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Our wonder deficit

Published Jan 02, 2016 06:58am


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The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

‘I WONDER’. These two words have incalculable power. It’s because of this innocuous phrase that humans stand at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Whereas animals look only for basic survival, you and I reflect, seek cause and comprehension, and speculate. Then, from wonder’s bosom springs expansive thinking. You theorise, explore depths, and perhaps have a Eureka moment. Without wonder there cannot be science or art.

Wonder lives inside children — ours too. Last week, it was a treat for me to spend an evening speaking at the Buraq Space Camp in Islamabad to 14-15 year-olds about recent scientific discoveries. Bombarded with questions about the Big Bang, atoms, and biological evolution, I had to retreat once my throat packed up. But it gladdened my day and I left reassured that wonder and curiosity are still alive in Pakistan. This, in spite of the fact that all were ‘O’-level children from elite private schools and that, sadly, not one came from a school that uses the official, government-prescribed, curriculum.

Bright, curious kids exist everywhere but here, among 200-plus million people, they are getting rather hard to find. Forget students, just look at teachers — those in our ordinary schools, colleges, and universities. Most are brain-dead duffers. I suggest you eavesdrop someday on their daily tea sessions. You will never hear them talking about the Pluto fly-by, the recent discovery of a three-million-year-old ape-human, or anything substantive. Instead there’ll be gossip, titbits about celebrities, or the prices of meats and vegetables.

Bright, curious kids exist everywhere but here they are getting rather hard to find.

Why so little curiosity about the larger world? Why no urge to know what lies in or beyond it? Some 120-plus TV channels have political talk shows, religious programmes, fashion, and cooking. But not one produces programmes on discovery, science, or world history.

This reduced collective appetite for wonder has two reasons. One is straightforwardly identifiable: the preponderance of closed, pre-modern thinking in society. The other, curiously enough, is a modern disease that is sure to get worse as technology improves. Each shapes attitudes in a distinctly different way.

Lethal to wonder and curiosity is Pakistan’s education system. Like every traditional system of thought, it is built around pre-modern and pre-scientific values. These allow for inquiry, but only a little. At its core is the belief that knowledge pre-exists in texts, whether holy or secular. The teacher’s job is to convey unchallengeable facts to the student, and the student’s job is to learn them. Religious knowledge and secular knowledge are taught in practically identical ways. Read, reproduce, and reap the reward — a good student is a good hafiz.

Wonder is tightly constrained in every strictly traditional system. Yes, man is allowed to discover. But he cannot be seen as inventing new knowledge lest he also seem a creator. Thus the path to true knowledge is to learn Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, or Arabic and become a good exegete. But this tight box sometimes doesn’t suit independent inquiry very well.

Example: suppose you wondered why Earth has water. The explanation from a rabbi, priest, or aalim would be teleological — water had to be there because the universe’s designer wanted life to exist. This surely damps curiosity although the persistent mind can still ask: why don’t other planets have water? Did water come from the steady bombardment of frozen meteorites or was it always there? Most importantly, how can we know what is true?

The conflict between modern and traditional values of education is creating hybrids that bewilder students. They’ve been told that acquiring knowledge is their holy duty. This is certainly true for religious knowledge. But what about other things?

For example, students play with batteries, wires, and magnets because it’s fun and it teaches them about electricity. They mix two colourless liquids to produce something brilliantly blue-green and so learn chemical facts. They learn Java because it makes smartphones or computers function in a certain way. What’s thoroughly confusing is that no holy edict demands this.

Paradoxically, at another level, a post-industrial age product — the Internet — is also creating a wonder deficit. True, instant access to the world of ideas and information helps titillate the imagination, and is directly responsible for the explosive growth of new knowledge. But Google and smartphones are turning many smart kids into dullards and dimwits.

The problem is that search engines have made things too easy. Before you’ve even finished typing in a question, it’s likely that the answer will be on your screen. Without your smartphone or I-Pad you might have engaged in a stimulating discussion with your friend, racked your brains, and reflected upon possibilities. Through spirited debate you could have tried to convince him he was wrong and you were right. Instead, one keystroke ends everything. Instant gratification stills your neurons even before they can fire.

More dangerously, oceans of disinformation are available to undisciplined and badly educated minds. Hence wacky ideas like Osama bin Laden having died a decade ago, 9/11 being a Jewish conspiracy, or that Mr Pathan’s famous ‘water car’ was killed by American pressure, thrive among today’s youth. Many absorb falsified facts about splitting of the moon (Photoshop be blessed!) or that the Apollo landing is a fakery.

Although wild conspiracy theories grow everywhere, they grow faster where education is loaded with pre-modern ideas and values. Minds formed in such social environments benefit little from instantaneous access to information. They stay incurious and undiscerning, concerned largely with the mundane.

