basic values of the country, the constitution, and the people and therefore not only should the disappeared reappear, freedom of speech and conscience should be protected. But then that’s what might have happened in India; this is Pakistan.

At the protest at the Press Club there were hardly a hundred people, and that too mainly all the usual suspects — as they say. While the timing of the protest — at 3pm — might have prevented some people from joining, a veteran activist and academic who had been at the forefront of protests against the Zia regime said to me “At that time we didn’t care for our jobs even. Some of us even lost our jobs since we came out to protest all the time.” Alas, those were the days!

The lack of general concern, and even apathy, at the disappearance of these activists points out the sad state of academia in Pakistan. Professor Tahir Kamran has been writing about the ‘idea of a university’ in the pages for the last few weeks and this incident is directly related to it. Professor Kamran has succinctly described the three main models for a university and rightly wondered if universities in Pakistan were following any. This lack of understanding of what is even the purpose of a university is of grave concern, and yet we keep on multiplying the number of institutes without giving thought to this basic question.

Among the several purposes of a university is its public engagement. Ideas germinate, originate and begin to get realised in universities, and it is these ideas which shape the world. When universities absolve themselves of this critical responsibility, society tends to break down and several fissures begin to emerge.

Ideas germinate, originate and begin to get realised in universities, and it is these ideas which shape the world. When universities absolve themselves of this critical responsibility, society tends to break down and several fissures begin to emerge.

One primary reason that the protest the other day did not attract a larger crowd, or even larger engagement — people around us were looking at us with bewilderment — is because universities in Pakistan have dramatically failed to do their part in harnessing the intellect of the students to realise the importance of the freedom of speech and conscience in Pakistan. Of course this has to do with a lack of a research culture, but at a level it does not even matter if research is conducted in the hallowed hall of the university — even good teaching can lead to the dissemination and creation of knowledge.

In his important work, The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman simply defines the work of a university as ‘liberal education,’ by which he means a place of liberal education, for “simply the cultivation of the intellect…and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.” Newman even argues that at times one does not even need teachers for a university to thrive; it is the culture created with the coming in of different kinds of people which gives a university its identity. Newman wrote: “when a multitude of young men…come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matters of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting.”

Hence, while teaching and research, professors and students are integral parts of a university, a mere collection of people in an environment where they can foster an open, creative and learning culture can lead to a ‘liberal education’. In Pakistan sadly, no such culture or environment exists and hence there is no real education.

People often ask me why I chose to become a historian, especially within the context of an IT university, and what use does it have. While there are several explanations, I often tell them that if my work, or the other of other social scientists, were not worthwhile, certain people and agencies would not be trying to stop us from working and not ‘disappear’ us. Ever heard of a scientist who ‘disappears’ because he has been working and writing in his field? — very few such examples exist in the world. The fact that social scientists are the ones often threatened, often silenced, is because their ‘intellect’ — those words and writings they utter and pen down, somehow threaten even the powerful and mighty.

Even those far more powerful and resourceful do understand the power of the intellect and hence they want to silence it before it challenges their often tenuous grip premised on false pretenses. When this happens, the work of the university becomes even more critical — since it has to protect these voices at all costs, not only for them, but for its own existence.

The acclaimed writer Kuldip Nayar once told me that there was a freedom protest around the Anarkali area in the early 1940s. He was at that time a student at Forman Christian College and was participating in the march, raising anti-British slogans. Suddenly, the police emerged and began to baton charge and tear gas the protestors. At this, a number of the protestors — mainly students — ran towards Ewing Hall, the FC College hall of residence in Anarkali, to take refuge. Not only did the college open its doors to the protestors, Nayar sahib told me, the audacious American Principal Dr Rice ordered the door to be shut after the protestors had come in and prevented the police from entering the college, explaining to the police that it was the constitutional right of the students to peacefully protest against injustice and fundamental rights.

I wonder if a university or even a principal/vice chancellor would be so courageous now?

The disappearance of the activists therefore should not only energise us to focus on their return — and yes that is important and critical — but also lead us, at least those in academia, to seriously consider how we are shaping our universities, and how in turn they are engaging with the society around us.

Most of our universities are merely degree awarding places with no real learning, no real engagement, no real education, and the more this situation persists the worse our state will become. The time has come for us to have an idea of a university.

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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