Posts Tagged ‘Knowledge’

Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.


I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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What Are Pakistani College Students All About?

October 21, 2010

By Howard Schweber

After spending a summer teaching political theory to Pakistani college students, I can confidently make two assertions:  they are just like all the other college students I have known, and they are not at all like the other college students I have known.  Beyond that, I found puzzles and mysteries.

My first impression of Pakistani students was that they are … well, just college students.  How utterly, disappointingly unexotic.  Grade-conscious careerists, canny manipulators of the system, highly competitive … future engineers and finance majors.

But there are some differences, after all.  That word “elite” comes into play, here. In the U.S., no college student would describe him or herself as “elite” – that word is primarily reserved for use as a political insult.  Americans, notoriously, valorize the idea of belonging to “the middle class,” sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  Pakistani students have no such compunctions, and are quite pleased to describe themselves and their family backgrounds by saying “we are the elites” and other words to that effect.  Partly this tendency reflects an inherited colonialist culture, partly it reflects the reality of a deep economic divisions reflected in the ubiquitous servant culture that every American I spoke with privately described as jarring.  American college students at top schools tend to have a sense of entitlement … but nothing that compares with the “elite” classes of Pakistani society.

Not all LUMS students come from backgrounds of privilege, however.  In my small, unscientific sample of about 40 students whom I met (out of 65 enrolled in my two courses), I encountered 10 or so who come from worlds very different from that of Lahore’s upper class.  These students tended to approach me quietly and privately to describe their backgrounds; students from small villages, not only in the Punjab but also from the areas around Karachi and Peshawar, the student who confided that he had grown up on streets similar to the ones we were walking through in the area around Lahore’s Walled City, the student (pointed out to me) who comes from FATA and cannot go home.

And there is yet another dissonant strain that clashes with the “elite” culture of graduates of Aitchison School, convent schools, and the like.  This different voice appears in the form of deeply religious students, referred to on my particular campus by faculty and fellow students alike as “the mullahs.” At first I thought I understood the significance of their presence on campus, but by the time I left I had concluded that the relationship between these religiously observant students, their fellows, and the administration is the great unsolved mystery that I take away from my visit.  It may be the great unsolved mystery of Pakistan, in fact, but I’ll come back to that.

Looking more closely at the students I met and taught reveals more mysteries.  Some had serious problems with English, particularly in their writing, but most were extremely well prepared as far as language skills are concerned.  It is when we look beyond language skills that puzzles begin to appear.

Here’s an example:  on the first examination that I administered I included a question that asked students to “compare and contrast” two texts.  I was not particularly proud of the question, since for American students this is considered the most banal, overused, pedantic imaginable form of exam problem, the sort of question they have been encountering since the fourth grade.  I was therefore nonplussed when several students asked what I meant by “comparing” different texts.  “We have never been asked a question like this,” said one, and a dozen others in the room expressed their agreement. I have often had students request extensions on assignments, but LUMS was the first place in which I encountered a request for an extension signed by five students – who, it turned out, were among the better students in the class! –  justified by the statement that “we have never been asked to write something like this before.”

In response to these inquiries, I tried to explain the idea of making comparisons in terms of taxonomy – you identify the salient characteristics and use them to classify objects in terms of their differences (“zebras have stripes, horses don’t.”)  Now apply the same idea to, say, theories of history.  “This writer views social arrangements as expressions of economic organization, this writer understands social arrangements as the performance of ideological claims … and here’s the explanation that makes more sense in modern Pakistan.”  I wasn’t necessarily expecting brilliant insights, but it was startling to realize that the question was, itself, startling.

That was only the beginning of a slowly dawning realization that LUMS students are palpably uncomfortable with abstract concepts and what people in Education Schools call “critical thinking skills.”  When I raised this point to faculty and alumni, every one without exception acknowledged the problem, and pointed to the system of secondary education as the culprit.  Undoubtedly the point is correct, but I think there is a deeper observation to be made here.  In addition to being uncomfortable with abstract concepts, these students and their families seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of knowledge that is not justified by an immediate practical application.  That discomfort extends to a reluctance to embrace basic scientific research as well as the humanities.  I heard from students who wanted to study physics but whose parents insisted that they become engineers, students who wanted to become historians but whose parents did not see the point to being an historian.  The same attitudes exist in other places, to be sure, but among LUMS students it seemed to be universal.  There is a classic saying about immigrants to America:  “the first generation are factory workers so the second generation can be lawyers so the third generation can be artists.”  I mentioned that saying to a student and he found it deeply puzzling.

