Friday, January 28, 2005

The Crisis is Not Only in Higher Education: A Response to Professor Hoodbhoy's Model of Higher Education

The recent debate on the issue of higher education reform has raised serious concerns about the state of graduate and post-graduate studies in Pakistan. One such critique is offered by Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad and a well-known advocate for human rights and peace.
Hoodbhoy’s essay on the topic, published as two separate parts in the Pakistani newspaper DAWN, vividly highlights the inadequacies of the conditions of higher education. While much of the criticism offered is indisputable, Hoodbhoy’s analysis, like that of many others, is striking for its lack of regard for the larger political economy of Pakistan in which any such discussion must reside.

Some of the flaws in higher education mentioned by Hoodbhoy and others include: deficient institutions and universities, incompetent professors, intellectually lethargic students, meaningless and ill-earned degrees, and a lack of a vibrant scientific, intellectual, and political culture on the campuses. Few will contest that these are the characteristics of many higher education institutions, although not all. However, the mistake lies in ignoring significant societal factors which impact on the predicament of higher education, and that should therefore be taken into consideration when thinking about strategies for reform.

It is often mentioned how M.A., and increasingly Ph.D., degrees awarded to graduate students are hollow and do not really reflect any intellectual achievement. Hoodbhoy scathingly criticizes the myopic endeavor by the HEC (Higher Education Commission) to simply increase the number of doctorate degrees awarded in order to make up for the “Ph.D. deficit.” The indictment of the vacuity of graduate degrees may be well-intentioned, but it tends to ignore the whole picture. There may be an excess of graduate and post-graduate degrees granted in Pakistan, but there also is an incredible surplus of unemployed or underemployed persons with these degrees. The staggering number of M.A. degree holders either jobless or doing odd jobs to make ends meet is there for everyone to see. Therefore, narrowly addressing the educational and intellectual standards of the curriculum without paying any attention to the larger socio-economic context of scarcity does not seem to be a remedy for the situation.

Likewise, the complaints against the incompetence and self-interestedness of faculty at institutions of higher learning tend to overlook the fact that these professors also come from the same society as everyone else. In Pakistan, as in many other developing countries, the sharp socio-economic polarization of society often causes the crudest type of corruption and personal financial aggrandizement. Hoodbhoy faults the HEC for sending signals to professors that “corruption pays.” But the HEC’s position is nothing novel, and has always been a well-understood truism in Pakistan since its inception. Corruption certainly pays in a country where the majority sprawls in destitution and neglect, and where people undertake all sorts of ventures to wrest themselves away from the grip of the ubiquitous poverty and exploitation. In a country where one is fortunate to have a fixed job, even though the income from these jobs are usually meager, and where the paucity of both government and private jobs produce an unashamed zero-sum game of ruthless competition amongst the citizenry, a culture of corruption and individualist ethics should not be surprising.

In such an unfavorable environment, some still persist in their caricaturing of Pakistani graduate students as being brainless or intellectually challenged. Hoodbhoy claims that these students are incapable of making coherent arguments, creatively expressing themselves, and writing well. Before anything else, it must be said that such condescending remarks are an exaggeration. When Hoodbhoy laments the fact that Pakistani students rarely read newspapers or cannot write effectively, he could just as well replace “Pakistani” with “American,” and the sentiment would be more valid. Pakistani students are no different from students in other countries, and to believe otherwise verges on racism. It is rather remarkable that the vast majority of Pakistani students who have received grossly under-funded and sub-par primary education, have shown an amazing ability to remain politically alert and culturally aware. One is in awe at the keen level of interest and knowledge of many ordinary, undereducated persons of the lower classes. I often find their understanding of the world to be much more perceptive than my fellow American graduate students who have undergone the American educational model that Hoodbhoy praises so highly. Nevertheless, the key issue here is of social class—students of elite background are empowered by elite schools, whereas the vast majority of students have no choice but to develop their knowledge base and confidence on their own.

It should not be surprising that this entrenchment of social inequality and deprivation produces severe consequences for Pakistani society. The putative cultural/social characteristics that have emerged reflect the underlying political economy of the nation. Thus, an assertion that Pakistani students and young people are utterly uninterested in reading books, and therefore there is no market for bookshops, proves to be highly misleading. The explanation to the present dire straits lies not so much in a cultural thesis of intellectual lethargy, but primarily in the outrageous costs of the majority of quality, new books. The tragic dilemma for many is whether they should purchase books for their intellectual growth and pleasure, or save that money in order to pay the tuition for their little brother’s or sister’s education at a mediocre private primary school. These issues are not unique to Pakistan. They are the same issues in a country like India, with the obvious difference of a much larger middle class and an immensely vaster impoverished class.

The American model of higher education, and particularly its system of national examinations, is the alternative that Hoodbhoy and others propose for Pakistan. While blaming the present higher education exams in Pakistan of encouraging rote memorization and dullness, commentators forget that exams such as the SAT and GRE in the U.S. do pretty much the same as well. When Hoodbhoy refers to a new examination proposed by the HEC for Pakistani graduate students as “a shoddy literacy and numeric test,” many in the U.S. would not hesitate to describe exams such as the SAT and the GRE in the same way. After all, many upper level American exams are not aced by superb conceptual and creative abilities, but by the same old technique of memorizing vocabulary words and mathematical formulas. In the U.S., these exams have been consistently criticized for being shallow and meaningless indicators of a student’s talent and performance. In fact, many universities have reduced the emphasis they’ve historically placed upon them. Of course, now a massive “prep–course” industry has emerged in the U.S. that allows students of affluent background, in addition to already having attended the most elite private schools, to buy their way to the best universities by enrolling in these expensive prep-courses.

