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PAKISTAN: Forthright Intellectuals Are Dispensable

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By Q. Isa Daudpota *

Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan’s leading public intellectuals, has recently been told by LUMS that it will not be offering him an extension of contract. The background to this unfortunate decision by this well-known University is explored in the light of the decaying educational milieu in the country

We are a country rich in natural resources, currently hobbled by inequity, poor governance, and unable to provide for our burgeoning population. Beyond the basics of survival, the greatest burden faced by the people, especially the youth, is the absence of training for critical thinking. A repressive anti-intellectual environment exists where open rational dialogue is rare and fraught with danger.

Even elite schools and universities fail to make the interventions necessary to reverse the trend set in motion by General Zia ul Haq’s demonic regime. The brain-washed Zia-boomers (unlike the baby-boomer of the post WW II era who opened up societies in the late 60s) now in their 30s occupy most of the teaching positions. The distortion of Pakistan and world history in the curriculum and textbooks is uncritically transferred by them to the budding minds. This cycle needs to be broken.

Among the rare breed of educators who try to do this well is Pervez Hoodbhoy. He, now nearly twice the age of the Zia-boomers, has over the past 40 years countered the false notions of the orthodoxy. This was done while facing considerable animosity from colleagues and administrators during his stint at Quaid-i-Azam University (from which he retired 2 years ago). Incredibly, he almost relishes the noise and the thrill of knocking-out irrational ideas on talk shows fronted by mostly inane anchor-persons - perhaps a delicious reminder of his days in the boxing ring!

On retiring from QAU, PH accepted the repeated invitation of Mr Babar Ali, Chairman, Lahore University of Management Sciences’ Board, to take up employment in the Physics department. The denouement that led to the recent non-renewal of his contract is described meticulously in his letter to the VC, Dr Adil Najam, and others connected with LUMS, including a member of the International Advisory Board. The international board has asked for an explanation from the executives of LUMS. Neither they nor PH have as yet received a response. Also available are letters to Mr Babar Ali on this issue by Naeem Sadiq and I. See:

http://tinyurl.com/9spbj7z ,

http://tinyurl.com/97f6l4n and

http://tinyurl.com/d6mre3w .

PH wouldn’t have moved to LUMS had the vision of his guru, Eqbal Ahmad, to set up Khaldunia University in Islamabad become a reality. It was planned roughly around the time that LUMS started operating in rented houses in Lahore. Had Khaldunia started in a similar modest fashion, Eqbal Ahmad [See his publications at http://tinyurl.com/cg4t86a] leading the effort and with like-minded intellectuals in toe, it would have been a truly enlightened place of learning, markedly different from LUMS. This is run by a bloated Board of 53 men and one woman, wholly corporate types. See composition at:

http://tinyurl.com/9447jwa .

With his letter not receiving a response, PH in an interview to BBC Urdu website:


states that his services were no renewed on ideological grounds by misrepresenting the contents of his course, “Science and Contemporary World Order”, hosted by LUMS’ School of Humanities and Social Sciences. The course’s primary purpose is to bridge the gap between science/technology and arts/humanities. There were however false rumors that he was in fact largely discussing the conflict of science and religion. (This of course is the subject of PH’s 1991 book, “Islam and Science” whose chapter titles and summary appears at

http://tinyurl.com/8gzd22q .

Also see his relatively recent essay at

http://tinyurl.com/ydoamf7 .)

The role of religion in every aspect of Pakistani life is very important, so even if PH’s course touched on some aspects of religion it should not have caused the LUMS administration to get its hackles up.

As for the truly significant issue of bridging the gap between the sciences and the arts, little effort has been made here. The notion that our universities, their system and the intellectual life they breed, is characterized by a split between “the two cultures” – the art/humanities on the one hand and science/technology on the other – has a history dating back to C. P. Snow’s 1959 essay, “The Two Cultures”. [Text available at: http://tinyurl.com/bo8z7mr ]

Science and engineering departments in Pakistan are loathe to give up what they think are “essential” courses. But this is precisely what is needed to ease the introduction of arts/humanities subjects into their curriculum. This can follow once the philosophy of the curriculum steers engineering education to principally serve the needs of the largest numbers, i.e. the poor people. Sadly the current narrow focus of our technical graduates is due to the narrow worldview and inertia of many top academics and administrators. The situation for arts/humanities is a lot worse as their graduates enter the job market with virtually no knowledge of science and technology that drives the world.

Why should an academic like PH wishing to excel in his field spend considerable time trying to bridge the divide between the two cultures, popularizing Physics and highlighting societal problems in the media, and for a decade be a voluntary advisor to LUMS’ nascent faculty of which he is currently a member? The reply to this comes from Dr Amer Iqbal, the former head of the Physics department. His is the first entry on the petition by students against LUMS’ decision. See:

http://tinyurl.com/8avqprm .