Part of the reason for the discomfort with abstraction may have to do with a curiously limited range of background knowledge.  My students – many of whom, again, had graduated from the finest schools – knew almost literally nothing of non-Pakistani history and culture.  The reason is not that Pakistan is culturally isolated – far from it.  At one point I found myself confronted by a room full of students who had an exhaustive knowledge of the movies that were Oscar candidates last year but among whom the vast majority had never heard of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  In general, students had no idea – not even a wrong idea! – about the significance of the French Revolution or World War I, the history of nationalism and empires, the contents of the Book of Genesis, the Scientific Revolution or the Renaissance.  Again, when I pressed students, faculty members, and alumni, the answer was always the same: the fault lies with the secondary school curriculum, and particularly the fact that during Zia’s rule secondary school curricula were shifted to emphasize Pakistan studies and Islam at the expense of everything else.  Again, that can only be a very partial explanation.  But it is worth noting that this lack of cultural literacy helps feed the culture of conspiracy theories for which Pakistan is justly famous.

But what happens once these students get to college?  I saw and heard about fine courses in Shakespeare and Islamic Jurisprudence, but when it comes to the social sciences it appears that the students who learn anything about these subjects at all (that is, those who choose to take courses outside of Accounting and Finance) are fed a steady diet of snippets of readings and excerpts from trendy current theories.  Many students could and were eager to could talk fluently about Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and (rather weirdly) Nazi Germany, but Locke and Rousseau, Machiavelli and Madison, Cromwell and Marx were all equally unknown territory. Undoubtedly, at this point I will be accused of Western ethnocentrism; how many American college students know the names of the first four Moghul Emperors?  It’s a fair point, to be sure.  But it’s a big world out there, and a dangerous place at home.  Colleges don’t just train engineers, they train citizens and future leaders.  Pakistan might do well to train some future leaders in the history and the philosophies that have shaped the world around them.

The point is not that the instructors at these colleges are bad teachers, far from it; the instructors I met were qualified, dedicated teachers.  The point is that establishing the historical and philosophical context out of which modern ways of thinking emerge does not seem to be part of the curriculum.  Nor, for that matter, does reading whole books seem to be an expected element of the college experience.  I had a student in my office who complained, with no apparent sense of irony, that I had asked a question on a take-home exam to which he was unable to find an answer on Wikipedia.  (To repeat an earlier observation, Pakistani college students seem to be almost entirely unencumbered by any sense of irony.  I find this incomprehensible, given the Dadaist absurdity of much of Pakistani politics.)

Which brings me back to the “mullahs.”  Over and over I was warned, by faculty members and students alike, to beware of these students.  When I mentioned some of the texts that I was teaching, a senior colleague was first horrified, then said “well, you are probably all right because it is the summer.”  All of this fed into a rather well settled narrative of universities as bastions of secular knowledge (and a fair amount of partying in the men’s dorm, I hear), besieged by the forces of religious extremism.

But then I got to know a few students who are, themselves, religiously observant.  They tell a different story.  Their claim is that the so-called “mullahs” are two groups of students.  One group, led by an instructor, follow a Sufi order called Naqshbandi, while the other is associated with “Tableeghi Jamaat.”  Neither group, according to these students, has any interest in confrontation.  The same students insist that there have never been any incidents of religious students harassing secular students or faculty or disrupting classes, and that the college Disciplinary Committee would make short work of any student who tried to do so.  By contrast, the same students complain of a pervasive anti-religious bias.  In an e-mail, a student wrote:  “I remember that in one particular class a student with beard came late to class, which is a normal practice, and instructor said to him sarcastically, ‘Oh go back and offer prayer etc. because these things (courses) are not important…’”

So there are two narratives at work here.  Which one is right, is one more right than the other, are both simultaneously operative?  Which narrative captures more of the experience at the University of Punjab, which captures more of what goes on at LUMS?  I have no idea – I only know that no one disrupted my classes or threatened me, but that many people seemed to feel compelled to call my attention to the possibility of such events.

The more I think about it, this last mystery about Pakistan’s universities is a mystery about Pakistan.  I have no clear idea about the relationships among different approaches to Islam and secularism among Pakistan’s elites.  Traditionally, Pakistanis have been “the kind of Muslims who go to shrines,” but the nation has a death penalty for blasphemy and just a few months ago “Death to Qadianis” banners used to festoon the boulevards of Lahore.  And one Pakistani student, in front of other students, told me “as a good Muslim I would never say a’salaam back if an Ahmedi said a’salaam to me.”  The other students said nothing, in a class devoted to examining theories of democracy and multiculturalism.  As I walked around the campus, I observed the students lounging on the stairs, men and women together, but then a sociologist tells me that among the very people I am observing more than 85% will enter arranged marriages and that more than 90% of those marriages do not permit the wife to file for divorce.

