Vocation and education

24 Feb, 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THERE are 196 chartered general-purpose universities in Pakistan. Most of these universities offer courses in the humanities and social sciences (HSS), including history, philosophy, sociology and political science. A brief look at the statistics reveals that there are over 200,000 students enrolled in these programmes. The total number of faculty teaching in these programmes is likely to number around 10,000.

What is the current standard of the faculty and the curriculum? We know for a fact that the vast majority of Pakistani social scientists and humanities scholars are not publishing widely in international journals. Pakistani scholars are rarely part of international debates or even regional ones for that matter. In terms of pedagogical contributions, a brief review of the political science curriculum at one of the largest universities in the country shows that it has not been updated since the early 1990s.

The situation in Pakistan is very clear from this perspective. Critical thinking is something that is starkly absent from the broader social formation. Whether it is on issues of governance, issues of morality, issues of culture, or simply issues of personal conception and identity, there is a considerable dearth of reflection, intellectual engagement, and thus of reform.

Tracing the genesis of why the HSS are in their current condition is a challenging task. What is certainly clear is that this was not always the case. There was a time when Pakistani universities were producing excellent social scientific research; their departments remained hubs of critical thinking and intellectual engagement not just with society as a whole but well beyond the boundaries of the nation state.

To succeed as a consuming citizen, one has to rethink the meaning of education.

There is a conventional story here, which is situated during the 1980s and 1990s, and revolves around coercion and regulation by the state, the midwifed takeover of college campuses by regressive forces, and the exclusion of critical and progressive voices from HSS departments. This story is conventional because it is true. The Pakistani higher education landscape has never recovered from the ravages of that period.

But there is another, deeper factor that has reinforced the destructive tendencies from that period. This factor, for lack of a better term, is the wholehearted embrace of a ‘vocational’ capitalist ethos by the state, and consequently, society itself. This embrace has existed in various forms from the 1960s onwards but has certainly accelerated over the last two decades. What this ethos does is that it gradually replaces ideational conceptions of the citizen with one that is predicated on consumption — consumption that is then facilitated by the state through its macroeconomic policies.

To succeed as a consuming citizen, one has to rethink the meaning of education and what it means to acquire education in purely vocational terms. The idea of going to university changes from intellectual inquiry to acquisition of skills that can be transacted in the labour market for remuneration and to satisfy the desire for upward mobility. This naturally walls off the prospects of any type of learning — institutionalised on a university campus or otherwise — that cannot be linked directly to immediate material aspiration.

This is obviously not peculiar to Pakistan. It is not exceptional to see the broader field of education attempt to satisfy vocational requirements. Some of it is also down to the common postcolonial condition that is manifest in attempts to ‘catch up’ materially with the rest of the world. This creates a situation where a certain type of education is considered to be more valuable and in service of a greater cause whereas other types are seen to be superfluous and irrelevant to national-developmental or market-based conceptions of growth. HSS education is often the first to experience this neglect. Rather than seeing it as a necessary part of social and cultural development, even within the broader nation-state framework, it is often perceived as a luxury that growth-obsessed countries cannot afford.

The hegemonic ideal of education as a tool to serve vocational ends has crept into every corner of the country. It drives decision-making on part of students and administrators. It is what explains why lower-middle-class parents are willing to spend a considerable portion of their incomes on substandard programmes that promise degrees in vaguely useful sounding disciplines. It is what explains the reasons behind the neglect of HSS departments and the success of degree programmes like BBA or BCS, both of which map on to what is or was considered desirable and useful in a particular socioeconomic milieu.

But it also explains why so many young people feel anxious and alienated about their futures. They were told that arming themselves with a useful-sounding credential will help them get closer to the glorified ideal of the ‘consuming citizen’. But economic and social realities are far less considerate. Status and class-based discriminations, along with the inability of the economy to provide a decent wage, are the hard realities these vocational dreams often crash into.

Some of this could actually be mitigated by arming students with the ability to interpret what’s happening with them. This is precisely the feature that sets good humanities and social scientific education apart from other disciplines: it spills over into broader issues of public and social life. At the heart of a good education in the social sciences is the ability to engage in critical thinking; and by that one means the ability to interrogate the word around oneself, reflect on it, engage with it and contribute something to it that extends to the collective around us. In its absence, however, we find a society that continuously oversells a vocational recipe for success, only to leave behind helplessness, bitterness and ennui.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2020