Thinking critically — really?

20 Oct 2017


TWO quotes from physicist Richard Feynman set the stage. “There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.”

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Higher education has been in the news in Pakistan. When rankings of universities are revealed we find none of our universities are in the top few hundred. When CSS examination results are announced, the dismal performance of candidates elicits comments about the poor quality of our higher education. When university graduates are found amongst the ranks of extremists and fundamentalists, questions are raised about what they are being taught, if anything, in universities. When the quality of research publications is talked about, our universities are found to be wanting. When internationally known academics are ranked, we get to know that we do not have even a few working out of Pakistan.

We live in a society where space, even for conversations amongst friends, has shrunk drastically.

All of the above are true. The real picture is worse than what we see in these news items or analyses. The quality of teaching I see, even in some of the better-known institutions of the country, tells me that it is quite a miracle that we boast of having 200 odd institutions of higher learning ‘functioning’ in the country. An honest quality audit would force a lot of programmes to shut down. But let us leave that debate for another day.

The remedy, for our higher education woes, usually suggested is introduction of critical thinking: students should be able to think and engage critically with what they learn. This is an eminently sensible position to take. If our students did have the ability to engage critically with learning methods and the content of learning, we would indeed be in a very different place today. But there are some larger issues here that need attention.

The Higher Education Commission and the Planning Commission have always taken a very functional approach to what kind of education our children should have. Even a cursory look at HEC’s draft vision 2025 shows that HEC wants to produce the technicians, engineers, doctors and managers of the future. They are not too bothered about what general abilities all students should have.

A corollary of the above is also the general neglect and disdain with which the arts, humanities and social sciences are treated. Planners and policymakers do not see the value that artists, philosophers or social scientists add to society. ‘We need more engineers and not philosophy graduates’ is a popular refrain in these circles. Clearly, few understand the value of critical thinkers in this society. Most policymakers are still stuck in ‘numbers’ and ‘function’ games.

Even if we stay in the domain of the sciences, we can definitely introduce critical thinking there. But do we have the wherewithal to manage that? Feynman thought ‘doubt’ provided the foundation stone on which learning is built: it is only by trying to prove ourselves wrong that we come closer to better explanations. Is that an attitude that we, as a nation, and our policymakers and educationists, can even tolerate?

We live in a society where space, even for conversations and even amongst friends let alone strangers, has shrunk drastically over the last few decades. Censorship has been internalised by most living in this land. How do we, in such a state and society, introduce critical thinking and doubt as a foundational concept?

We cannot talk critically about religion in this society. Every society, howsoever religious its population might be, will have a few people who do not believe in God or religion. Do we have such people in Pakistan? There must be some. Do they dare come out and declare their existence? Could they come forward and have discussions about their point of views and/or beliefs with all the theists who are around? Could they express their ‘doubts’ about the beliefs of others? Could we, the rest, live with their doubts being openly expressed?

How do we do critical thinking here? Let alone, raising questions about faith, at the moment, we also make it difficult for minorities to preach or practise their religions. Even raising the issue of whether the state has the right to determine the faith of an individual is no longer possible in this country. In Lahore, the city administration went to the point of imposing Section 144 for a month to stop people from talking about sensitivities around khatm-i-naboowat.

This is not just about religion’s domain only. Religion is a seen as a way of life for us. So, the domain extends to economic, social, political and even personal space. Land reform debate is out because the Sharia court thinks it is unIslamic. Is the leadership of a woman acceptable? It is not about competence, it is about what religious interpretations are about. Underage marriage cannot be disallowed because the interpretations do not allow it.

We cannot say anything about what the state thinks is the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. The road from Mohammed bin Qasim to the making of Pakistan is very linear and causal. If you do not believe that, you are in for trouble.

We cannot talk about anything related to the army. Here too it is not about just defence and security-related issues. It is about all other domains as well. We cannot talk about the army and its hunger for land, its commercial interests from fertiliser to cereal manufacture, its interests in banking or insurance and we can definitely not talk about its role in Pakistan’s politics. We cannot talk about its conduct of the anti-terror campaign, the issue of missing persons and/or the harassment that journalists and social media users/bloggers face. We cannot talk of Balochistan and issues of inequity and inequality in the country.

But for all of the above, we still think that introducing ‘critical thinking’ is the answer to our problems in higher education. What are students going to think critically about? There are very few ‘safe’ topics one can have discussions on in Pakistan.

If critical thinking is to come, it has to come in all domains. Are we ready for that? To me the answer is clear: we are not ready at all. If it does not happen in all domains, it is hard to see how it can happen in higher education only.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2017