Thursday, December 9, 2010

Importance of humanities as compared to science and Tariq’s Opinion

I am sure most people who read these pages have seen the controversy which is going on in this country between technology and knowledge. The functionaries of the state prefer to call it prioritizing science and technology but in reality, it is not that. It is a policy, which only appears to improve science and technology while actually cutting off its theoretical and intellectual base. Let me elaborate upon this issue because it is one which needs understanding.

            Let us begin with the craze for Information Technology. The government has poured in money into it and promises to open a number of one-subject degree factories called ‘universities’. The private sector, along with the institutions of the state such as the armed forces, have opened up scores of such facilities. Moreover, the Ministry of Science and Technology has given incentives to researchers and academics in the sciences. There is nothing wrong with improving information technology or in providing more institutions for aspiring students. What is wrong is giving the impression that the humanities and social sciences are not important. This is precisely what the debate is about.
The incentives for science and technology

The first phase of the debate was triggered off when the incentives for science and technology were announced. I myself wrote an article (News 27 June 2001) and so did Moonis Ahmar and there were letters in the press in support of the social sciences. The second phase of the debate began when Dawn (23 August) reported that the NWFP Government had decided to phase out humanities from its colleges. Among the subjects mentioned by name were economics, political science, philosophy, literature, sociology, history and Islamic studies. Somebody in the NWFP Government had gone so far as to call these subjects worthless---an opinion which many people express in private anyway. To this the response was instantaneous. The editorial of 26 August in Dawn called the proposition absurd. Later Amir Mohammad Khan in News on Sunday revealed that only five newly opened girl colleges in the NWFP would not offer humanities. He also wrote that Anwar Ahmad Khwaja, Director Planning and Development, Directorate of Colleges, said that the Frontier government did not want to spare the money for these subjects. The Social Science Council administered by Dr. Inayat Ullah, a prominent social scientist from Islamabad, requested Dr. Mohammad Afzal to contact the Frontier Ministry of Education to get a clarification from it. It now emerged that the Ministry had said that when new universities were granted a charter then those offering sciences and technology, such as IT, would be preferred. At another place Syed Imtiaz Hussain Gilani, the NWFP Education Minister, also used the argument that the ‘arts’ graduates sit idle after graduation. Thus, he implied, there was no need to spend scarce resources on increasing their numbers.
            Where does it all leave us? Deeply mystified, as usual! But one thing is certainly clear. The government is preparing to give an even more step-motherly treatment to the humanities than it has been so far. And it has been giving them a short shift as we all know. After all, ever since the establishment of the Peshawar, Sindh and Karachi universities governments has been opening up universities without the subject of philosophy---the mother of all knowledge. Even the Quaid-i-Azam University, which was meant to be a premier academic institution, has neither philosophy nor sociology nor even politics. No Pakistani university has linguistics though it is a byproduct of English and Urdu studies at places. The concept of a university is changing fast before our very eyes and the mushroom growth of one or two subject institutions calling themselves universities are making people forget the idea that a university is an institution for universal knowledge; for all known knowledge; for all which the curious intellect can aspire to learn.

Pragmatics of science and technology
            It is, of course, true that most students want a comfortable job at the end of their university life. That has been so ever since the professional middle classes began. However, it was also assumed that during one’s university life one acquired a liberal education. One was exposed to new ideas. One came in contact with some of the best minds of the age. One discussed things with ones’ peers. One heard poetry, bits of history, problems in philosophy and knew that there was such a thing as the life of the mind. Of course, at the end of the day the average student forgot the arguments and the lines of poetry got badly mixed up. But the idea that educated human beings took interest in questions beyond money and power remained as an uplifting thought. It made one respect genuine scholars, great writers and genuine scientists. Some very few students got so enamored of the muses that they stayed back in the university. Sometimes they merely became ditherers; sometimes, however, they emerged as geniuses. They were the ones who really enhanced human learning.

