With this letter I would like to formally introduce myself to you as the incoming Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law (SHSSL) at LUMS. I see my mandate as one of supporting the mission of the university – to make your stay here a life-changing experience. I am taking this opportunity to share my views on the role of SHSSL in the fulfillment of this objective.
Think about this. Our lives are characterized by a series of choices. But how do we know if we have made a good choice in any particular situation? The alternatives can appear to be different depending on whether we evaluate the choice in an economic, political, sociological, legal or ethical perspective. Should we care more about efficiency or fairness, trust emotions more or reason, value more the present or the future, put more store on reputation or on wealth, assign more importance to ends or to means? Should we weight these attributes the same in all situations? And what evaluative framework should we employ to judge the rightness of our decisions?
These are not trivial questions and the fact that we feel regret so often means that we get them wrong a lot of the time. And getting them wrong has a high price. Our choices have consequences not only for ourselves but for friends, family, fellow citizens and even for those yet to be born (think of environmental choices). Therefore, one of the things we need to learn is how to make good decisions.
Now there might be a few exceptions who are naturally gifted decision-makers but most of us are not. Of the latter, a few recognize the need to learn but most are unaware of what they do not know. Most go through life with the false belief that all that is needed can be picked up informally.
The history of poor decision-making by overconfident individuals in Pakistan tells us that this is not the case. Decision-making is a skill, like any other, that can be improved with the right kind of education. This education comprises an understanding of the perspectives of the humanities and the social sciences that SHSSL strives to provide to all students whatever specialization they may choose for themselves.
There are two other dimensions of a social science education that you need to keep in mind. First, unlike the natural sciences, problems in the social sciences do not have one correct answer that can be found at the end of a book. A question enquiring, for example, into the causes of poverty in South Asia has many explanations. Which one is more robust requires the fortitude to listen, the strength to tolerate difference, and the ability to reason critically. These are qualities essential for a healthy society.
Second, a social science education fosters the ability to differentiate what ought to be from what is. Let me exemplify this with a simple illustration. An engineering education can teach you that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; a business education can help you calculate the minimum cost of travelling between the two points; a law education can inform you whether it is legal to go from one to the other; but only a social science education can help you decide better where the second point ought to be, where to locate your destination.
The humanities can help you internalize these insights in the form of stories which are the most powerful learning medium of all. Is it any surprise that all the holy books are in the form of parables and not of manuals or guidebooks? When you read Shakespeare (“To be, or not to be, that is the question…”) or Eliot (“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”) or Josh Malihabadi (“ab kuuchaa-e dildaar me jaooN ke na jaooN”) you come face to face with the complexities of choice and begin to see them play out in your own lives as if in a mirror. That is when the abstract becomes personal forcing you to search for larger explanations. The loop between felt reality and abstract theory begins to close and that is what makes for the truly life-changing experience that separates the well-educated person from the highly-skilled one.
You are very fortunate to be at an institution that is not just a school of engineering or medicine or business but one that provides the opportunity to build the superstructure of skills on a solid foundation of general knowledge. I hope you will take full advantage of this opportunity.
I look forward to being a part of your lives as you traverse this journey of self-discovery. Please do not hesitate to drop by individually or in groups if you feel the need to discuss any of these ideas further.
With best wishes,
Dean, School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law
Lahore University of Management Sciences
The lines from Shakespeare are from the play Hamlet.
The lines from Eliot are from the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
The lines from Josh Malihabadi are from the poem Shish-o-Panj.