The Internet was supposed to feed wonder. Yes, it certainly can — but only if good, modern education instals the mental structures needed for sifting and critically examining information. As with many technologies, we have here a double-edged sword. To use the right edge is important.

Correct use must first recognise that facts are just ingredients, not knowledge itself. Knowledge enhances wonder, it doesn’t kill it. In a well-disciplined mind with robust reasoning skills, wonder inspires science, art and poetry. These, in turn, feed the appetite that wonder excites in us and helps us escape the drab world of appearances, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry.

The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2016

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (60) Closed

tochi Jan 02, 2016 07:36am

Pervez bhai, you are an invaluable asset to humanity.

uet Jan 02, 2016 07:41am

Do you ever wonder what wonder is!

chandrashekara Jan 02, 2016 07:58am

He makes us to think. Indian should invite or bring Pervez Hoodbhoy to give lectures.

M M AMIN(. Old Ravian ) Jan 02, 2016 08:36am

Failure of current education system to produce ability for " sifting and critical examination of information " .... Prof Hoodbhy has given correct diagnosis . Rote learning , resorted to by students , is due to indifferent teachers who themselves may have failed to make it to elite professions .....Darwin,s " natural selection " takes its toll .And the humble social status , generally, leaves the best to bid for the highly valued slots in job market . No wonder WONDER has become a rarity . Hats off sir . You are a convincing narrator !

Gunjan Jan 02, 2016 08:39am

Mr.Hoodbhoy - I fell in love with science at an early age. Courtesy some great teachers who would ask 'What do you think?' when we asked curious questions. But todays generation, even in India, is falling back on rote learning. It hurts me to see why with so much to explore around us, the kids are more interested in streaming entertainment through the internet that using it to explore the endless mysteries of the world and the mind.

Rahul Jan 02, 2016 08:58am

@chandrashekara -"He makes us to think. Indian should invite or bring Pervez Hoodbhoy to give lectures."

We have several times. He has given lectures in several Indian universities and institutions.

syed Jan 02, 2016 09:27am

How about a public / private partnership to promote science fairs and prizes for problem solving challenges?

Ak Jan 02, 2016 09:40am

I have one word to describe this article - brilliant.

ghafoorbazai Jan 02, 2016 09:48am

an excellent piece on critical thinking and reasoning. Hoodbhoy is a rare gem that we have. waiting for such more enlightening pieces.

Omar Khayyam Jan 02, 2016 09:54am

Dr. Hoodbhoy, you always hit the nail right on the head. Do you have a collection of your essays that I could acquire?

IFTIKHAR KHAN Jan 02, 2016 09:56am

What a remarkable essay to highlight human curiosity.

Rational Corp Jan 02, 2016 10:18am

With people like Dr Hoodbhoy around, there will always be hope.

Kakar Jan 02, 2016 10:19am

Your mission to put this country and two hundred million people on the path of knowledge, prosperity, peace and contributing its bit to the elevated cause of humanism is warranted and laudable. But the way we have chosen have led us to ignorance, poverty and conflicts- diametrically opposite to what we should have been seeking. The problem essentially is political as the leaders have led from behind. Leading from the front would have involved challenging the traditional notions. It is unfortunate that past has been made too sacred to override it. Even the universities have been made to advance this worn-out manifesto

Sajjad Ur Rehman Jan 02, 2016 10:25am

Yet another master piece by Pervez hoodbhoy, Thank you teacher!

Sandeep Jan 02, 2016 10:49am

Pervezbhai, you make us brain storm. Your article is always a treat and I look forward to it while opening Dawn. Please come to Indian Universities on a tour. People here will love you.

sunil Jan 02, 2016 11:00am

Parvez Sir, I salute you. I share the same thoughts. But I feel it is aranya rodan (cry in wilderness). Curiosity is being stifled.

sunil Jan 02, 2016 11:02am

I request Dawn to compile selected articles Prof. Hoodbhoy and publish as a book.

SUNIL Jan 02, 2016 11:30am

As usual, article highlighting wise thoughts.

Thanks Professor. Continue your good work wherever you may wish.

kensam59 Jan 02, 2016 11:31am

We physicists do write great articles, well at least Dr. Hoodbhoy does. I fear this an international problem. Kids look for a 30 second solution or move on.

NH Jan 02, 2016 11:57am

Sane voice! Beautiful article as always. Hope rekindles when writers of the kind are in this country, otherwise, we are surrounded by fear of terrorism, extremism, corruption and more!

Skeptic Jan 02, 2016 12:02pm

It is not that the students and teachers in Pakistan do not have access to resources to discover, explore and learn - from the vast publications, myriads of prestigious libraries from around the world, research papers from luminaries and acclaimed professors,m think tanks and scientific and technical magazines. But that the TOOLS and the TIME that could be used to learn from these sources, are largely used by vast majority of populace - students, teachers and ordinary folks - for such useless and mundane pursuits as Facebook, Twitters, Instagram, posting selfies, chats, texting, or downloading porn, videos and music - and not much else.

