A little room to disagree?

Universities in Pakistan have turned into primary schools for older people where no debate is allowed

A little room to disagree?


n his seminal work, The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman argued that the primary aim of a university was the attainment of ‘liberal education.’ A liberal education can be achieved when there is a “cultivation of the intellect...” “Its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.” This intellectual excellence is rooted in the power of questioning. Without asking questions, old knowledge cannot be understood, new knowledge cannot be created and the ‘liberal’—unfettered, aim of education cannot be realised.

In Pakistan, unfortunately, the primary aim of education has been forgotten. Pakistan’s first education minister, Fazlur Rahman, was also its interior minister. Often times the two roles mixed up in his thinking. He was of the view that education in the country should be controlled and that textbooks should not be allowed to be written freely by academics. At the first All Pakistan Education Conference in November 1947 he noted: “I am, therefore, strongly of the opinion that there should be special government organisations to undertake the preparation of textbooks.”

Fazlur Rahman also emphasised that education should be ideological, and in Pakistan’s case strongly predicated on Islamic Ideology. Speaking to the Academic Council of the Dacca University in 1948 he stated: “What is wanted is a complete transformation of the spirit and content of education. Unless the spirit reflects the higher conceptions of Islam, our education will be a counterfeit and a sham.” While there is nothing wrong with having an ideological goal, and goals are laudable, and of course Islamic traditions can easily provide such goals too, limiting the premise of education to the furtherance of just one ideology and that too defined and controlled by the state and its functionaries, stifles the free development of ideas, the spirit of inquiry and open debate. Poet Muhammad Iqbal wrote nearly a century ago that new worlds are not created by brick and mortar, but by fresh thoughts, the afkar-i-taza as he put it. We seem to have skipped this verse of his.

One of the primary measures for a society’s development is the freedom of speech exercised in its academia. The university was the world’s first ‘safe zone’ where all types of questions were asked and debated.

The focus on ideological education in Pakistan has not stopped new ideas, but also choked any questioning of the older ideas. Dissent has almost become a curse word, a synonym for sedition. Since this is the norm in higher education now, universities have become walled complexes where entry is restricted; there are frequent ‘security’ checks; and classroom discussions are monitored. This has made universities in Pakistan primary schools for older people where only received knowledge is taught and no debate is allowed. No wonder then universities have little to do with the development of society. Rather than being central, they subsist at the margins of societal change.

One of the primary measures for a society’s development is the freedom of speech exercised by its academia. The university was the world’s first ‘safe zone’ where all types of questions were asked and debated. Indeed, the rise of the modern university in the last millennium is predicated on this one key difference from schooling. Questions and dissents in the university led to the Protestant Revolution in the 16th Century and the Enlightenment in the 18th Century; it was universities and academics who led the way for the scientific revolution; and it was universities again where the basis of the current human rights discourse was set. Yet, when one examines the universities in Pakistan today, we largely—with some honourable exceptions, of course—find only repetition of the old; curbs on free thinking; and a fascination with control of the body.

As I write, the leadership of the dissenting voice against the Israeli genocide against the people of Gaza is led by universities in the West. From Berkeley to Oxford, hundreds of universities are leading dissent against their governments and the collusion in committing genocide. Grounding it in conceptions of fundamental human rights, centred in the dignity of the human being and the founding principles of their countries, these universities have become not only the conscience of their own countries, but also the voice of the countless millions around the world. If a change in policy is to come in the West, it will certainly come as a result of the strong dissent by the faculty and students of these universities as they live true to their ideal of ‘liberal education,’ not only for themselves but for everyone in the world. With so many universities around the world living out their foundational purpose, one wonders will Pakistani universities ever rise to the occasion?

The writer is a historian based in Lahore. He can be reached at yaqoob.bangash@gmail.com. His X handle: @BangashYK

A little room to disagree?