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November 24, 2015

‘Pakistan needs to train scientists in technicalities of human nature’


November 24, 2015

Even a cursory review of Pakistan’s higher education system would tell you that it is one of the worst victims of hyper-rationalism and overspecialisation, churning out a huge number of doctors, engineers and mathematicians who stay confined within the small realms of their comfortable boxes, without contributing anything to resolve bigger problems of the society.
“In an effort to build up our quantitative fields, we have torn down the qualitative fields. Now we have too many engineers and technicians but not enough people who are perceptive enough to understand other people. We teach students how to get jobs but not how to lead productive lives,” said Dr Deborah K Fitzgerald, a professor of the history of technology and the former Kenan Sahin Dean of the MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
“At the end of the day, every technical mess is a human mess. A technician with a better understanding of human nature and society would be able to provide a multi-faceted solution.”
In an exclusive interview with The News a day before she delivered a talk as part of the Yohsin Lecture Series at the Habib University, Dr Fitzgerald said one did not need to be a technician to understand humanity.
“The major problems facing society today are not technical but human and sociological,” she said. “So a single-minded approach to solve them will not go very far. We have tried time and time again to solve problems in a single, mechanical way, to the extent now that we have really run out of answers by asking the same questions over and over. We have run out of leaders and also stopped producing them.”
At the lecture on Monday, Dr Fitzgerald spoke about the history of the subject(s) humanities and their significance for students. She said it was ironic that humanities — a collection of subjects about the history and existence of society and people — was a field “constructed” in the 1930s at the National

Humanities Centre, North Carolina, to check the culture of hyper-rationalism in the US.
Borrowing the definition of humanities from the National Humanities Centre, she explained what values the subjects actually aimed to inculcate in students. “Humanities inculcated a sense of other minds and culture. It requires we award out attention to formal and textural features and understand their literal and manifested meanings. It invites individual interpretation and inference to cultivate critical thinking and the faculty of judgment. It awakens a sense of values and engages emotions and intellect simultaneously. It challenges our understanding of the world and enriches it,” she said.
“Liberal means to be generous. It means to be able to listen and record the voices of others with respect and without any judgment. Liberal arts are a fertile ground for the growth of self knowledge and they open up the way for tolerance, restraint, humility and, finally, wisdom.”
Underscoring its need in the modern world today, she pointed out that Google and Facebook had now begun hiring large numbers of liberal arts majors simply because they were able to better understand the users. “Recently, a professor in one of South Korea’s leading engineering universities asked me, ‘We are technically superior but how do we create a Steve Jobs?’” she narrated.
“His question could mean two things; one was that engineers need to think outside the box and, second, that the economy today needs people who can think outside the box.”
Dr Fitzgerald then shared how MIT had been able to produce well-rounded scientists by making it mandatory for all to to take at least eight courses in humanities and one in the arts. “Between 65 and 80 percent of our graduates are accomplished in performing arts and that is no coincidence,” she said.
“Only by using the deeper understanding developed by a thorough grounding in the technicalities of humanities and expression, will our scientists be able to immerse themselves in society and be able to use their skills for the benefit of all mankind.”

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