28 Oct 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.