So maybe these aren’t “just college students” after all.  But what are they, this next generation of the nation’s elite?  Individually I can tell you that they are bright, thoughtful, witty, principled, socially and intellectually attractive young adults with widely varying worldviews, limited only by a lack of education and culturally imposed limitations, especially the women.  But as a group?  If you ask me “what are Pakistani college students all about?” I can only answer that I find it a mystery.

This article appeared first in The Friday Times, Lahore, and is being reproduced here with permission of the author. Howard Schweber is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he teaches political theory and constitutional law. He taught this summer at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

A follow-up to this post is now available: LUMS and Learning: Reflections on a Discussion.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2008 he taught a three-week course to a co-ed class at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. His observations of his experience provide another data point for consideration in this discussion.

A more general discussion of issues related to education in Pakistan is available here and a summary is available here.

For an assessment of liberal arts education at one of India’s most well-known institutions, St. Stephens College, see here.

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The Peculiarities of Imran Khan

May 10, 2009

Two things struck me as being odd in Imran Khan’s article that I had discussed earlier: how he found wisdom and the use he put the wisdom to.

Imran describes his narrow escape: “it was a miracle I did not become an atheist. The only reason why I did not was the powerful religious influence my mother wielded on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but love for her that I stayed a Muslim.”

I have just recently read Latika Gupta’s account of what some mothers are doing to their children and so reading Imran’s sentence made me shiver. Imran just turned out be very lucky in having a pious and sensible mother but is it a good idea in general to be shaped by the powerful religious influences of mothers and to believe in something out of love rather than conviction? (more…)

Ghalib – 23: Mirrors and Mirrors

February 13, 2009


This week we engage with a complex she’r by Ghalib in an attempt to understand how we know what we know:


az mihr taa bah zarrah dil o dil hai aaiinah

tuutii ko shash jihat se muqabil hai aaiinah


from sun to sand grain, all are hearts; and the heart is a mirror

the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror


Given the complexity of this verse and the absence of punctuation in Urdu, numerous interpretations are possible. The reader is referred to Mehr-e-Niimroz to resolve some of these complexities.


From our perspective, the following are important in extracting the particular interpretation that we wish to present here:


  1. Whether the break in the opening line comes after zarrah or after the first occurrence of dil.
  2. The knowledge that in Sufi thought there is a very close relationship between the heart and a mirror and the metaphor of ‘the mirror of the heart’ is much used in Urdu poetry. Mirrors in earlier times were made by polishing metal till it could reflect and the human heart was to be polished in the same way so that it could reflect the truth of the Divine Beloved (God).
  3. Talking parrots were taught to speak by making them see their own reflection in a mirror while an unseen human voiced the words.
  4. The parrot is a metaphor for the poet.


We take the break in the opening line to be after the first dil and offer the following train of thought:


Everything is made of sand and every grain of sand is like a heart (here the imagery lends beauty to the words – the sun and sand-grains shimmer and seem to pulsate like a heart); and every heart is a mirror. Thus the learner (parrot/poet/human) is completely surrounded by mirrors and sees its own reflection everywhere.


We learn by looking at ourselves and into ourselves, by examining ourselves, and by reflecting on the world and external reality as it impacts our heart and its feelings. Knowing is a process of reflection, understanding and thinking.


Here we introduce a modern-day concern into this interpretation. Knowledge/learning is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the reflection of reality/existence in the human heart/mind. And this, in turn, is crucially dependent on the faithfulness of the mirror.


If the mirror is distorted, it becomes a completely different ball-game. And the question we are confronted with today in South Asia is whether the mirrors we are using to reflect reality are faithful or distorted?


What do you think?


Look at the textbooks through which we are reflecting history and facts into the minds of our young generation. Read a guest post on this blog for references to the teaching material being used (Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?). For a new report on secondary school textbooks in Pakistan see Producing Thinking Minds, an initiative by a group of concerned students.


From hearts and mirrors to smoke and mirrors is a short step. The point to ponder is whether we are raising thinking human beings able to comprehend the truth, whatever it is, or parrots regurgitating platitudes that their masters wish to hear.


Not to forget that even parrots trained through distorted mirrors can only take that much distortion without losing their minds and poking out the eyes of the trainers.


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