Newer claims by the LUMS authorities have been met by firm rebuttals by PH. Here is a partial list:

1. Claim: PH cannot be given a visiting contract because he has crossed 60. [BUT there 15+ such persons with visiting contracts, and two are over 70.]

2. Claim: The Physics department does not want PH to continue. [BUT the majority of the department’s teachers are strongly in favor of PH's continuation as a visiting professor and have committed themselves in writing as well as in meetings with the dean both as a group as well as individually. The exception may be the chairman, who refuses to release the recommendation to the dean, which was supposed to reflect the position of the department.]

3. Claim: PH wants to fix the world and does not have time for LUMS. [BUT the document attached shows that PH taught substantially more than the normal load of courses, supervised more students than any physics faculty member, and gave more open talks on campus than any other faculty member.]

4. Claim: PH is expensive for LUMS to employ. [BUT he simply accepted what LUMS offered and his salary is no different from others in the visiting category.]

There are old reasons for Hoodbhoy doing what he does. To discover them take a peek at the first half of the 1960s, his early teen years in Karachi, a period when kids begin to ask awkward question and seek answers from those around them and from books. Passions developed in those impressionable years often become the driving force in the future. Those were pre-Internet years when students relied on two invaluable repositories of knowledge: The British Council and USIS Libraries.

Riding his pedal bike the considerable distance from his house in Soldier Bazar to Pakistan Chowk, PH often visited the rounded red building of British Council. It was on its shelves that he discovered Bertrand Russell (see his essays at http://tinyurl.com/8bc66wa ) who influenced his early ideas.

For me, perhaps the most moving piece of literature is the short Prologue,“What I Have Lived For”, to Russell’s autobiography (in full at http://tinyurl.com/8mh9erk ) from which I quote the first paragraph:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.”

I don’t suppose PH has ever reached the “verge of despair” but he certainly has some of the passions of Russell: single-minded rationality, popularization of knowledge and a distaste of war.

These are passion he also shares with Noam Chomsky, arguably the most important public intellectual of our time. It was at PH’s invitation that Chomsky visited Pakistan to deliver 2001 Eqbal Ahmad Distinguished Lecture in honor of his old friend and comrade. Chomsky also recently talked to PH’s students at LUMS using Skype [See the end of http://tinyurl.com/97f6l4n ]. No other LUMS faculty member would - I hazard a guess - be able to get a such a busy, top world intellectual to agree immediately to interact long-distance with students here.

Despite a lot of knowledge now being available on the Net, libraries and information centers remain indispensable. The British Council libraries of the 50s and 60s had limited stock of books but were excellent cultural centers and places where students could sit and work in air-conditioned comfort.

The lovely USIS library on Karachi’s Bunder Road, with its lovely lawn and Pipal trees under which films were shown, was burnt by hooligans egged on by anti-US groups or political parties. This was well before I left the city in 1969. Later, in the first half of 80s, when I taught at Sindh University, I used the American Center and British Council libraries, with the American place aptly on top of the British! Both these were closed down. When I got to Islamabad in the early 90s, destruction followed me – the American Center suffered a rocket attack, and it and the British Council also boarded up, ending decades of flourishing foreign libraries in Pakistan. Needless to say, our government or philanthropists have not created anything to match what these old libraries offered. Today, Islamabad must be the only world capital without a public library of any significance, if one excludes the National Library, which is inaccessible and mainly houses reference material on Pakistan.

The parties and leaders who supported or turned a blind eye to the wanton destruction of books, today support the violent ideology of the Talibans and their associates. The lack of opposition to the destruction of books and libraries in the past is today mirrored in a listless society where nameless humans are killed daily and forgotten quickly. The brave Malala Yousufzai is thankfully an exception.

If Pakistan is to survive as a civilized nation its leaders and academics must focus on transforming the thinking of its people, over decades warped by fanatics and well-meaning but brain-dead educators. Such a change calls for many Hoodbhoys in positions of influence from where they bring about a speedy change – using TV, the Net and the overhaul of all aspects of the formal education system and facilitate life-long learning for all. That has to be Pakistan’s primary challenge.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, driven by his passions, will continue to bravely jump over hurdles after he says goodbye to LUMS later this year.

Readers who wish to express their views on the refusal of LUMS to extend PH’s contract need to click on the Petition at: http://tinyurl.com/8avqprm .

It would also help if they write individually to:

Key persons in LUMS Administration:
"Vice Chancellor - Adil Najam" This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
"Chairman of the LUMS Board - Babar Ali" This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

* The author is an Islamabad based physicist interested in the environment.

[Source: Countercurrents.org]

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