Politics and higher education

Every political party must clearly spell out its educational priorities

October 02, 2022


ducation is a human right with immense power to transform. On this foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.— Kofi Annan

An event held at the Government College University, Lahore, recently evoked quite an angry response from some political quarters. Their objection was to the ‘political nature’ of the speech made by the chief guest. They asserted that educational institutions should be kept away from political discourse. This implies that education (both imparting and receiving) should be essentially ‘apolitical.’ The implication hardly makes sense.

Historically, the argument advanced against such a bar actually prevailed in Pakistan in the 1980s when both politics and freedom were under the wraps. For nearly 25 years of my academic career spent teaching history at the esteemed institution after that after that there was no bar on discussing politics.

Parliamentary style debates were a forte of the Government College’s co-curricular activities. Also, various politicians came to distribute laptops and spoke on politics. It is bizarre, therefore, to assert that institutions of higher learning should obviate all talk about politics. The same happens in premier institutions all over world, from Oxbridge to Ivy League universities in the United States.

Government College Lahore was established in the light of a liberal tradition. Its first principal, Dr GW Leitner, was a liberal and a staunch believer in plurality. This allowed him to rivet his focus on Islam and Arabic language. It must be borne in mind that advocating or practicing freedom is always political. Plurality cannot be attained without allowing freedom; plurality is what we are in dire need of.

The plurality and the values emanating from it were adequately reflected in the person of Prof Patras Bukhari, the first principal of the institution after independence. No one should dictate anybody to intervene in the affairs of the university. It is preposterous that the chancellor of the University was asked to take some punitive action against the vice chancellor.

When Dr Nazir Ahmad was unceremoniously removed from principalship, the protest garnered such tremendous support from the masses that even a strong man like the Nawab of Kalabagh had to bow down to the will of the students. Those levelling criticism at the recent event are advised in all earnestness to read the biographies of leading political leaders to learn about the significance of freedom.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela will be quite helpful in this regard. Without freedom, the higher education (conceptually and practically) becomes an exercise in utter futility. For those interested in education and the role of freedom, I intend now to spell out some basic concepts in the lines that follow.

Education is defined as an act of acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment. Having the freedom of education allows everyone to have the opportunity to learn and be able to adapt in the fast-changing world. More importantly, as American scientist George Washington Carver said, “education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”

Education is intrinsically associated with freedom, which ascribes meaning to human life. It is not without reason that freedom has been foregrounded as the most important human value. Without education, it will be difficult to achieve freedom.

Education is intrinsically associated with freedom, which ascribes meaning to human life. It is not without a reason that freedom has been foregrounded as the most important human value. Without education, it will be difficult to achieve freedom. Insistence on formal education tends to place limits on individual students. This is a medieval (and redundant) concept, particularly when it comes to higher education.

In the contemporary world, freedom is believed to give individuals choice to acquire various skills so that they are liberated from the scourge of poverty. They are allowed to do whatever they choose to, to improve their lives, financial situation and the world. Therefore, freedom is so important — it keeps our world running, often without many of us being aware of it.

Freedom in education has many aspects: 1. Freedom to learn or not to learn. (Allowed only partly in childhood) 2. Freedom to choose what to learn. (Necessary to set subjects by natural attraction) 3. Freedom of opinion. (The most important of various kinds of freedom).

Freedom creates and embraces diversity because all individuals are unique.

There is a need for teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction by law, institutional regulations or public pressure. The freedom for students to learn, explore and challenge ideas while building and sharing their opinions is the foundation of what is called academic freedom. This freedom protects students from unfair treatment by instructors based on the student’s opinions and beliefs. It recognises that students’ opinions are valuable and they should be able to be express those without the fear of retribution by the leader of the class. In countries without democratic traditions, academic freedom may be granted unreliably and distributed unevenly. This is what Pakistani youth experienced during Ayub Khan’s rule.

Basic elements of academic freedom include the freedom of teachers to inquire into any subject that evokes their intellectual concern; to present their findings to their students, colleagues and others; to publish their data and conclusions without control or censorship; and to teach in a manner they consider professionally appropriate.

For students, the basic elements include the freedom to study subjects that concern them and to form conclusions for themselves and express their opinions. Academic freedom is never unlimited. The general laws of society, including those concerning obscenity, pornography and libel, apply also to academic discourse and publication.

Teachers are freer within than outside their disciplines. The more highly trained teachers are, the more freedom they are likely afforded: university professors tend to be less restricted than elementary-school teachers. Similarly, students usually gain freedom as they move through the academic system.

I, therefore, suggest that every political party should clearly spell out its educational priorities. I conclude this write-up with a pertinent quotation from Paulo Freire:

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore