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 It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.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

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