What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?

By Sara Fatima

This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system.

In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the origin and history of major ideas and is equipped with the conceptual tools to perceive and understand the dynamics of the real world. The social sciences are a part of the educational curriculum even at a preliminary level. Such is not the case in Pakistan where a school graduate is not equipped with a strong foundation in the uninhibited exploration of ideas. The canvas of education is limited and insular, a weakness that is exacerbated by textbooks that are not rich enough to familiarize students with a rapidly evolving world. Nor do they convey sufficient knowledge of ancient civilizations or even of the contemporary world. The result is a myopic worldview.

This observation is quite plausible but we may question whether it is just the content of the textbooks that is source of our problems. If we replace these books with those used in the developed world, would be induce the required change in the thinking of our people? It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.

In Pakistan, students are discouraged from asking questions in class. They cannot even think of disagreeing with their teachers who are considered as being in positions of supreme authority, a relationship that discourages critical thinking. Teachers in turn are risk-averse and prefer not to stray from the conservative norms of religion, race and gender. They are either incapable of, or deliberately stay away from, conveying a more universal humanism depriving the students from developing a tolerance of differences in attitudes and values.

Another important factor contributing to the narrow-mindedness of the educated elite is the elimination of the social sciences from professional training at advanced levels of education. This is particularly the case in engineering, medical and military training. The curriculum is confined to technical subjects leaving out the more open-ended subjects that need to be a part of  intellectual growth. This one-dimensional education is resulting in the growing fundamentalism and increasing intolerance of our educated youth.

Recent research suggests that a disproportionate percentage of students involved in violent activities have a background in science, engineering or medicine. A study conducted in the sociology department of the University of Oxford (‘Engineers of Jihad,’ 2007) confirms this hypothesis that students of the above-mentioned subjects are over-represented in violent Islamist movements. The plausible explanation given for this phenomenon is that the mindset of people with this educational background inclines them to take extreme positions on matters that may have multiple answers or causes. The study reinforces the importance of the social sciences to mould individuals who can see things in grey instead of in black and white.

Despite the above, there are some other questions that need to be raised in order to address the issues raised by Professor Waseem. We need to be sure that our elite is truly ignorant of the crucial issues as presumed by him. Could it be possible that the  ignorance is a mere pretence? Is our political elite really interested in building an open intellectual environment in our society or does the status quo better serve its parochial interests? These questions direct us to a larger debate that is probably more significant in unravelling the sociopolitical dynamic of our society.

Sara Fatima graduated from LUMS with a major in Politics and Economics. For a related article, see Education: Humanities and Science

Back to Main Page


Tags: , , , , ,

4 Responses to “What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?”

  1. sohailkizilbash Says:

    Any comparisons with rich, developed and advanced countries are fruitless. We should compare Pakistani situation with similar countries. Now which large country is backward, seeped in religion, mostly uneducated, poor , with a high rate of unemployment or underemployment AND is peaceful?

    Who are these people who are creating chaos? Who is benefiting from it? As soon as we are honest with our answers, the solution would be apparent too.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sohail: I have some reservations that “Any comparisons with rich, developed and advanced countries are fruitless.” We have borrowed almost everything from there – the system of parliamentary democracy, the structure of the civil service, down to what we wear and how we eat. So, comparisons are inevitable. In education, the four-year undergraduate program is a borrowing, as is the system of major and minors. The textbooks we use are all from the rich, developed and advanced countries. Therefore, when we are looking at the consequences of education it is useful to examine where the deviations from the Western model have occurred. Many of them stem from the last days of Bhutto and gained force under Zia.

      It is true that there is violence in the kinds of countries you have identified but there is wide variation in the extent and nature of that violence. These variations also need to be studied on a case by case basis. It will turn out that there are some similarities but there will be some interesting differences as well. Also, some countries have emerged out of the backwardness while others are still mired in it. It is useful to study the causes for these disparate paths. The people who are creating chaos are not the same everywhere.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Sara: I made some bizarre connections in my reading that are so fascinating that I am reproducing them here.

    I was reading an article in the latest issue of the New Yorker on the well-known English poet A.E. Housman. I reached the section describing Housman’s falling out with Moses Jackson, his roommate in London in 1885, and the following sentence: “Whatever happened, Housman moved out, and Jackson soon married and settled in Karachi.”

    When one is reading an article in an American magazine about an English poet living in London, you just don’t expect someone having a quarrel and upping himself and moving to Karachi, do you?

    I was so intrigued I put “Moses Jackson Karachi” into Google and was led to a book with an even more compelling story with a lot of digressions of great interest to us. It turns out that Dr. Moses Jackson moved to Karachi as the principal of D.J. Science College where he turned it into a major institution. The first chapter of the book (Sons of the Empire) is a must-read for all South Asians curious about history.

    You will find a lot of relevant material about education at that time (early 1900s) in India and England that can help in tracing its later evolution. Unfortunately the text in the book cannot be copied so I have to leave it to the readers to pick out the material of interest to them. We should then discuss it further in this space.

  3. Anjum Altaf Says:

    I have made the point in an earlier post (Education: Humanities and Science) that humanities and social sciences are necessary but not sufficient. https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/education-humanities-and-science/

    They are necessary because they teach people that many questions can have multiple answers. A well-rounded education requires people to be able to deal with certainty as well as doubt – either extreme can create problems in society.

    They are not sufficient because while they do make people more aware they do not necessarily make them more moral. That is a completely different dimension.

    A most convincing example is that of Nazi Germany where people had access to a well-rounded education including the arts and the sciences. Yet, the horrors that were allowed by that society were unparalleled in history.

    This article provides some details:

    Therefore, while one should strive for the inclusion of the humanities and social sciences in the curricula, one should not look upon them as a panacea for the ills of society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: