A crisis of the humanities

Published in The Express Tribune

‘The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found cast away treasures,’ wrote thinker Allan Bloom. ‘They are like a refugee camp where all the geniuses driven out of their jobs and countries by unfriendly regimes are idling.’

Bloom thought American education was perverting the old ideals: that pursuing success came before the pursuit of love and liberty. Education was meant to improve the soul, said Bloom, not impoverish it. That’s where the crisis of humanities came in.

Sadly, it was a discussion Pakistan never began. Humanitarian crises are what people like to read and report about here: the floods, the blood, the terror, the lack of things basic. With all the humanity around us, studying the humanities, the realists tell us, would be whistling in the dark.

They’re wrong. It took serious, sustained negligence to get us here; serious, sustained innovation may yet get us out. But creating that kind of intellectual atmosphere — between hardline madrassas on one end and society magazines on the other — grows less and less possible with every passing day. If the fount of fresh thinking lies at society’s door, this is one society bent on draining it dry.

While our humanitarian crises may be directly proportionate to our humanities crisis, the latter isn’t considered much a crisis at all. A place as hard as Pakistan, we are told, needs as many able-bodied engineers as it can get, sociologists, not so much. Of 31,000 students at the University of Karachi, just 9,000 opted for the social sciences last year.

How did this happen? To name the serial offenders, there’s the state: to be exact, the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Wing. The wing’s wise men have proven the heavyweight champions of driving our social sciences six feet under. Its only son, glorious Pakistan Studies, has been twisting something as fluid as history into dead propaganda. Thanks to them, the story of Pakistan, in all its rich human complexity, reads like Pravda.

Students that stayed awake in class now know Ghaznavi was more saint than mass-murdering warlord, that Akbar was both a heretic and a womaniser. They know Shivaji ‘the Mountain Rat’ knifed us in the back — literally. They know the world begins when Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh, but forget he was executed three years later by a bitter caliph. Partition provides the story’s sad ending and little is taught after, i.e., Actual Pakistan Studies.

Yes, Pak Studies, is an indisputable, agenda-laden bill of goods that stamps out any hope of critical thought. And it sets the tone: while the state pulps our history into national security cereal, and the rest of our educational sphere has problems of its own.

Some are procedural: rote learning is a convenient cop out for underpaid teachers and unengaged students, and guarantees success at everything from religious seminaries to the British Council. Others are economic: for an aspirational middle class, studying Socrates does not a safety net make — technical training, on the other hand, is tried and tested. Of course, Pakistan is uniquely disadvantaged that even its un-aspiring upper class concentrates on bad restaurants and Prada bags instead.

Others are societal: teaching isn’t incentivised, nor are teachers afforded social status. A recent Gallup survey studying Pakistani parents’ vocational preferences for their children showed 40 per cent wanting doctors above all else, right before army officers and engineers. Few cared for pursuits more poetic.

Others, still, are cultural: no one reads. Plagiarism is not only popular, it seldom carries the sort of sanctions most self-respecting varsities would enforce. Diversity of thought is considered dangerous and, as a direct result, retards research.

Then there’s the Powers That Be theory: that asking questions is heresy for those that hawk religious literalism. That understanding one’s rights is poison for the landed class. That alternative histories may free people from the state’s ideological fetters. True or not, said powers are certainly looking the other way.

This is a shame. British scholar Terry Eagleton recently wrote of the vistas at stake, “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.”

The social sciences enrich every aspect of the human condition, but there are other, more selfish reasons for us to embrace them. If Pakistan were to respect the humanities, it would tap mines of human talent that desire nothing but progress. And that same talent would ensure Pakistan is better understood, better diagnosed and, ultimately, better run. But how to get there?

Our private seats of learning require forsaking just a little of the commercial for the social. They may yet produce human talent that values literature over lawn fashion.

For the vast majority of students, however, the state holds the key. The curriculum needs overhauling — hard narratives work well for North Korean demigods; a place as deep and different as Pakistan should be allowed to make up its own mind. Procedurally, the way we teach must be made interactive, challenging convention must not be taboo anymore, and plagiarism must carry penalties.

Of course, none of this will last if the state doesn’t ensure retention, i.e., carving out the kind of intellectual and economic space that could both welcome and absorb our social scientists. This means plowing the funding for underpasses into research facilities and scholarships instead, raising that research to implementable policy, and recognising the value of a liberal education.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ‘We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.’

We have something of the reverse here. But if society is to be made liveable, the social sciences must be shown to be what they always were: a pursuit worthy of free men.