Education & Identity

On the first day of college at the Aga Khan University, we had the well-known session in which we were to recognize our “Mission.” We were asked, “Why are you here?” I was appalled at the unjust demand made upon us and spent the rest of the hour trying not to meet the eyes of the facilitator. Many students replied, logically for the most part, although there was a youthful unconcern in each voice because being here was enough – prestigious enough. The matter was resolved and apparently everyone had an answer to the pressing question by the time they left the lecture hall and everything was soon forgotten. The outcome was, in one word, non-committal, and I personally judged it to be a pretentious exercise in futility without thinking that I had any special purpose in mind and judged everyone else with the same skepticism, especially as a senior told us in good humor that whoever talked on that day could be assumed to have a doubtful character.

After having spent all these years through the maze of medicine, I feel the need to extend this question of why we are here to the broader sphere of life and learning and also ask, What are we and what would we like to become? Do we always receive instruction at a level commensurate with the lofty ideals that are sounded in our ears and prospectuses from time to time? Would it not be better, for instance, if instead of setting out a list of rules for manners in the dissection hall, we were inspired to see anatomy as a subject that could be interesting enough to win our attention? Why is it that the Community Health Sciences are held in such low regard by the majority of students? Because the futility of its common-sense principles expounded in three to four hour-long sessions seems like a prank played on us after all the exacting expectations to have known this and that about other subjects? Or because we know that the burden of a term or even the whole curriculum of Community Health can be tackled the night before the examination? Or are we so callous and incapable of sympathizing with the plight of our under-privileged humanity? Perhaps betrayal was already imminent in the tone of the voice telling us that the data we collected from the Allah Wala Town in our second term would be used for a cross-sectional study. And why does everyone laugh and scorn when we are taught and asked in the Behavioral Sciences examination the five elements and the five goals of psychotherapy in a single question carrying 10 marks? Perhaps because the psyche is not mathematically inclined?

The thread of this inconvenient reality runs a deeper and insidious course. It is not enough to be proficient at a subject and know all the pertinent “facts”; the teacher also needs to have greater integrity and an inspiring personality. This holds particularly true for the subjects with a decidedly social aspect – Community Health, Behavioral Sciences and Islamiat & Pakistan Studies, that is to say, whatever has its roots in the humanities. And when the instructor fails to become a mentor, there is nothing more trivial than knowing 5 historical facts about this and 10 biophysical facts about that community.

And why such profound regard dangling on the limits of unseemliness for those more threatening subjects? “We cannot spoon feed you,” we have often been told. There could be better ways of making students aware of their responsibility.

I dare say the pressure of work makes things worse – it has certain moral implications. When one is struggling for survival, it is very easy to lose most humane feelings. The student is overwhelmed at a raw stage, arrested in his or her personal development and starts memorizing important stuff at breakneck speed. Before long, he or she graduates and wants to go abroad for higher education. There is no harm in that, but it is embarrassing to see one of us despairing in his brown skin, saying that one might as well look like an Arab because things are so bad these days: it makes one more immune to the discrimination of visa officers. We should not stoop so low. Have all those strenuous hours of work robbed us of any sense of belonging and made us ashamed of ourselves? We should struggle and care for our future but not drool at the mouth for the sake of some foreign good. There is a continuum of similar feelings among our citizens, from taxi drivers to doctors, varying somewhat in degree of refinement and discretion displaying the same regret – “If only we were not born Pakistanis,” we imply, and betray our bond to our homeland in a very ambivalent manner – for the bond exists, whether we like it or not.

When we speak of the West, why distract ourselves with the superfluities of technology and why not heed the voice of poets and thinkers like Emerson, Goethe, and Nietzsche, who achieved a balanced view of greatness in man. This way, we can at least arrive at an estimation of what good all cultures have been able to produce amongst scattered individuals. They were mockers of any narrow nationalism and yet served the purpose of raising their fellow men to a higher plane. And not just their men, they readily avowed greatness anywhere in any form. Why not take the Old Testament and see what excellence resides in that scripture as well instead of brooding over Israel’s politics – because this is our present and that a remote past and even in those times, we were sworn enemies? Let us not make things so easy for ourselves. What do we do after feeling such resentment towards them? Go abroad and seek what they seek? Judge ourselves according to their standards whether we spell it out in contradiction or listless agreement and reinforce our negative identity? Let us not get lost in this bashful labyrinth of mediocrity, and instead, assert ourselves with a sound identity.

For sure, we do not need a narrow patriotism so that we know our Pakistan from India. We should not think that calling Basant “Jashn-e-Baharaan” would help us do away with the sub-continent in our blood. Contemporary politics are bad indicators and distort the more abiding perspectives. We are heirs to a richer cultural heritage than we like to believe.

Diogenes, the cynic philosopher who had no home, used to carry his victuals in a wallet and call himself a citizen of the world. He was the bane of Athenian vanity and the Athenians loved him. When captured by pirates and sold into slavery, he was asked what he could do. “Govern men,” he replied. Only when one is comfortable with one’s origins can one truly proceed in the direction of becoming a citizen of the world. And furthermore, life is so complicated that one cannot even bear the liability of one’s own people. An acquaintance working for Ericsson once mentioned how sorry he felt that the Mughals contributed nothing to technology. It would be better not to fool ourselves and see in what ways our culture manifests its qualities, at the same time being ready to learn from the Greeks if need be. We are no partisans and would not like to be. Whatever disadvantage we might suffer for being what we are, we must accept only as our fair share of nature’s beautiful indifference.

So what do we need to do? We need to set examples of wider assimilation, of a sublime ontogeny beginning from our origins. Never take a foreign public, or any public for that matter, as a standard measure of our conduct. No man of historical consequence for the thought of man would have us do so. A low opinion of oneself even if it finds expression in improper boasts is the surest way of leading others to the same estimate. Self-respect and honor with a sure basis work the other way round. Nothing supplants a mother’s unconditional love for the child, but even someone with an inkling of these feelings can be guided towards greater integrity at a later stage in life – a stage where perhaps a university like our own could play a role.

There is a measure of irresponsibility in seeing the world with too vile an eye. It is quite useless only to blow strong opinions and convey a morbid sentiment without offering any solutions. But it also does not mean that one should mince one’s words. One cannot work out and set down the whole teleology of such feelings in a few paragraphs but only hint at them in an institution whose prestige should work in the direction of communicating a noble steadfastness amongst her students. It is our good fortune to find ourselves in a position where such questions can be brought forth for general consideration. And our prime endeavor should remain, less pretence and more earnestness in whatever we think or do. An institution like ours should strive toward making morality a matter of taste.


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