The nature of the discipline

Nowadays, the university is shamelessly portrayed as a place where one crams a narrow discipline and goes out to get a job. The term I would like to use for this is the banking concept of education. The term actually comes from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1989) where Freire uses it for treating learners as if they were banks in which the teacher deposited knowledge. I am using it in a different sense. What I mean is that people think knowledge and skills are to be acquired as one acquires a bank balance---i.e. as means to an end. And that end is to get a job, earn money, get social prestige etc. In short knowledge is an investment and what one hopes to get out of it is power. This implies a devaluation of the intrinsic world of knowledge itself.
            It is this attitude which the government is promoting. The message from the government, despite all the denials and cover ups, is clear. It is that knowledge is a tool to be acquired to be used to rake in tangible and intangible gratifications. This means that only those subjects should be learned which sell better in the market. This also implies that knowledge is not to be valued for its own sake. It also implies that anybody actually enjoys acquiring knowledge. While this may be true for many people, even most people, it is definitely wrong if applied to everybody. There are people who actually do enjoy acquiring knowledge; who genuinely do have intellectual curiosity; who really are fond of ideas.
The supremacy of arts, humanity and social sciences
            Let us look at some of the reasons why the humanities, arts and social sciences should be encouraged along with ‘science and technology’. First, if we do not encourage the humanities we will close the possibility of creating new ideas. We must remember that people with a narrow exposure to ideas tend to be narrow-minded and, in some cases, they remain incapable of linking bits and pieces of information to create new ideas. Even in purely scientific fields, a wide exposure to several fields can result in more creativity. After all Einstein, Darwin, Niels Bohr, Newton, and Stephen Hawking---indeed most very great scientists---were well read people. They read a number of subjects because their intellectual curiosity was well nigh insatiable. 
            Secondly, without exposure to the humanities we will have no experts on things, which matter most to us as members of human societies. After all, even if we do have all the gadgetry of the world, we still need policy questions as to how to use it. We still need to know history and politics so that we do not take decisions about war and peace; distribution of resources; control over human beings; provision of education etc without knowledge of either the past or the ideas of the best minds of the age. It would be a pity to be dependent on ideas entirely borrowed from the West or antiquated notions coined by our own ideologues. We would be producing barbarians unaware of our past, blind to our future and completely obsessed with the gadgetry of computers and moneymaking.
            Thirdly, let us assume we do have some inquiring minds deeply interested in philosophy or keen on learning history. After all, I personally know that such people are always there. Until recently, they were sent to the bureaucracy where they read more files than books. Some of them did write one or two books after retirement but how many books died unwritten? ---that is a question nobody can answer. I also know some doctors, engineers and bankers who snatch out time to write poetry. In the future how many such people will be watching computer screens and writing useless reports for rich donors---again nobody knows. But if this devaluation of the humanities continues we certainly cannot produce a Plato or a Bertrand Russell or a Max Weber or a Toynbee. We cannot because we will send our Toynbees to make money for a business firm and our Weber to write endless computer programmes.
            And now let us come to the more practical reasons. First, where will the teachers for the schools and colleges come from? After all, nobody has said that children will not be taught Islamic studies, English or Urdu. Going beyond that, when the NGOs, the World Bank and the UNO want people to make studies for them in fields like literacy, education, women development, strengthening of democracy etc, exactly where will the experts come from? Will they all have to be imported because Pakistanis would have no knowledge of such subjects? Or will they hire Pakistanis nevertheless and settle for ill-informed reports. In any case, if we have nothing but IT institutions and a few of the sciences thrown in who will provide jobs to the armies of the barbarians emerging from them? As it is, the IT market is no longer booming and science graduates hunt for jobs all over the place even more so than history ones.


In short, this trend towards devaluing knowledge should be reversed. All subjects, especially the humanities, should be encouraged. Indeed, as I have suggested before, the name of a university should only be given to a place, which teaches and conducts research in all, or nearly all, fields of human knowledge. The concept of a ‘paying’ subject is as dangerous to the intellectual life of humanity as the concept of a one-subject ‘university’.           

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