Off the shelf
Lessons from an educational disaster in Pakistan
V.N. Datta

Social Science in Pakistan in the 1990s
edited by S. Akbar Zaidi.
Council of Social Sciences, Pakistan, Islamabad. Pages 319. Rs 150.

IN his latest work, The Challenge of Education, Dr Amrik Singh, by taking a holistic view of our education system, has highlighted some of the failures that adversely affect the quality of education in the country. Save a few universities, especially the central ones, the situation in Indian universities is deplorable; and the Executive Councils, which are expected to uphold and safeguard the autonomy of universities, have become virtually departments of the government due to the official control exercised on them. In Pakistan, the universities present a piteous spectacle, which is evident from the book under review.

The author is a leading Pakistani social scientist who has published several studies, including his widely acclaimed Issues in Pakistanís Economy, which has become a standard textbook for postgraduate students in Pakistan. This work is a compilation of nine previously published articles with the editorís introduction relating to the social science discipline.

The scope of social science is limited to the inclusion of history, political science, sociology, international relations, anthropology, economics and area studies. The object of the volume is to highlight the content, standard and quality of teaching and research conducted in the universities of Pakistan.

In The University Historian, K. K. Aziz shows that the teaching and research in the universities is of poor quality. Sound research is the foundation of good teaching. Aziz emphasises that university professors, who should safeguard high academic standards, are themselves poor researchers, who content themselves with compiling only odd second-class historical material, rather than producing any study of real merit.

The reason for a low quality of teaching and research, according to Aziz, is the creation of universities in Pakistan as mere examining bodies, rather than centres of research. The undergraduate teaching, sadly enough, is conducted in the colleges that are ill equipped; and the honours courses of study are a farce because only two additional papers to the normal B.A. courses are added.

According to Aziz, Pakistan has made nonsense of the university education because of the absence of inter-disciplinary approach in social science studies, which tends to narrow the scope of subjects. Regrettably, in India, too, inter-disciplinary studies suffer the same fate despite the fact that the University Grants Commission has been insisting on their value for the last 50 years.

Aziz states that it is impossible in Pakistan to give an independent and objective interpretation of Jinnahís politics or write on the Muslim Leagueís role in the freedom of Pakistan. There are, of course, other sensitive themes which none dare touch. Aziz refers to Stanley Welportís book Jinnah in this connection because it was banned for exposing some of Jinnahís human foibles. Aziz laments that university professors contribute so little to knowledge and indulge in politics, acting as trembling poltroons, ever anxious to bow to the authorities, seeking favours and patronage from the powers-that-be to establish their position in public life.

Aziz emphasises that the universities in Pakistan are state-controlled, and therefore, the question of their autonomous character does not arise. However, in The Dismal State of Social Sciences, S. Akbar points out that only during the democratic era (1971-73) there was some relaxation of the official control, but the malady was so deep-rooted that no improvement in the universities was possible. Aziz states the courses of study in history are traditional, and no arrangement exists for the teaching of theory or philosophy of history. Only political history is taught to the neglect of social history.

The contributions to the volume emphasise that the official control of the universities in Pakistan has proved disastrous for their growth as centres of learning and research. Because of their vested interest and lack of understanding of the purpose of universities, officials interfere in the recruitment of teachers in higher education. Thus, merit nowhere counts; and only the mediocre prosper and flourish in the sunshine of official patronage.

In the sixth chapter, S. Akbar Zaidi analyses the external factors that have influenced the research output in economics. Firstly, due to the British and American impact through cultural exchange programmes, the Pakistan scholars developed their empirical studies, which were located in the Anglo-American tradition of political and economic sciences.

Another factor inimical to the growth of independent thinking was the entrenchment of American and Western scientists, anthropologists and management advisers and holding key positions and preparing Pakistanís "modernising" economic and political agenda. Zaidi points out that with the break-up of East Bengal, some of the Pakistani economists, influenced by the Marxist ideology, focused on economic inequality and educational breakdown in Pakistan.

This short period produced some tangible results; but with the end of the Bhutto regime, the Islamic ideology and dogmatism began to dominate social sciences. The present Pakistan is the legacy of Zia-ul-Haq, whose object was to Islamise his countryís educational system.

The result was that "Economics became Islamic Economics, anthropology Islamic Anthropology, and sciences Islamic Sciences; and research in history started focusing far more on the Islamic dimension; and the only sort of history that began to present was that related to the Pakistan movement and the Muslim freedom struggle in India." The foundation of International University in Islamabad was a consequence of this trend.

It is clear from the study of this volume that the only Pakistani academics that have made a mark in their creative work are those who have lived and worked abroad for nearly 30 years or so. The criterion for this unique distinction in original thought is a breakthrough in the realm of ideas. Regrettably, in the past 30 years, no Pakistani social scientist has made much of an intellectual contribution to his or her discipline.

This work is a painful revelation of the deplorable situation that exists in Pakistanís academic institutions and life. We should take a lesson from it to avoid pitfalls and dangers that impede our own intellectual and social advancement.