31 Oct Urdu in Pakistan – Language as the Key to Wisdom
By Anjum Altaf
I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself.
The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be compounded by the comments of those who have advocated their own points of views without reading the previous article. While I respect their views, I don’t think there is much to gain by talking past each other. We need the patience to listen to a point of view if we are to move from mindless confrontation to meaningful communication.
The first point I am forced to make is that I have no material stake in the outcome. My life has been lived out and even my children are out of college – a new language policy is for me a purely academic exercise. I believe I had a reasonably good school education benefiting from some exceptional teachers and from the period before the real confusion in language policy crept into our system of education. My college and university education in Pakistan were much poorer but that can be left for a separate discussion.
My concern in this matter is triggered by my association with two of the leading private undergraduate educational institutions in Pakistan – as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at one and as Provost at the other. Close contact with students has left no doubt in my mind that our language policy has had an extremely debilitating effect even on the best students in the country – the majority are not solidly grounded in any one language.
One can ask why that is a problem? Why is it not good enough to know a language just sufficiently enough to undertake every day transactions and to buy and sell whatever it is that one might want to transact? Indeed, one should ask what being solidly grounded in a language means and why it is of any importance for students.
I believe an understanding of this dimension is vital for the discussion we should be having, keeping in mind that at this time we are talking not of the entire population but about students attending the leading universities in the country. These are the students from among whom will emerge the decision-makers of tomorrow and we should have a very great stake in the creativity and intellectual ability of this cohort.
In the earlier post I had identified two practical functions of language – to transfer information between generations and to be able to share information within a community. Here, I would like to add a more fundamental function, that of education, which stems from the characteristic of language that makes it a key to the storehouse of wisdom. This needs some elaboration.
One can readily accept that a great number of extremely learned and gifted human beings have been part of human history and that their accumulated wisdom is enshrined in the texts they wrote and the commentaries that have been written on those texts subsequently. Access to this storehouse of wisdom, and the ability to interpret it, is an essential starting point for all those who aspire to contribute to human progress. This is best exemplified by the saying attributed to Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Examples of the creators of wisdom abound – Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Panini, Buddha, to name just a few. It was the wisdom of the Greeks, kept alive by the Arabs, which re-lighted the lamp of knowledge in Europe. In our region, an incredible amount of wisdom resides in the legacy of Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Ghalib, and Iqbal down to our times. Creativity is enhanced by being able to draw upon this knowledge in the performance of our everyday tasks. In a way that forms the positive aspect of a question like “What would Jesus do?” You have to know what Jesus did in order to answer that question. A useful analogy is of a plant that, without conscious effort, draws nourishment from the soil. If the soil is dry, the plant withers in no time.
Our linguistic heritage is akin to the soil that nourishes our ideas, that makes possible the spark that can connect disparate thoughts and thus lead to new ways of seeing things. If we lose access to this nourishment we weaken the source of our creativity and thereby the ability to draw upon the wisdom of the past in deliberating intelligently on current problems and their possible solutions.
When I come across students who cannot read their first language, whose second language, in most cases Urdu, is barely adequate for verbal communication, and whose English is only proficient for essential reading and writing, the critical dimension of our dilemma becomes obvious. In no language are they equipped to access the many storehouses of wisdom.
The difficulty is compounded in our region because the wisdom of our vernacular traditions is not adequately translated into English, the one language in which our best students can read with any proficiency. This is unlike the West where, say, the wisdom of the Greeks, is kept alive by continuous reinterpretations in local languages so that some access is possible for those who are educated in those languages, say French in France or German in Germany.
I am being generous in conceding that our students are proficient in reading English – the ability to truly understand a language comes from being imbued in its culture. Stanley Fish has mentioned that just one course in one poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is sufficient to make students rethink all the big questions of life:
“You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.
It is not enough for our students to pick up Paradise Lost and get the same out of the poem. For one, one needs to be steeped in that culture to make sense of the literary allusions – much of English literature has its roots in the Bible. For another, we don’t have enough teachers who can make up for that deficiency. But we do have similar wisdom in, say, Noon Meem Rashid’s Hasan Koozagar or in Kabir, Bulleh Shah, and Ghalib that can be much more readily accessible because the allusions and metaphors belong to our own lived reality. We do need to ensure a solid grounding in our first language and/or Urdu to get to the point where we can access this wisdom.
Hopefully, I have made the intellectual case for why we need to ensure mastery in at least one language. If we are convinced of this its translation into reality is actually quite easy. All we need to do is to get rid of the confusion in policy and structure the linguistic education appropriately.
See the post Milton and Ghalib on this blog and our attempt to make the wisdom of Ghalib accessible to students in English. See also my 2014 presentation on this subject (Bunyaad Kuch To Ho) to the entering freshman class at LUMS.
Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University.