In essence the people in this country are perpetuating their backwardness by abusing the technology that is readily available to them. And missing out on an opportunity to truly enlighten themselves and those in their care. What a waste!

HD Baloch Jan 02, 2016 12:09pm

Just Wow! You are absolutely right. Even most of students who prepare to appear in CSS examination firmly believe in conspiracy theories such as OBL died well before 9/11 and such other baseless stuff.

aws Jan 02, 2016 12:11pm

I agree fully with the 'wonder' problem highlighted,

Mubeen Jan 02, 2016 12:54pm

An excellent article.

Hamza Jan 02, 2016 01:10pm

how education can bring change in these circumstances?

Nilesh Jan 02, 2016 01:22pm

Really he spoke my mind, a fantastic article, I am sharing on FB. Kudos!! curiosity killed the cat they say, and in my opinion only cats died a noble death...

Nilesh Jan 02, 2016 01:24pm

@Hamza here comes THE hamza!!??!

vrpatil Jan 02, 2016 01:27pm

Behavior of society and survival tactics of individuals and communities,largely depends on the behavior and survival methods of those in power who are leading them.Even in such an environment a few with their curiosity , dedication and hard work make a difference,for the rest only providing a right environment is the only solution.

Azam Jan 02, 2016 01:32pm

Brilliantly written . points out all the right reasons for the wrongs that exist. Voice of sanity & reason you are doc. Stay blessed

Saqlain Jan 02, 2016 02:05pm

It was an awesome piece.

S.M.Shabbir Jan 02, 2016 02:09pm

Thanks a lot - Perveez Sir :Thanks for a wonderful article

Maryam Jan 02, 2016 02:09pm

The internet rage is a severe problem, which Hoodbhoy has figured rather well. I am a university student, but I wonder why my curiousity had vanished over the years. And then when I clean up my old cupboards, i realize why: the myriad of books that i depended on in my childhood are gone now, replaced by the internet and its infomania, where the 'grasp all' instinct takes the better of you. And sure enough, you lose most of this 'knowledge', because there are no real concepts (usually) to merge the bunch of facts that we can get off the internet. Knowing how to handle this two-edged sword is really the need of the hour

Seeker of truth Jan 02, 2016 02:18pm

I wish PERVEZ HOODBHOY comes to India to teach our children. His rare talent is being wasted otherwise. He can easily fill the void created after the sad demise of our beloved former president APJ Abdul Kalam.

point_to_note Jan 02, 2016 02:19pm

Thought provoking, pretty much the problem of modern capitalism. The immensity of social and state organs have depressed this feature out of ordinary man, people are obedient and unquestioned acceptance of authority is the norm. Thank you for the time you have taken out to help us.

Mistri Jan 02, 2016 02:23pm

The web was designed at CERN so that scientists across the world could collaborate. It's ironic that the author, a scientist himself, now calls it a bad thing.

Seeker Jan 02, 2016 03:26pm

@chandrashekara Fully agree. We are not without our own wonder deficit. At least in India is' due to the way we teach. Too much emphasis on learning by rote and too little on independent thinking. Cross questioning your teacher is almost a cognizable offense!!

Dr Mazhar Jan 02, 2016 04:48pm

My request to Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy to please produce documentaries like ;Asrar-e Jahan, that you did at PTV during Musharraf's era. Such documentaries create in youth wonder, ambitions and thoughts. I myself am a Scientist because I used to watch Cosmos at PTV during 90s.

CURIOUS FELLOW Jan 02, 2016 04:51pm

An excellent Piece!

IRFAN Jan 02, 2016 04:58pm

Please Sir, write more. we have to wait for a long time!

sohail Jan 02, 2016 05:04pm

Excellent piece.

Nasiroski Jan 02, 2016 05:32pm

Well said curriculum should now include how to access information on the web or rather how to use internet to your advantage.

P. S. Natarajan Jan 02, 2016 05:48pm

Pervez Hoodbhoy is the best you could have to initiate educational reform anywhere. He is right word for word ! Would that he were education minister of India or Pakistan !

Srirama Jan 02, 2016 06:30pm

I wonder who is more deserving of Nobel peace prize, Mr. Hoodbhoy or Ms. Malala.

Ap Jan 02, 2016 06:32pm

Thank you Prof. Excellent article, as always. It's a good analysis.

S. Haider Jan 02, 2016 07:01pm

A remarkable article with highly interesting and intelligent thoughts . Deep surprise - on a "wonder" - is a source of inspiring curiosity, which leads to scientific thinking. Parents and teachers should encourage a child to ask a question . To ask proper questions is the beginning of scientific approach. Thank you , Sir.

fida USA Jan 02, 2016 07:06pm

Wonderful article,

Indialover Jan 02, 2016 08:56pm

Sir. This is the third time I am requesting you to come and settle in India. Our children will be lucky to learn from you.

