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The benefit of grey

March 20, 2011

LAST week I presented the argument that what the country primarily suffers from is the malaise of ignorance, which in turns breeds all sorts of other troubles.

The answer, I argued, lay in making education a national priority and in fixing the flailing education system.

Under the 18th Amendment the state is duty-bound to provide free and compulsory education to all children, a constitutional right that it is very far from being able to offer.

Yet the fact is that even if Pakistan managed to educate all its children that alone might not be enough to turn the country away from its current, self-destructive trajectory. The conventional wisdom that educated people are likely to be less inclined towards extreme viewpoints remains true, but it hinges on the quality and, more crucially, the sort of education provided.

Literacy would make a difference, a country full of degree holders would make even more. But as a reader pointed out, the 9/11 hijackers held degrees that would have made any South Asian parent proud. “The quality of a country’s social sciences reflects on its greatness as a people and society,” he wrote. “In South Asia all we want is for kids to become doctors, engineers, software types. We are losing the critical faculties that the social sciences provide … I’m not sure education alone is the answer to making a tolerant society. It is important, but not by itself.”

Think of it this way: science and technical education on the whole has yes/no answers. Two plus two equals four and nothing else. The heart has so many valves and such a function, and any other answer is incorrect. Water is constituted of hydrogen and oxygen in precisely these parts, and it can be no other way. There are very few shades of grey in science; what they dictate, especially in the practical (as opposed to theoretical research) side is in the main a black and white world.

Extrapolate this to refer to the worldview of such a student. His academic knowledge dictates that things are either correct or incorrect, and in a latent, subconscious fashion this would be applied to ideas or ideologies that go beyond academia and stretch into real life — if you and I disagree and I know am right, then you are wrong.

Science teaches certainties that have the equivalent of a moral upper hand through being absolutely and invariably correct. In this way, we have in people the inclination to either totally accept as right, or totally reject as wrong, ideas and attitudes. And so, quite possibly, we have a society that is one step closer to allowing extreme viewpoints or ideologies to take root.

Students of the social sciences and humanities, by contrast, are taught to navigate their way through endless possibilities with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to light the path. Philosophy, history, literature, anthropology, etc are all areas that require the student to traverse the grey areas and the ‘what ifs’, where the only moral upper hand can be logic and rational, coherent debate. These subjects ask the student to take in context and connections and search for alternatives.

Extrapolate this to refer to worldviews, and, arguably, such students would be more inclined towards debate and the willingness to tolerate, even if not accept, points of view that differ from their own.

The social sciences and humanities are all about interpretation, not about the correctness of the answer, which in most cases does not really exist to begin with. This, perhaps, is the difference between the mindset that fuels an extremist point of view and one which informs a tolerant one. The extremist believes that his answer is the right one; therefore, anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and must be corrected — which is what is happening in Pakistan.

The problem in Pakistan, then, is not just the lack of education but also the lack of the right sort of education. As the person who emailed me pointed out, most parents in South Asia prefer their children to enter science and technical/technological fields. It would require an anthropological study to piece together the reasons why this may be so, but that is how matters demonstrably stand.

Beyond that hurdle, there is the fact that the push in Pakistan’s higher education sector has been towards science and technical education. For every university department of humanities or social sciences, there are a dozen for science, computer science, marketing, business etc. In fact, if one wants a credible degree in the former disciplines, there are only a handful of institutions across the country to choose from.

In the ‘O’ Level system, more students choose to study mathematics, economics and science than drama, literature or philosophy. In the Matriculation system, taking up the ‘arts’ subjects has virtually become stigmatised.

Perhaps this has something to do with a societal attitude in which education is seen as the means to an end: employment and income generation.

True, Pakistan requires a capable and efficient workforce. But what it needs more urgently is tolerance amongst its citizens, an ability to navigate grey areas and refrain from seeing the world in ‘I am right, you are wrong’ terms. It needs some creative ideas and blue-sky thinking for resolving its issues.

It is absolutely necessary that the state do something about the millions in the country that go uneducated. Meanwhile, it is also crucially important that colleges and universities be provided incentives to put greater focus on the humanities and social sciences.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com