THE competition for space in academia between the social sciences and the ‘others’ — namely, the pure and physical sciences, technological disciplines, medicine-related knowledge, and business and management studies — has been a permanent feature of the intellectual history of mankind.
Our one and only Nobel laureate, Prof Abdus Salam, would always be lamenting that Pakistan lacks a science culture. That not only meant that we neglect science in our universities and do not allocate enough resources for research. It also implies we do not inculcate the spirit of inquiry in our children and as a nation we do not analyse natural and social phenomena rationally and on the basis of scientifically verified information.
The treatment meted out to Dr Salam in his lifetime and after his death by this country vindicates his lament about our alienation from science.
The social sciences have fared no better. Dr Inayatullah, the founder-president of the Council of Social Sciences, Pakistan, felt equally dismal about the state of social sciences in the country. Adopting a solution-oriented approach, he emphasised the importance of “rigorous evaluation and verification” and proceeded to found COSS to serve as a forum for social scientists.
One may well ask, why this apathy towards the social sciences? As in the case of other branches of education, the fact is that knowledge is implicitly regarded as an enemy by the class that wields power and monopolises privilege.
Its anti-education stance obstructs the thought process in children that creates gullible adults who fall victim to charlatans of all variety.
Since the social sciences study the state, society, culture and people’s relationship with them they have a direct impact on the lives of people. Lack of knowledge of the social sciences can be dangerous. These sciences are indispensable as they can facilitate positive behavioral changes and improve the processes and institutions that are concerned with the development of the human mind.
If the study of the social sciences is pursued vigorously and an open debate is encouraged it creates public awareness and gives rise to diversity of thought and belief that acts as a check on the monopoly of state power. Moreover, the social sciences can be instrumental in promoting equity, freedom, tolerance and social justice which are anathema to the powers-that-be in an authoritarian set-up.
As Pakistan slides towards self-destruction, unsurprisingly the social sciences are going out of fashion. Take the example of the University of Karachi, the largest institution of higher education in the country. Of the over 31,000 students on its rolls, only a few over 9,000 opt for the social sciences which includes the faculty of education.
There has not only been a quantitative decline in terms of ratio. Quality has also suffered with only a few brave exceptions still struggling to do research of a high standard.
Another example of the uphill task faced by the social sciences in Pakistan is the failure of the Aga Khan Foundation to set up a university of social sciences in Karachi. This had been on the cards for over five years when it was decided to move the university to East Africa.
This was intriguing considering that a vice provost — a British academic from the School of Oriental & African Studies — had been appointed and had done some preliminary work in 2003-2008 before returning home.
The obstacles are numerous. It is not just the anti-democratic forces that discourage the study of social sciences.
As sociologist Rubina Saigol rightly points out, the rise of neo-liberal thinking and the withdrawal of the state from “the provision of basic needs have caused the focus to shift away from the core social sciences to management sciences, business and administration studies which supposedly make a person more employable”.
They, however, do not always produce good human beings. When human activities are profit-driven ethics is the loser and the social sciences are the casualty in academia.
In Pakistan, there are other factors at work too. A very important one is the ‘ideological’ needs of our rulers and the guardians of our morality who suffer from an intense sense of insecurity. Since they have education in their grip they seek to control the students’ minds by determining the curricula and textbooks.
As pointed out by Dr Zareena Salamat, the vice-president of COSS, the social sciences need more indigenous research to produce textbooks for students than the physical sciences. She was responding to a suggestion in a forum that we should simply import foreign textbooks to maintain quality.
She pointed out, “The national education curriculum has become hostage to national security based on ideology. The state has used education for promoting national unity transcending identities for which language and religion are used as unifying symbols. Textbooks on social studies, history and languages are subjected to this theme.”
That is not how it should be. If we wish to cleanse society of violence and polarisation, Dr Salamat emphasises that social transformation should be brought about by delinking education from its ideological moorings. “Textbooks must not be used as tools to shape national identity. Social engineering is required to create a society based on tolerance, interfaith harmony and democratic values.”
Since the explicit acceptance of pluralism is the basis of all research in the social sciences, universities are not reputed for encouraging it. The physical sciences have this advantage over the social sciences. H2O is water wherever it may be. But the working of Britain’s parliament is not the same as our National Assembly.