Agha Ata Jan 02, 2016 10:19pm

How true Mr.Hoodbhoy. If a child is curious, he needs nothing else to evolve. He would guide his own evolution.

B.Patel (USA) Jan 02, 2016 11:14pm

Sir, you nailed it. The reason USA is ahead in technology is the history of rejecting the norms. Sometimes the early knowledge and heritage becomes a baggage. The first word my grand kids uttered was "no" and "no" and "why" are the words they used the most till they were four. Many times myself and my father responded to "why" from kids by saying "are Chup Kar" (shut up) Or by saying this is how things are. Also we emphasized ratta at the expense of creativity. The movie "3 Idiots", also sent the same message as the author.

Dr K Jan 02, 2016 11:21pm

In the subcontinent we wonder for the right, I wonder what is there to eat for dinner.

Socrates of Gilgit-baltistan Jan 02, 2016 11:25pm

Dr. Sahib always possesses the blessings of right thinking which makes a genuine scholar to be discerned among the ordinary billions. As far as the matter of lack of curiosity and in us and the dreath of the occasions wherein we may find ourselves absorbed in the intensity of the moment which may be called bewilderment or wonder is concerned it is stated that more research is needed to be done in order to reach the bottom of the ocean of this world because the exalted writer has justly put that although it is a simple word but contains a macrocosm within. However, one may only wonder and become a little bit confused when finds him/herself in a situation in which the possibilty of attaining such Eurika Moments in our society becomes grim and hazy because of the multitudes of so called teachers and religous authorities who have proven themselves nothing but means of strangulating intellectual quest and murdering spiritual enlightenment.

Naseer Jan 03, 2016 01:21am

I think religion should only be used to teach us how to control our emotions and sentiments toward ourselves and other living beings.Everything else should be left for sciences to explain and explore.

tariq Jan 03, 2016 01:35am

Great Article! His point was evident on a billboard I saw recently! Why go to College when there is GOOGLE. Such a shame.

Secularist Jan 03, 2016 02:30am

The fundamental conflict is between religionists and scientists. Unquestioned obedience and acceptance of the scriptures and prophets is demanded by the religionists. For them all propositions and postulates are valid and above questioning or reasoning. Faith is paramount. Science requires one to state propositions in a falsifiable manner. All propositions and postulates are subject to challenge, reversal or rejection. Per scientific method, a scientist has to recognize the limitations one's method and all affirmations are tentative. There are curious children and devoted teachers far from the madding urban areas. During the past four years, I have had the opportunity to visit primary and middle schools in rural India where some NGOs have done a wonderful job. One village in Odisha, some three miles from the nearest puck road had put together a science exhibition. I was so happy to spend a few hour with this bright inquisitive minds. Trust NGOs to do a better job than any government.

salman haider Jan 03, 2016 02:44am

Dr. Hoodbhoy, always good to read your writings. I think this one (and others) must be compiled and made a required reading in all schools and colleges in Pakistan. Please find ways to translate it in Urdu and other regional languages so it can reach the masses. The corrupt and mostly uneducated politicians in Pakistan bear the responsibility of poor education system... its time to bypass them and find ways to directly go to the masses. Why don't you start an education channel...I would love to see you and other like minded people on it... I have been out of Pakistan since 1974 and have been seeing the decline of education standards...

Please continue to write ...

karim Mohd Khan Jan 03, 2016 09:15am

Marvelous ideas composed by you Dr sb! keep up writing thought provoking ideas and be source of bacon of knowledge for the youth. well done

Hammad Mazhar Jan 03, 2016 11:54am

@Maryam I beg to differ on the 'no real concepts' point. In the computer science field, much advanced work is available in published research as well as course pages of foreign universities. I can recall many times where I accessed the internet to fully grasp the concepts behind any of my course material. The tendency to take facts from the internet without understanding the concepts, is more of a extension of the system that is prevalent in schools.

Qureshi Jan 03, 2016 07:56pm

Love you Hoodbhoy.

Ashraf Quli Jan 04, 2016 01:13am

No only there is Wonder deficit in Pakistan, but huge deficit of morality, ethics, sobriety, tolerance and things in that order. My salutations and compliments to Mr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who, as an educationist, erudite, and a keen observer, have been continuously emphasizing on the importance of education, and blowing whistle at the apathy and criminal negligence in this regard by those responsible. Let all those who advocate for quality education to all in this country extend full support to Mr. Hoodbhoy, and also pray that the Almighty protect him from those obscurantists and mullahs who have attempted to defame him.

Taimour Jan 04, 2016 04:03am

This is probably the Best piece by a local author I have read in a long long time. Thankyou sir!