Thursday October 05, 2023

An ignoramus par excellence

June 11, 2017

In Pakistan, two-thirds of the professional elite – lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, chartered accountants, literary writers, artists, players, athletes, professors, corporate managers and media persons, as well as the business elite, political elite, military elite, bureaucratic elite and judicial elite – is relatively uninformed and unconcerned about, uninterested in and unimpressed by the macro-level issues threatening social, national, regional and global life. How far can you go with the one-third elite that are articulate enough to run state and society?

Why are financial, social and educational resources not building the nation? Why are our Afghan, Iran, India and US policies in a mess? Why is the social space increasingly violent? The answer to that is the way the elite of various persuasions are de-institutionalising public life: parliamentarians conducting their business outside parliament; lawyers operating beyond the purview of the law; police regularly committing human rights abuses; and media blatantly taking sides with some forces against others. Half of the elite are India-sick. The other half, America-sick. The two categories are massively overlapping.

While the middle class has been gaining access to higher education by leaps and bounds, both at home and abroad, the counter-currents of the medievalisation of intellect keep it bound to pre-scientific and illiberal patterns of thought and practice. There is a craze for information technology. But, the mind is blocked because the schooling is heavily ideologised. At the age of 16-18, a young man or woman moves into higher education without a modern intellectual postulate rooted in social sciences to support him or her through the career ahead.

The highly educated professional elite at the one end and the half-literate mass of humanity on the other carry similarly uninformed opinions about the West, the Islamic world, corruption, Indian bellicosity and modernity in general. At home, both are more or less equally ignorant about the impending dangers of population explosion, water shortage, global warming, diplomatic isolation of the country and oppressive cultural practices relating to women, minorities and the working classes in rural and urban sectors.

The intellectual postulate of a school graduate in Western society is characterised by developments in the world of ideas: about the solar system from Kepler and Galileo onwards; scientific thinking from Roger Bacon down to Spencer, Parsons and others; medicine from dozens of men like Louise Pasture; various approaches to historical evolution from Hegel, Marx and others; the ancient world of Dinosaurs; the primitive man; pre-historical developments on Planet Earth such as the glacial and post-glacial ages; and the tumultuous modern history dotted by the discovery of the new world, colonialism, religious and national wars and the march towards a global civilisation.

As opposed to this, the modernist elite of Pakistan have an intellectual postulate based on a school education that remains insular, medieval and self-serving at best. Those who pursue professional training are cut off from the social sciences at the tender age of 18-20 – never to come back. The same happens to young cadets who enter the armed forces at the most impressionable age. After that, they are cut off from the social science tradition. Their ‘educational’ pursuits after joining the military, the so-called ‘post-recruitment socialisation’, can at best be called institutional training but hardly ‘liberal’ education. The civil bureaucracy is relatively exposed to Western ideas and practices because it acquires a ‘liberal’ framework of social and cultural studies through training abroad. But the ideologically-laden intellectual postulate internalised at a young age continues to operate at least on a majority of civilian officers.

There are three major routes to de-educating the minds of the educated elite. One is the overbearing ideological hold over the present and future decision-makers whose judgement is thus tainted by lack of pragmatism and sound objective knowledge. Two, educational textbooks have kept the scope of knowledge limited by time and space. A range of perspectives, from world politics to the leading idea-systems, remain outside the intellectual landscape of the educated Pakistanis. Similarly, history – through the medieval age, ancient civilisations, and pastoral life down to the industrial revolution – remains alien to the imagination of the articulate public.

Thirdly, this state of affairs – the closing of the world on oneself – is the product of an acute sense of insecurity that has turned into paranoia over time. As a result, Pakistani elite groups of various persuasions became increasingly introverted. The defence perspective on external relations has massively contributed to securitisation of the national vision. After 70 years, the elite’s world starts and ends at our borders. They show insensitivity towards the way the world looks at Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism, a failing state and a place of religio-sectarian conflict.

A large part of the expanding middle class – drawing on men and women from the business community, civil bureaucracy, military cadres and higher judiciary – finds the clash among Islamic and Western civilisations imminent. The GDP of Pakistan (at $1500 per annum) as compared to the Swiss GDP (at $78,000) is not part of the calculation of the state elite about their power. The acute dependence of all elite groups on the prevalent Western health system, education system, bureaucratic system, parliamentary system and justice system in Pakistan is most typically not part of their intellectual kit.

Ignorance about the contemporary world has led to a worldview based on alternative globality, based on a home-spun vision of the international community. From textbooks leading to misconception of history, politics and culture to the media-sponsored narrative of denial of Pakistan’s growing isolation and upholding of ideological causes, the process of the radicalisation of the middle class is alarmingly visible, except to itself. There is no effort to eliminate brutal cultural practices against religious minorities and women under customary law. The elite are ignorant about these practices, except in the form of horrifying news headlines.

An equally dreadful phenomenon is the population explosion. The generation of elite groups in the 21st century Pakistan is far behind those in the 1960s and 1970s who struggled to address the issue of an increasingly adverse relationship between resources and eating mouths through a viable population planning programme. While the population pressure is a drain on the available resources, these resources are themselves depleting. The most obvious example is water. From melting of glaciers in the north to the changing climate in general, the issue of water supply for future generations is hardly a part of the elite’s everyday discourse. Beyond the national level, the issue of global warming as highlighted by the Paris Agreement is also relegated to a secondary position only fit for diplomats to deal with.

A majority of the elite are ignoramuses par excellence. They offer soft, partial and partisan solutions of hard and imposing problems that demand immediate and comprehensive actions. Only a minority of the elite represent the light at the end of the tunnel. A larger section suffers from insularity of vision and thought. This points to an acute crisis of social sciences in Pakistan that is responsible for providing value-based and ideologically-laden facts in the name of data-input for the purpose of policy formation.

The writer is a professor at LUMS.