Currently, syllabi in Pakistani universities follow those of the educational institutions of the west, and are oriented towards providing students with the job-skills they need to earn money. This trend has become even more extreme over the past few decades as the burden of debt on students in USA has risen to nearly a trillion dollars, due to increasing commercialisation of the education sector. Pakistani university students’ families also assume a huge economic burden in the name of equipping their children for the demands of the increasingly specialised job market. In all of this rush towards progress, morality plays no role in the curricula of educational institutions, a state of affairs that seems natural to those of us who have grown up under amoral educational regimes.
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On deeper examination, it becomes clear that morality was in fact deliberately excluded from western curricula in the early part of the 20th Century. The reasons for this shift, and its consequences, have been detailed by Julie Reuben in her book: “The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalisation of Morality.” According to Reuben, in the 1920s the college catalogues of even the most prestigious western universities opened with statements about their mission to build character among students. The purpose of education was understood by all as developing and grooming personalities, creating leadership skills, and instilling cognizance of civic and social responsibilities. This mission was increasingly abandoned since the 1960s, and today, no official documents speak to the responsibility of providing students with moral guidance.
To make the same point on a more personal level, I recall my experience as a freshman at MIT in 1971. It was an exciting time, leaving home for the first time to drink from the fountains of knowledge at the source. We were all innocent and young, enthusiastic about the infinite possibilities and pathways open before us. One night, a group of us spent all night discussing the meaning of life and other deeper questions – which path should we choose? What were the most worthwhile directions where we should spend our efforts, using the precious moments of our youthful and boundless energies? As morning dawned, it became clear to all of us that we did not have a clue regarding this most important of questions that we all face in our lives. Accordingly, we decided to consult one of our professors — surely the knowledge that we sought would be available from the deep wells of wisdom to be found at one of the world’s leading universities.
Accordingly, a small group of students went to one of our professors and asked him about how we could learn the answers to the bigger questions that life poses — what we should be doing with our lives? The answer he gave us satisfied us at the time; it was only much later that I realised that we had been deceived. He told us that experience shows that we must first learn the answers to the small questions, and only later would we be able to tackle the big questions. It seemed like a perfectly sensible answer, and we were satisfied to learn our calculus, chemistry, and computer programming, as the small steps we needed to take, in order to prepare for the bigger ones. It was much, much, later that I realised that he did not have any answers for us — the bigger questions were no longer on the syllabus of a Western education. Because the goods we were looking for were not in available in the shop, we were sold an inferior bill-of-goods, marketed as the pathway to what we were looking for. But in fact, regardless of how much math, chemistry, physics, biology, or economics, politics and social science you study, you will not learn the answer to the questions about how we can make the most of our few precious moments on this Earth.
The deep damage that this kind of education, expunged of morality and values, is inflicting on society can be gauged by many measures. A Western education trains students to build bombs, to calculate costs and benefits, but does not train them to understand that the best that life has to offer cannot be quantified or measured in dollars or pounds. In fact, human life is infinitely precious, and every baby is born with the potential for extraordinary achievements. However, because they were not trained to understand the value of life, the graduates of the finest educational institutes in the West designed bombs and machinery for mass murder of innocent civilians, did scientific research on torture, and many other kinds of inhumane experiments on human subjects. I can personally testify to a loss of idealism and moral values that I and my fellow students experienced in the strongly amoral atmosphere prevalent at campuses throughout USA. Our conversations as first year graduate students in the Economics department at Stanford University revealed that all of us were motivated by the desire to improve the economic conditions of the poor, and to create prosperity for the people. However, the Economics program taught us that rational behaviour is selfish, and survival of the fittest in the jungle of cut-throat competition creates the maximum welfare for all. Accordingly, by the end of our Ph.D.s, we abandoned our idealistic dreams, and became focused on personal advancement through careers and jobs.
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Today, our most urgent need as educators is to focus on building the character of our students. There is no doubt that values should not be imposed on others, and the meaning of life cannot be conveyed in a lecture. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should sterilise our classrooms of meaningful discussion about the most important questions we face in life as human beings. There is a rich intellectual tradition, both in the East and in the West, of philosophers, mystics, and thought leaders who have grappled with the bigger questions. We fail our students if we only provide them with a technical education without exposing them to deeper knowledge about how to live, and how to excel as a human being. The Western education that we seek to imitate trains the minds, but not the hearts. What our students achieve depends very much on the greatness of the visions we can inspire them with. In this quest, our poets Iqbal, Rumi and others will be of far greater value than the conventional textbooks.
The writer is the VC PIDE, member, Economic Advisory Council to the PM.