LUMS and Learning: Reflections on a Discussion

The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is an institution of learning so it is entirely appropriate to try and learn from the discussion that has ensued following publication of the observations of an outsider (Professor Howard Schweber from the University of Wisconsin at Madison) who taught political theory at LUMS this past summer.

The discussion (accessible on this blog following Professor Schweber’s article, What are Pakistani College Students All About?) is largely defensive in character and critical of the author who is labeled, among other things, as ethnocentric and arrogant and accused of generalizing from a very small sample. The tenor of the response itself provides an entry into some aspects of the learning process that I wish to elaborate in this post.

My reaction to Professor Schweber’s observation is that it provides a data point for analysis. It could well be an outlier (more on the nature of an outlier later) but that should not be sufficient reason to throw it out as ‘noise’. An outlier is not always noise and often the most information can be contained in an outlier. So, at the very least, a considered reflection on the data point should not be ruled out at the outset.

We need to address the prior question of what kind of data point can be considered an outlier. If an outlier is defined as anything that does not conform to our existing beliefs (our ‘priors’ in the language of statistics) then how would existing beliefs ever change? Clearly there would be no mechanism for incremental change; only a catastrophic outcome that would shake the entire system (the equivalent of a Bangladesh, perhaps) would provide proof that the edifice of belief rested on weak foundations.

This formulation suggests two responses to a data point classified as an outlier. In the first, one rejects it because it does not conform to one’s existing beliefs. And, in order to preclude any critical examination of those beliefs, one adopts a confrontational attitude attacking the credibility of not only the data point but the intentions and competence of the source of the data as well.

The second response looks upon the data point with favor as a potential source of useful information. The obvious question to ask is whether what appears to be the reality to us is in fact the reality? In the particular case under discussion, there could be some curiosity about why an outsider sees us in a particular light? Of course, we have to give the outsider the benefit of the doubt at the outset. There is no reason to start with the presumption that the outsider, given his qualifications on the basis of which he was engaged, is motivated by malicious intent or lack of competence.

In this perspective the data point serves as a mirror in which we view ourselves, not as we imagine ourselves to be, but as we appear to the eyes of an outsider. And we compare the two images and wonder why they don’t overlap completely. Understanding the mismatch serves as the beginning of an intellectual enquiry and becomes an exercise in critical analysis.

Such an intellectual enquiry and critical analysis would lead to the reasoned discourse in which some elements of the data point are contested with evidence and argument while others are accepted as fully or partially valid. Such a discourse would have no place for anger or accusations or confrontation. It would lead to a rejection of errors and acceptance of corrections yielding thereby a fuller understanding of reality as well as of the sources of misperceiving the reality.

I have outlined two possible responses to a data point that appears to be an outlier. It is a reasonable expectation that at a learning institution like LUMS, by far the leading university in Pakistan and a genuine source of pride for Pakistanis, there would be no room for the first kind of response. It is the second type of response, emblematic of the practice of critical thinking, which should be the default mode. One would be justified in holding the leading institution of learning in the country to this standard.

The fact that the response to Professor Schweber’s observations falls short of this standard is a matter of concern and something that lends credence to one of the weaknesses that he has identified. One does not need to agree with everything he has written but the way in which his observations are received, analyzed, discussed and contested ought to be quite different at an academic institution with global aspirations.

There is need to pay attention to this issue because teaching the art of reasoned discourse has not been a strong point in Pakistan and its quality has been declining over time, a decline that has corresponded with the rise of intolerance of dissent and contrary opinion. Some time back we had referred on this blog to a striking example of this phenomenon from the account of Strobe Talbott (Engaging India) based on his negotiations with senior members of the governments of India and Pakistan after the nuclear tests by the two countries.

Here is how Strobe Talbott described his comparative experiences (pages 105-106):

In general, our sessions with the Pakistanis, while occasionally more exciting than those with the Indians, lacked a comparable degree of intellectual engagement… While Jaswant [Singh’s] team was highly disciplined in every respect, some of Shamshad Ahmad’s colleagues tended to be querulous, surly, and sometimes abusive. On one occasion, early in our dealings, a member of the Pakistani delegation exploded at our observation that his country seemed always to react in knee-jerk fashion to Indian moves. He rose out of his chair and lunged across the table as though he were going to strangle either Bruce Reidel or me, depending on whose neck he could get his fingers around first. He had to be physically restrained.

For all these reasons, my team had to shift gears when we traveled from New Delhi to Islamabad. The danger with the Indians was that they would wear us down. They had their game plan and would stick with it, waiting for us to lose congressional support for the sanctions and give up on even the modest demands we were making with the benchmarks.

The Pakistanis had no game plan. They always seemed to be either hunkering down, lashing out, or flailing about.

Thus, it was apparent from the outset that the Indians were going to be hard to move, while the Pakistanis were going to be hard to help.

It is pertinent to note that Strobe Talbott’s primary task was not sociological analysis; these were observations made in passing as part of the diplomatic task of managing the political fallout of the nuclear tests. The data point could be similarly rejected as emanating from a bias towards India or a hatred of Pakistan or it could be used to reflect on something that has persisted as a weakness in the system of education and training. The choice is ours and it reflects on us and on our institutions. There is little wisdom in breaking the mirrors that do not show us as we wish to see ourselves.