The SAT or GRE type of exams which are being advocated by some Pakistani commentators are a recipe for further “screening” the haves from the have-nots. The proposal to “cut down” the number of graduates will only polarize society more with an elite group of “experts” on the on hand, and a mass of ignoramuses on the other. The problems of unemployment and rapidly deteriorating socio-economic conditions are, once again, not on the agenda. Hoodbhoy’s most elitist comment is when he buoyantly states that a SAT or GRE type of exam introduced in Pakistan would “separate individuals who can benefit from higher education from those who cannot.” The arch-conservative socio-political nature of this comment is surprising coming from Hoodbhoy. Most of those who would be able to “benefit” from this higher education would necessarily be those who have attended superior primary and secondary schools and have the luxury of expensive private tutoring. The majority of students, who cannot “benefit” from this higher education, by implication, must remain confined to their hell holes. This represents a dreadful and unacceptable accommodation with a hierarchical social structure that continues to marginalize and impoverish Pakistani youth.

In the view of many of the Pakistani intelligentsia, the “American model” is necessary to “catch up” with neighboring India. An important point to remember when comparing the lackluster higher education institutions of Pakistan with their more advanced and distinguished counterparts in India is, historically, the negative impact of American “aid” in the sphere of education as well as in general national development. American “experts” flocked to “develop” Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s, only to expose the bankruptcy of modernization theory’s approach to the question of development. Arguably, Pakistan’s chosen path right after independence of being a U.S. client state has been precisely the reason why there has been a lack of successful national development in all spheres of society, including education. India, on the other hand, adopted a policy of non-alignment that created the space it required to implement comprehensive and progressive structural reforms and infrastructural development in the fields of education, health, and employment. Those types of “reforms” have never been tolerated by Pakistan’s long-standing patron, the U.S.

The call for the revival of a vibrant intellectual and political culture on the campuses is well-heeded, although this does not necessarily guarantee that progressive voices will be victorious. The “NGOization” of much of progressive life in Pakistan leaves the possibility of the emergence of a meaningful Left on the campuses rather dim. The Left in India, visible today in both the official Left parties as well as the new social movements, has been able to remain a potent force on campuses because of its rich history as a formidable political contender in larger Indian society,. The absence of such antisystemic politics in Pakistan, the co-optation of progressives by the NGO model that siphons off their liberal/Left passions into nine-to-five jobs, and the resulting de-politicization of society cause one to be rather skeptical of any benefits of intellectual glasnost on the campuses in isolation from the outside.

The commentary of Hoodbhoy and others displays their essential acceptance of the assumptions of the Higher Education Commission and of Pakistan’s rulers, i.e. that Pakistan is lagging behind and needs to “catch up,” in particular with its neighbor India. This premise is paraded as an unassailable sacred cow, and therefore issues related to the unequal and dangerous costs and benefits of this project of “catching up” are not permitted to be discussed. What is ignored by such “catch up” pundits is the ethical bankruptcy of focusing on an issue which is not of primary concern to the overwhelming majority of the population. Information technology and more rigorous and competitive higher education curricula speak to the needs of the middle and upper classes, and if Hoodbhoy’s model ever gets implemented, then really only the upper classes. These are not the issues of ordinary working people in Pakistan, whose children attend primary and high schools of distressingly substandard quality. For the vast majority of Pakistanis, this “catch up” model of higher education, like the stock market in the United States for the majority of Americans, will allow them to be spectators in awe, not participants. Pakistanis await the day when the zeal being displayed on higher education reform is also shown on matters such as elementary education and health care, aspects of their lives which are so scandalously neglected by Pakistani rulers and complicit intellectuals.

In the last national elections in India in 2004, Indians demonstrated their rejection of the “shining India” image promoted by the Indian elite to its population and to outsiders. Indians shunned a development model which enriched a minority but displaced and impoverished tens of millions. Indian farmers swept into poverty and forced to commit suicide in places like Andhra Pradesh could care less about how brilliant their IT workers are. Peoples’ movements in India are rebelling against the logic of western-style capitalist development, with its emphasis on a crass competitive ethic and the turning of humans into home oeconomicus. It is ironic that a renowned human rights activist like Hoodbhoy would consider the “intensely competitive” nature of Indian higher education institutions as a positive feature. Any model that produces self-interested, atomized individuals with concern only for themselves is not very inspiring. There is a need to engage the ideas of contemporary thinkers such Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, who decry the competitive ethic of the world capitalist system for breeding soulless and isolated machines, not humane humans who are in solidarity with each other.

Genuine grassroots activists in India tell us that it is no success when you have hundreds of millions living below the poverty level, without clean water, sanitation, medicines, and food. And these Indians also tell us who they believe “successful” Indians are: the tens of millions of Indians involved in struggles in the Narmada Valley area, Kashmir, the streets of Mumbai, etc., all opposing neo-liberalism and the state violence which tends to accompany it. Those are the success stories which laudable intellectuals such as Arundathi Roy, Vandana Shiva, P. Sainath, and Praful Bidwai highlight as demonstrating the beauty and achievement of India.

So-called Western meritocracy and sanitized screening tests along the model of U.S. exams, hence, are an elite solution to the problem of higher education reform, not a people’s solution. Before anything else, the primary needs of the majority of the population must be prioritized. Education at the primary, secondary, and graduate levels must be made participatory and meaningful, encouraging the creative and investigative faculties of students to fully express themselves without the typical competitive and destructive constraints to which we’ve become so accustomed. In this regard, educators must re-engage the insights and educational strategies of intellectuals such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Otherwise, higher education reform will intensify the creation of an elite cadre of technocrats whose “specialized” knowledge will only increase the gulf between the haves and have nots, the managers of power and the thoroughly disempowered.

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