I understand why most people are shocked that the Mardan incident took place at a higher education institution. University campuses are invariably considered to be more open than the societies outside their walls.
More often than not, university students tend to stand up for dissenting opinions and give a voice to the voiceless. That these students can commit such a barbaric act of violence against a fellow student appears to be agonising but, unfortunately, not unexpected.
The students who are enrolled at universities hardly have a clean slate. They have gone through education and life in a society where they are taught that some truths should never be challenged. By the time they enter university life, most students have internalised the bigotry prevalent in society as the marker for their personal and collective identity. The first challenge for teachers is not to make the students learn, but to also make them unlearn.
The education at the grassroots level almost completely overlooks the need for critical thinking and pluralism. Successive governments have prioritised educational reforms at the school level by increasing enrolment, ensuring attendance and paying higher wages to teachers. However, little has been done to reform the curriculum.
The recruitment and training of schoolteachers receives little attention from the government. For students to be taught by the same teachers during their formative years determines their outlook and worldview.
The other issue that plagues the higher education sector in this context is the prevailing dominant discourses and dogmas in society. Our students spend a fraction of their time in the classroom. There are social, political and religious institutions that actively compete with universities to shape their intellectual beings. Not all students attend university with an open mind to learn. A couple of years back, a colleague was openly challenged and questioned by a student for calling Christians brothers. The student was convinced that non-Muslims cannot be our brothers.
Students are usually willing to learn, unless the discussion is about religion. In such cases, they do not recognise the authority of a professor who is teaching a ‘secular’ subject.
The aim here is not to exonerate higher education institutions of the failure to shield their students from bigotry. Instead, the purpose is to put into perspective the challenges within which the higher education sector operates. Higher education – to a lesser degree – suffers from the same issues as the early education.
Many of the professors at universities hold the same dogmatic beliefs and are products of the same intellectual environment as the students. Their role is primarily to conform to the prevailing prejudices. Many are unwilling to inculcate greater scepticism and critical thinking into higher education and vociferously oppose progress on revising the curriculum and allowing more openness in the educational environment.
This is not to understate the success that universities achieve in enlightening students and broadening their horizons. Only a small percentage of students will actually commit a crime that is so heinous. Most of our students change their outlook, even dramatically so, while they are at universities.
Resorting to any form of activism, especially violence, accords disproportionately greater influence to a group than their numbers. Most students at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan were probably appalled by what happened to Mashal. However small the number of radicalised students may be, they continue to remain a big issue.
The writer is an assistant professor at the department of political science, University of Peshawar. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘Understanding Pakistan’.