Fighting the war, literally

January 07, 2018

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LALA Rukh’s mother, a poet in a vernacular language and a teacher of social science in a public school of Lahore, is not worried to notice that her daughter is unable to understand her poetry. She is, however, content that Lala Rukh is an optometrist practising in Wapda Town of Lahore. She was put through the path of studying basic science subjects by her parents as all they cared about is a secure future for their daughter.

A career in basic sciences is a ticket to enter job market and hence a lure for parents. Lahore was once known for its services to literature but this market mania has reduced literature into being a luxury for the affluent. Since children of the middle and lower middle class think that they cannot afford studying literature, ultra-rich kids are given the otherwise coveted field of literature uncontested.

Lala Rukh’s case is not alone.

Lahore is giving away to the national focus – fostering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) among the boys and girls, leaving out literature and social sciences behind.

Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif would promise to turn a dedicated chief ministe’’s complex into an information technology university for women. The state-of-the-art Arfa Kareem Tower stands tall inspiring people to study computer sciences. The Higher Education Commission announces hundreds of foreign study scholarships for STEM graduates. The market has lucrative and an abundant supply of jobs for STEM scholars.

Punjab University spokesperson Khurram Shahzad says every candidate for BS programme wants to get admission to the STEM departments and those with around 90pc of marks can secure a berth there.

Those who cannot make to STEM disciplines and still want to have a higher education degree turn to social sciences departments. Punjab University’s English Literature Department started its BS programme two years back and its merit was also high when the admissions were open last time.

In these circumstances, who would turn to literature and how do Lahore schools cope with this problem?

“Well, when I see grade III kids discuss feature of a new mobile phone brand, and not a story, I get really concerned,” says Syed Shamim Azam, an owner of a private school in Lahore.

He acknowledges that over the years, the trend of reading literature in students has gone down.

“There’s need to investigate why students, especially boys, don’t love reading. In fact, they don’t find enough role models around them.”

His school has been trying to turn things around by taking an initiative to promote a love for literature among the students since September last.

The school day starts with a session dedicated to reading. All students read something of their choice from an Urdu story book to English classic and graphic literature.

“I hope the initiative will bring about a positive change in children.”

Not many schools and families, however, are interested in creating the love for literature among their children.

Syed Moazam Ali Shah runs a tutor centre in Defence Housing Authority and supplies home tutors to affluent families.

“Of every 10 calls, eight clients demand a tutor for science subjects, and two for English language,” he explains tuition trends. My Urdu and English literature tutors have to wait for months to get a tutee.”

Dr Asir Ajmal has seen a decline in literary activities in the Government College University, Lahore. He was born in the college residence in the 60s when his father, Dr Ajmal, was its principal. In those days, he recalls, they would not go out for recreation as the college was holding literary and arts activities almost every day.

Now, Lahore schools and colleges have no literary activities or popular ‘Bazm-i-Adab’ type sessions on their calendar.

The Shahbaz Sharif government tried to revive literary culture through speech contests but failed as student would only deliver crammed speeches.

Prof Dr Mansoor Akbar Kundi, former vice-chancellor of the Gomal University, Dera Ismail Khan, says over the years, the city has seen the mushroom growth of science and technology institutes in both private and public sectors. He explains the consequences of ignoring literature and social sciences.

“You see frustration and intolerance among the youth,” he says during an international conference in COMSATS University of Technology in Lahore, pointing to a picture of the Punjab University students beating each other. “This is the price.”

Dr Kundi says literature and social sciences promote harmony, love, coexistence and empathy.

Dr Huam Baqai vouches for his words.

An associate professor with a premier business education institute, Dr Baqai says they contacted several employers to know about the productivity of their graduates. Their response was shocking.

“Many of the employers said the graduates had good content knowledge but that was not enough. The workplace can teach a raw beginner all the content and skills required for the job in a few months. The graduates, however, lacked a sense of workplace coexistence,” she says while speaking at a workshop on conflict resolution in Lahore.

The feedback pushed the programme managers to increase the number of humanities and literature subjects from three to seven and 10.

Dr Fatima Sajjad from the University of Management Technology also has similar views. She suggests schools should have some subjects for learning and intellectual grooming only, not for grades.

She says evaluation of subjects like literature (humanities and social sciences) should be redesigned as STEM graduates get 100 out of 100 which is impossible in subjects like literature for right or wrong reasons.

One or two semesters at a university programme may not be enough to inculcate the love of reading in university students.

Hina Sultana, a PhD scholar with the Government College Women University, Lahore, stresses the role of the family in inculcating the love of reading in children.

She says a strict reading regime should be developed at home. Parents should become a role model for their children. “Take very often your kids to libraries and bookshops. Secondly, do not criticise technology, it’s a new fast rapid way to gain knowledge but its excessive use is harmful.”

Isra Khan, a PhD scholar, offers simple tips on inculcating the love of literature in children.

“To my knowledge and experience of teaching and bringing up children, I think children should be exposed to good language and good expressions. For example, if children watch good content in English, they will develop good listening comprehension and speaking skills. So before literature, love of language comes first,” she says.

Syed Hassan Shahzad, a media scholar, finds a solution in the marriage of science and literature. He supports role of the media in the development of interests.

“Our generation is aware of and interested in zombies. It is because the media generates their interest in it. So why cannot we make films on themes of science and literature? Literature is important for scientists because you need to know how to write as you need to do a lot of writing in your career,” he comments.

He says it is time for creative minds to make topics of science and literature attractive for the young generation. It will be a constructive contribution of the media to society. New research has showed that media has not only gained independence but all other organs of society are getting heavily dependent on media. It is against this background that the media, not least digital media, should play its role to educate cyber kids on science and literature.

Sameen Shah, a PhD scholar, is studying the new trends keenly.

She believes that in this age of science where children are surrounded by gadgets, social media and micro blogging trends, a ‘human’ experience rich with emotions, empathy, values and compassion has become both rare and difficult to understand.

Teaching literature to the children can probably soften the hard and rough edges of their personalities, helping them develop a better understanding of that ‘human’ experience.

She is right but for the new generation, this human experience comes after career.

(The writer is a staff member).