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  • Ercelan
    Posted at 12:21h, 28 October Reply

    i personally know of only two extremes in students at LUMS – of brilliance and of mediocrity. Resting on such weak evidence, my impression is that the latter are not in a minority. It may be that a large number without critical thinking are allowed to graduate at full fees from LUMS so that the brilliant can be subsidised. Not a bad goal.

    From my teaching experience at QAU and AERC, I have inferred that school systems are in a bad shape. Private schools are no exception to the culture of rote rather than critical thinking. I suppose LUMS too cant do much with students who have had a decade of bad education.

    A minimum number of intellectually committed and competent faculty are difficult to find anywhere in Pakistan. LUMS may be no exception, with the faith-based fervour of some being a serious barrier to building intellectual capacity (in contrast to training for other skills).

    Even I did not move to a higher standard of research than my entry position as Assistant Professor — I am sure that it was not just lack of aspiration!

    To adapt the author’s conclusion: our society offers little incentive to breaking the mirrors of narcissism.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:36h, 28 October

      Ercelan: I share the diagnosis that the school system is the weak link. And because the weak link comes right at the beginning, it leaves a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. It virtually mandates a remedial education and there is never time for that. In the normal course, it is not a handicap that colleges can reverse. And given how social sciences and humanities are taught, with an emphasis on information transfer rather than on the thinking process, even the limited opportunity is squandered. (Do read Professor Stanley Fish’s thoughts on the point of teaching Milton.) Of course, in such a large pool there are exceptional students but, as Russell once said, they are fortunate ones who survived school education relatively undamaged.

      The real issue is the school system and much thought needs to be given to its reform as well to its politics. Personally, I don’t believe the existing system in Pakistan can be restored to health because of the politics. The best hope is in seeding a new system that grows quickly and overpowers the old one. There is a proposal along those lines on the blog and I would be curious to see your feedback:

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:25h, 09 November Reply

    The reason I am quoting this passage from Stanley Fish here is to draw attention to how many ideas are circulating about the problems of education in the US and how to fix them. Obviously the ideas are conflicting but what is critical is the quantum and intensity of the discussions. Similar discussions are needed in South Asia where the problems are much more acute. Where are the ideas and where is the capacity to listen to other points of view and where is the ability to argue coherently through the issues?

    Last week, as I was preparing a presentation for still another conference on the fate of the liberal arts in our time, two things happened.

    The first was that I read or re-read a bunch of recent books (mostly short and punchy) on the subject — “Crisis On Campus” (Mark C. Taylor), “Not For Profit” (Martha Nussbaum), “Youth in a Suspect Society” (Henry Giroux), “Why Choose the Liberal Arts?” (Mark William Roche), “Debating Moral Education” (Elizabeth Kiss and Peter Euben), “The Marketplace of Ideas” (Louis Menand), “Educating Citizens” (Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, Jason Stephens and Lee S. Shulman), “Reforming Our Universities” (David Horowitz), “No University Is An Island” (Cary Nelson), “Save the World On Your Own Time” (Stanley Fish) and “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It” (Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus). (The list could easily be doubled.)

  • Wajih
    Posted at 18:34h, 01 January Reply

    I recently took a Logic and Critical Thinking course at LUMS offered specifically for the students of the business school. From this experience I observed two things which I wanted to share.

    Firstly, I noticed that many students were annoyed by the course. Many often complained about it during discussions outside the class; making statements like ‘this course is a waste of time’ and ‘logic and critical thinking has nothing to do with running a business’. So a lot of the students did not take the course seriously, in my opinion.

    Secondly, I also observed that many students complained about the abstract nature of the course and how the questions often had no clear-cut answers. Many were also perturbed by the difficulty level of the exam. This pointed out to the the priority given to good grades over learning by many which I believe is a cause of the rote learning culture of our education system.

    In the end, I believe that the course failed to achieve its objective of instilling critical thinking abilities for many of the students. I wouldn’t set the blame for this on the instructor or the course structure but more on the nature of the students.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:27h, 02 January

      Wajih: Personally, I don’t believe critical thinking can be taught in one course in college. It is a habit that one develops through school and brings into college. I mentioned that in an essay some time back:

      “I think it is important to realize that critical thinking cannot be taught theoretically – one cannot have a Critical Thinking 101 and hope to be successful. Critical thinking is learnt by osmosis…”:

      The same point is made in the description of the objectives of this blog:

      “The premise of The South Asian Idea is that critical thinking is vital for the full development of the human intellect. Critical thinking is learnt in schools and colleges through exposure to the social sciences and the liberal arts where questions do not have a single correct answer. Rather, there are often many plausible answers none of which are entirely right or wrong. However, some answers are more robust than others and arriving at them requires open-minded debate, tolerance for divergent perspectives, and the art of persuasive argumentation.

      “Unfortunately, in the competitive market for jobs characterizing the information age, students are ignoring the social sciences and the liberal arts considering them a waste of time. At the same time, the spirit of open inquiry has been dampened in educational institutions. Students in South Asia also advance at a relatively early age into professional colleges where there are few rigorous non-technical core course requirements.

      “As a result, critical thinking and open-mindedness have suffered steep erosion in South Asia. This has been a major contributing factor to the rise of social and religious intolerance in the region. This intolerance is the cancer that has the potential to destroy our society.”

  • Kabir
    Posted at 15:44h, 21 April Reply

    The same problems continue to persist at LUMS. Disengaged students only looking out for their grades. Not taking the Humanities and Social Sciences seriously…. Of course it is the job of the instructor to excite the students, but this is much easier said than done.

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