Op-Ed: Time to rediscover what education means

A few months back I visited a notable, prestigious university in Islamabad, as someone who hasn’t studied at a Pakistani university I wanted to take the opportunity to explore what students really got out of their undergraduate experiences. I talked to about a dozen students and asked each of them a simple question, “what is the last book you have read?” The reason for this was to understand what truly intrigues these students. Not what they are studying in school, but how are they developing their worldview.

Every one of them answered initially with a name of a textbook which was assigned to them by the school. When I clarified that anything other than a textbook – the blank looks on their faces showed me they hadn’t read anything other than what they were required to do by the university. In fact, the university hadn’t encouraged them to read beyond what was required the pass the exams. “Just read what we tell you to,” one student quoted her lecturer to me.

In the race for numbers, we have somehow lost what education really means for university students. Is it about simply putting the laminated degrees on the wall? Or is it about creating responsible, engaged young men and women who can navigate their way across an increasingly complex society?

Since the creation of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Pakistan has seen an undeniable rise in university graduates and university campuses nationwide. There is little doubt that there has been a quantitative improvement in access to high education in Pakistan. As of 2016, there are 177 universities across Pakistan graduating an estimated of more than half a million graduates annually.

However, global rankings, employee surveys and youth unemployment show something of a grim picture of graduates of most of these universities. For Pakistan’s elite, the solution has been simple, to send their children to foreign universities. Those without the means have too often to rely on extremely competitive foreign-funded scholarships or make the best of the substandard local universities.

Universities, like most things, can’t be separated from the economy. If Pakistani economy doesn’t do well, it is impossible for the country to spend fairly on research, facility and student development. For the resources Pakistan does spend, the majority is channelled through the HEC — about Rs.71 billion (about $700 million) in 2016. For comparison, that’s less than half of the budget of Lahore’s new orange train. Out of which only Rs.20 billion (or about $200 million) is to be spent on ‘development’, hence on new campuses or projects. The rest is for the non-development budget.

The problem goes far beyond money. It has to do with the culture of learning Pakistan has spectacularly failed to develop. In other words – allowing its citizens to grow, learn how to learn, and feed their intellectual curiosities. This is not about creating some liberal utopia in Pakistan, it is about giving them the right skills they need to compete in an increasingly globalised world.

For this, universities in Pakistan need to build broad liberal arts-based knowledge driven learning experience. Currently, most universities are focused on simply teaching one core discipline to its students – that too based on rote learning, this method fails to build problem-solving skills and critical thinking of its students. It also discourages students from exploring the area they feel most passionate about.

Most employers complain of new graduates inability to write and speak properly, let alone manage complex projects which go beyond the inquiry of their university textbooks. In most likelihood, methods these graduates learned in classrooms will become out-dated within few years of them graduating. The rate of disruption in the global economy is higher then every and the graduates of the 21st century will need more than just textbook skills, they will need the knowledge to think critically and learn new skills as they become prudent years down the road.

The solution can be the American liberal arts education model, which has for generations developed the most critical thought leaders in the world, even today most of the worlds top universities follow this model to some extend. Here students study across disciplines, essentially opening up their minds through exploring a variety of courses. In his 2015 book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” journalist Fareed Zakaria perfectly demonstrates the importance of liberal education.

He writes; “the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill.”

Pakistan has unfortunately not focused on knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Wasif Rizvi, the president of Pakistan’s first liberal arts college – the Habib University, blames the “vocational roots” of most Pakistani universities as the source of this limited outlook. A Harvard graduate himself, Wasif perfectly sums up the essence of education as the following, “the most significant event in an education is when something you have been completely convinced about turns out to be completely wrong.” How many students would have gone through this experience?

Habib University, which will graduate its first class next year, is attempting to bring the American liberal arts model to Pakistan. Through the process of “structured intellectual reflection” as Wasif puts it. The reflection is based on intellectually rigorous courses on modernity, and perhaps more critically, on religion. Courses that all students have to take, regardless of whether they are majoring in computer science or anthropology.

This kind of engagement with one’s environment is a critical feature of a liberal arts education, and this engagement will go a long way in creating the “culture of learning” Pakistan needs to develop to progress. This culture needs to go beyond universities, but universities need to lead in developing this culture. In a recent conversation with Dr Nadeem Haque, a University of Chicago educated economist, an important, but often overlooked, point was evident. How many times to families take their kids to libraries? In fact, where are the libraries? Can a person from a working class background really afford to buy books? I have done most of my learning during summers I spend in Toronto with my cousins where I would borrow their library passes and explore books across disciplines. An opportunity I would never have had in Pakistan.

In larger schemes of things, today’s students will become tomorrows parents. It will be their prerogative to decide what kind of learning their children are exposed to. If the parents themselves don’t have the skills to think for themselves, it will be unlikely for them to expose these kinds with the broad, critical knowledge. On the economic front, technological innovation will make many of the jobs they train in universities today, redundant the next decade. Then what? Do they have the transferable skills to change careers? In most cases, they don’t.

Universities are meant to be the engines of social progress. We need to think carefully about the fate of the half a million graduates these universities pump into the labour force every year. Not only their bleak job prospects but also a there lack of understanding of the world around them.

Just imagine, a student decides at 16 that he wants to become an engineer, studies those subjects, appears in an entrance test, and spends the next four years studying (often rote learning) an engineering discipline. But when he graduates, he will just not only be an engineer. He will also be a citizen, a voter, a parent, an observer of current affairs. His inability to understand this all will be a liability. A liability which the society will have to pay for.

This is a full-length version of my article for Daily Times published, July 19th , 2017.

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