Envisioning the future
THE Higher Education Commission (HEC) was established with great aplomb only a decade ago. If recent events are anything to go by, it is debatable how long it will continue to exist.
In the context of the ongoing unravelling of state institutions of all stripes, the troubles afflicting the HEC are perhaps unexceptional. But this was one public-sector organisation that was supposed to be different, run by impartial technocrats committed only to impersonal meritocracy.
It is true that our education system — including the tertiary sector — is the embodiment of mediocrity. No one, therefore, can disagree that there is an urgent need to improve quality standards and the like at all levels. There has been considerable debate about the HEC’s initiatives in this regard, and the critics have concurred that some of these initiatives have helped in improving the state of higher education.
The fact of the matter, however, is that education — both formal and otherwise — is not a ‘problem’ to be solved by technocrats. In principle, education is part and parcel of the broader realm of popular culture.
Those who take seriously their role as educationists — both in Pakistan and abroad — do not focus only on short- or even medium-term, tangible outcomes, but see themselves as contributing to the building of a fundamentally democratic and vibrant society.
This is to say that education is far from an apolitical undertaking. It is impossible to develop creative instincts and promote critical thinking within young people — or those who seek adult education, for that matter — without questioning established norms and even structures of power. To educate is, to invoke Marx’s famous dictum, ruthless criticism of everything existing.
Not in Pakistan, however. Our formal curricula are little more than state propaganda, whereas the emphasis of most ‘educators’ is to stunt the development of critical faculties rather than encourage it.
Addressing such matters was never part of the HEC’s mandate, and it cannot, therefore, be said to have ‘failed’ in this regard.
But I do think that the failure to frame a broader vision at the outset has something to do with the struggle for power that is taking place within the institution today.
Then there is the sad truth that a significant number of people in educationally disadvantaged regions have harboured suspicions about the objectives of the HEC throughout its decade-long existence.
Whatever the reasons may be for the HEC’s quite spectacular implosion in full public view, the current debacle might actually prove to be an opportunity in disguise, assuming that consensus can eventually be generated on a long-term vision of cultural and intellectual development for Pakistani society.
In that sense alone it is a moot point whether the HEC continues in its present form, or, among other possibilities, metamorphoses into a series of provincial HECs.
Ideally, the intelligentsia and those involved in cultural production of any kind, should be part of any fresh effort to think through what we want to achieve in the educational and broader cultural realms. In fact, writers, artists and so on should be pushing the boundaries of popular culture regardless of whether political will to undertake a fresh appraisal of the state’s education and cultural policies exists.
Organic cultural production in Pakistan has always taken place in spite of the state’s absolute intolerance for dissident symbols, signs and meanings. In the early years, an otherwise secular state apparatus cynically employed religious idiom to de-legitimise competing visions of ‘national’ culture.
In more recent decades, those more loyal than the king — and the religious right in particular — have taken it upon themselves to defend the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ come what may. The costs of standing up to the dominant cultural and intellectual paradigms were very high in the past and continue to be so in the present.
Having said this, one can operate in the realm of popular culture without necessarily antagonising the powers-that-be. Yet there are very few writers who project an alternative — and viable — ‘national’ culture to the statist version.
Artists and poets do offer much more in the way of alternatives, particularly those who work in the vernacular, but too many of us — parents, teachers, even those who consider themselves statesmen — do not believe that art and poetry play any meaningful role in societal development.
This takes me back to the stale, technocratic conception of education as something which must serve a functional requirement. In this conception a premium is placed upon producing as many ‘experts’ in technical fields as possible, because such ‘expertise’ is required to compete in an unrelentingly competitive and globalised economy.
In effect, this encourages an assembly-line logic whereby ‘experts’ are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
For example, the overwhelming majority of economists in this country are little more than stooges of the international financial institutions, unwilling and unable to look beyond the standard neo-liberal conceptions of growth and development.
Indeed, this ‘intelligentsia’ demonstrates an alarming intolerance towards alternative ways of thinking about well-being and human progress, often resorting to name-calling when faced with untypical intellectual propositions.
At issue is not just the (modern) privileging of the ‘sciences’ over the ‘arts and humanities’. We neither bother with pedagogy nor with the relationship of education to other social and cultural concerns.
Meanwhile, the ideologues of the state continue to insist upon rote learning in formal educational institutions, and inculcate a very particular set of values within the ordinary citizen (read: subject).
Progressives who claim to be at the frontline of the challenge to the state’s project must therefore foment counter hegemonic ideas and practices in the realm of popular culture just as consciously.
Social transformation does not, by definition, take place overnight. Many of us buy into the cliché about the singular importance of education in changing the destiny of nations.
We devote very little time to thinking about what education really is and how to make it into a means to transform both the lives of those who acquire it formally and those whose values and dispositions are shaped by the many other apparatuses of cultural production.
A peaceful and tolerant society and a fundamentally just one will remain a pipe dream if we do not develop a shared educational vision and then set about the (difficult) task of turning this vision into reality.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.