LAHORE:27 November:Simone Weil once wrote that we should be skeptical of unrealistic ideals but she forgot to add that the opposite danger is just as relevant-perhaps more so-to our times: beware of a reality that offers no ideals. Of course, both perspectives are important at an individual level, but they also ring true for our politics and, more generally, for our institutions. Especially for institutions in the educational sector.
In recent years, there has been a significant growth in higher education in lots of countries around the world and Pakistan is no different in this respect, with an expansion in the number of universities, the range of subjects offered, a growing role for the private sector, a shift away from traditional courses such as the humanities to business, science, and engineering, and a large increase in funding.
These developments are often seen as an unmitigated good thing. But are they? Of course, no-one could argue against greater levels of participation and better, more modern higher education institutions. What gets overlooked in such assertions, though, is the fundamental question: what are universities for, what are the ‘ends’ of a university?
It’s at this point that anyone who works in a university is liable to get on his or her high horse, wheel in someone like Cardinal Newman, and pontificate about the ‘high ideals’ of a university education. There’s always a degree of smugness associated with a belief that one is contributing to a noble cause. But the opposite danger, the one Simone Weil didn’t point out, is probably more pertinent to our situation: can we re-imagine the role of the university in a society and culture that is hooked to a narrow vision of ‘practicality’ and instrumentality?
The problem is that in the long history of the university, there has always been an unresolved tension between essentialist claims for the university and others that are more historically grounded. The latter has helped support lots of different forms of the university and define various functions or roles. So, in simple terms: is there some unchanging idea of the university, one associated with its medieval roots of disinterested learning, or should we think of the university in terms of a number of practical goals: promoting and refining policy discussions, fostering civic values, strengthening democratic attitudes, contributing to the growth of the economy via research and technical skills, social mobility and so on? That list does seem like an excessive burden for any one institution and it is totally oblivious of the fact that if the university achieves anything, it does it obliquely and not with an explicit aim to do so.
Any individual, and any society, has to eventually decide on the relative importance of different types of knowledge or, to put it in a different way, to work out the relation between knowledge and a good life. To say that the market or the state should determine the answer to these vital questions is to at once run the risk of short-termism in the one case, and paternalism in the other. To say that they should be answered in the universities themselves is to pre-judge the issue. In Pakistan’s case, it’s not clear what the answer is because the question is never formulated in the first place. Which is why I’m slightly pessimistic about the idea of ‘expansion’. It seems likely, but not inevitable, that we will witness the end of the university here in Pakistan, but for distinct reasons.
Firstly, as seems to be the case in many countries, students are increasingly less interested in reading or learning for the sake of understanding and-perhaps somewhat understandably-more concerned about using their university degree as a passport to a good job. ‘Grade consciousness’ is a term one hears floating about in the hallways of many university departments.
Of course, the students are not wholly to blame, for we live in an increasingly materialist culture and it’s harder to persuade students of the merits of ‘useless knowledge’ (to use Bertrand Russell’s wonderfully evocative phrase). In addition, with so many different sources of knowledge open to students, the old methods of lecturing do seem somewhat antiquated. The ‘exalted silence’ of the book can surely only exist against a particular cultural background. The ‘soft capital’ that goes to make up a university is something over and beyond bricks and mortar, and extra funding.
Secondly, with falling real incomes teachers themselves may be pulled more to consultancy work or tuitions with serious consequences for quality. We can hardly complain about students’ lack of passion for learning when we ourselves have lost it. But the solution is not simply to raise incomes. What drives someone to be a university teacher, to be a good teacher and researcher, cannot simply be monetary incentives.
And thirdly, the future is bleak because in some cases universities are run by administrators- who are usually on very large salaries- whilst the teachers’ say is only marginal. The only aim of these managers and bureaucrats is to expand in order to generate more resources, and the only language they understand is the jargon of ‘targets’ and ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. A few years ago, I heard Prime Minister Jamali speak at a book launch. In one of those Homer Simpson moments, he said something that was both inane and profound: “It’s good to be educated by educated people”.
What, then, is the way forward? Perhaps we need to at least articulate some of the ideals of the university if we’re to get away from the narrow view that dominates. That would mean recognizing that the university is about the ‘care and cultivation of our highest aspirations’ (Veblen), about carving out a space where students and teachers alike can engage in an open-ended inquiry that is not directed to some social, ideological or economic purpose.
That’s always what’s made the university distinctive from other institutions: it’s ability to generate enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, independence, and a certain idea of ‘community’ (radically equal, awkward, not easily persuaded). The university is one of the few remaining secluded places where we can, as Stefan Collini says, ‘try and understand more clearly, more deeply’. That might all sound like a luxury in an age of budget cuts, but the only other option is to accept a non-idealistic realism.Pakistan Today.