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January 14, 2016

The rise of the zombie generation

Opinion

January 14, 2016

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Traditionally, institutes of higher learning are perceived as places where thinking can develop, opinions formed and students permitted to evolve ideas as they learn more about their specific fields of study and of course also about the wider world as they prepare to step into it as full-fledged citizens.

Ideally, this process should begin at primary school level, but as we all know, it really does not. Unfortunately it does not take place, in the vast majority of cases, at the higher levels either. Instead these institutions seem intent on stamping out free expression, even when it is put forward by students outside the perimeters of the college or university and in their own private domains.

Over the past year alone there have been at least nine instances of students being expelled from leading private institutions for what are trivial matters; in most parts of the world they would not even count as offences or come onto the radar of college authorities. Of course there may be other cases that we do not hear about. In those that have come before the public, students have been asked to leave their place of study for inviting specific guests to functions they have organised, violating dress codes – notably for girls – in a minor way, and for posting comments critical of a college event on a private Facebook page.

Of course, going by Article 9 of the constitution of Pakistan, which safeguards free expression – even if with some limitations – the right to opinion should be protected everywhere. It is however even more absurd that a private social media domain should have been scrutinised by authorities, who then deemed it just to impose so severe a penalty on the student concerned on the basis of a comment he had made there. The question arises as to whether it is even legal to take action on the basis of what someone puts on their Facebook? Are there laws on this? We need to know.

But what is most alarming of all are the efforts, notably within an academic sphere, to clamp down on thinking or declare that some modes of thinking are wrong. There have been other instances at colleges and schools where students have been called up and in some cases punished for the views expressed in essays or other work.

We are talking here of course only about the most elite institutions. At those which do not fall into this category, there could be no question of independent views being expressed. Our system teaches pupils, from the youngest ages, not to think, not to question, not to reason. Perhaps this steps from our system of religious education; perhaps from cultural factors. But the result is a disaster.

It is also the reason why we have so much mediocrity at the higher educational levels, why there is so little research at academic institutions and why the quality of PhD studies is so poor. The fact that college and university authorities are simply unwilling to accept that a student may wish to think outside the box simply moves this process forward.

There is also the issue of blind intolerance. Recently, at the plush, Saudi-funded International Islamic University of Islamabad, a Model United Nations debate was thrown into chaos after Islami Jamiaat-e-Tulaba students protested the setting up of an Israeli stall and the presence of Israeli diplomats at the mock session. Even pretence is apparently not permissible.

Of course, none of the students taking on the role of Israel were Jewish, Zionists or Israelis. They were simply putting on an act, as convincingly as possible, as required by MUN rules. Their stall was attacked and the university authorities condemned the presence of Israel, even at a play acting session, while failing to condemn the students who had used sticks to attack the cultural stand for Israel and condemn those ‘representing’ the country.

All this goes to show the depths to which our education system has sunk. Individuals who do try to make a difference have been pushed aside. We also have the intervention of marketing in education, whether by private institutions attempting to promote themselves in the most blatant fashion rather than even making a pretence of having a genuine interest in learning or by the many commercial setups that rake in huge sums of money by promising students places at local or international colleges and universities. Some are more professional than others of course but many are simply there to make money – at the cost of students desperate to move up in life.

There will be no movement upwards given the stifling environment being created at universities.

Last year, an attempt to invite Baloch nationalist activists talking about the ‘missing’ people in the province was first squashed at a prestigious private institution in Lahore, and then an attempt made by university authorities at the Karachi University to prevent a similar event from going ahead – although the organisers were able to host the function at an outdoor space on campus.

The effort to prevent students from hearing views contrary to the accepted national narrative is deeply disturbing. It means we will churn out generation after generation of semi zombies, unable to move beyond a distinct perspective of the world or put their faculty of reason into use. This is a frightening development for any nation. A country whose people are unable to think for themselves, to read openly, to express their views with freedom and to embrace the tolerance that arises from all these factors is in deep trouble.

We already see signs of that trouble everywhere. The conspiracy theories, the manipulation of truth, the spin factories at work, the propaganda meant to represent a particular point of view have led us to a state of deep peril. Our attempts to escape it are feeble. If we really attempt to do so, we must start with our students. Across the world, the best places of learning promote the evolution of ideas. Sometimes even notions that initially seem absurd, such as the theory about the Universe presented by Stephen Hawking during his days at Cambridge as a student, can in fact change the way we look at the world. This has happened many times over.

The best centres of learning produce persons able to develop such opinions. This can only happen in an environment of freedom and acceptance which we do not seem to find at our places of learning. Instead, there is far too much focus on the petty and the mundane; on quashing activities that colleges see as somehow going against their philosophy. Things have worsened over the decades, The scholars, scientists and academicians we produced in the past now do not emerge from our system.

This is something we need to think very deeply about. So far, too little attention has been given to the problem even though it has a deep bearing on our future and the future of our entire nation.

The philosophy that governs the running of places of higher learning needs to be adapted to bring it in line with that of other parts of the world and to ensure we promote the circulation of knowledge rather than attempting to hold it back by placing barriers everywhere we can.

Email: [email protected]

 

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