No era or epoch, no matter how catastrophic or crisis-ridden it might appear to be, is absolutely devoid of sages. Some people listen to these sages and benefit from their insights. Their advice becomes a part of policy formulation. As a result, the spiral of decline is stemmed and circumvented and the society and the state re-invent themselves to meet the challenges facing them.
Unfortunately for us in Pakistan, we tend to be too easily duped by fakes masquerading as sages. It is perhaps a national characteristic that we are delusional and willing to be deceived. Not only there are villains of the ilk in our midst, but in most cases, they are at positions of prominence. That is why the person wielding the power becomes immaterial and a coterie of advisors taken for sages takes over.
I am blessed to have known a sage who not only lends me his ear but also enriches me intellectually whenever I am caught in an academic tangle. In my youth, Prof Gilani Kamran and Prof Sajjad Haider Malik had instilled in me a quest for knowledge. Then Prof Ian Talbot initiated me into the world of research and critical analysis. Like Sajjad Haider Malik, he is now my friend, philosopher and guide.
The sage that I am privileged to have the regular company of acts at times like Socrates. When I return to my University office after seeing him I have a better understanding of the pestering problem. According to him, the best guiding principle is not to give a ready answer but to introduce the curious mind to the process which may lead it to have a better grasp of the problem.
A few days ago, I got to discuss the chaotic state of higher education in Pakistan with this sage. Who do you think was the last vice chancellor of any Pakistani university having sound academic credentials? That was my question. He answered that a couple of academics from the now distant past, like Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi and Salimuz Zaman Siddiqi, who headed Karachi University, came to mind.
At Punjab University, Hameed Ahmad Khan knew his subject exceptionally well but did not write much. He had a very good grasp over Persian and Urdu, and English literature was his main discipline. Similarly, Khalid Hameed Shaikh was a class apart as a botanist and as far as his overall erudition is concerned. Karrar Hussain was vice chancellor of Balochistan University but he, too, was not an academic in the way we understand the term although his erudition was beyond any doubt.
Then the sage turned his attention to the present-day state of higher education. Together we lamented that scholarship is now largely an anathema to those aspiring to and being appointed to such positions as vice chancellors or even those heading institutions like the Higher Education Commission and its provincial replicas.
For several years now, semi-academics working mostly in the development sector, have been hired to rudder the ship of higher education. The current chairman of the HEC is a case in point with a catastrophic result for the state of higher education in the country. The sage even went on to denounce the incumbent as someone allergic to academics who are well-published and exercise freedom of thought and action.
It is a reasonable assumption that in a post-colonial nation, an individual of a free disposition who has a sound academic record would be in demand. Unfortunately, in the post-colonial Pakistan, a questioning and probing bent of mind is not desirable. The sage and I agreed that it is really disconcerting that academic excellence hardly counts when it comes to the positions where decisions about appointments to institutions of higher education are made. Social relations and political or bureaucratic patronage matter much more than sheer competence.
The people I am alluding to who sit on the committees that make these crucial appointments do not have even a single sentence attributed to them as their contribution to advancement in their respective fields. I say it with certainty that they have no clue whatsoever to what higher education means, what its theoretical underpinnings are, and what a university signifies. Those tasked with selecting the heads of universities and other higher education institutions do not understand how dissemination of knowledge complements the production of knowledge or the role universities play in striking an equilibrium between the two.
All said and done, people who epitomise mediocrity are yet again in privileged positions. Some of them had in their previous avatars been average teachers in class and below-average academics in general, responsible for the ruin of institutions. Instead of asking some tough questions of them, the Punjab government has allowed them to decide the future of higher education. Such damp squibs are of absolutely no use. I had no option but to concur with the sage.
After giving short shrift to these villains, responsible for the decay and decline of education, he pointed out another kind of academic that is undoubtedly equally lethal to higher education. These are foreign graduates with a gift of the gab and excellent marketing skills to sell their quixotic ideas and prescriptions. Our decision-makers seem smitten with their marketing skills, including their heavily accented English. After spending the better part of their lives in the US or UK, they suddenly have an epiphany regarding their duty towards Pakistan, their erstwhile motherland.
Equipped with a foreign passport, and having secured the future of their children, they land in Pakistan. The trend started off with financial whiz kids from the late 1960s who landed amidst us with their half-cooked expertise to sort out our economic problems. In similar fashion, now we are now forced to deal with a breed of education experts with boastful trappings of foreign training and experience.
Ironically, they descend on us without having any perspective on, or exposure to, the peculiarities of Pakistan’s educational woes. With all their loyalties and interests deeply entrenched in the countries of their permanent residence, these so-called experts in education (who once had been Pakistanis) have taken over advisory positions, with much aplomb, and the state of education has gone from a catastrophe to a disaster.
I doubt this piece will be read by those who making decisions about higher education but if they do read it I hope they will revise their policies. Otherwise, the future of education in Pakistan remains bleak. People will keep hoping for better days, which seem very distant.