A New Narrative
by Awais Leghari
It seems to me that every developing country has a similar story about the priorities it has for arts and humanities. A lot of people in Pakistan, for instance, disregard any career associated with art as “thoughtless” and “suicidal”. Sure, the market is a little tough. Artists aren’t exactly in great demand. Its the engineer and the doctor, the computer scientist and any other type of scientist that inspire great respect amongst the individuals in our society. If you want a shot at getting rich, don’t waste your time with art. Art is for losers. Go to a science school, graduate with flying colours and you may have your chance. There is still no guarantee, however, for you see, the market isn’t changing so much. My experience in taking courses from the School of Science and Engineering (SSE) at LUMS has been brilliant. I have dared to dream, aspire, and all that jargon the school promises. More importantly, I have felt the yearning for creativity and art to be completely side-lined, as there is always a desire to produce the next big app, product, start up and all the other ways to “truly make a mark”, as they say. This is the place that tells me, “hey, you can be rich”, and to be honest, I see all other motivations pale in front of this tantrum.
With time, I have become a little sensitive. I feel that it has allowed me to become aware of the wrong approach I have been on, for almost two years straight into college. Previously, science and programming had my unparalleled, undivided attention. I would not say that I am a great student, but you get it. My daydreams and thoughts have had been revolving around writing code and more code, and now that I think about this, it sounds quite depressing. For two years, I shunned myself from all the disciplines that kept knocking at the door, waiting to knock some life into my lifeless visions. I am not alone, however, and for the first time in a very long time, being not alone about feeling something does not seem to be uplifting or reassuring at all. I look at the bright minds at SSE, and I feel let down.
Here we are, at the best institution of the country, privileged with the best resources available and studying with talented, capable minds, yet we are arrogant in our visions of ourselves. Charity is only but an outlet to feel good. No one really knows what to do. People here, I am sure, will build great businesses, will lead wonderful start ups. They should, too. As a Luminite, I feel a responsibility from all the privilege I get; we have to create jobs for our economy, we have to be better. But how can we be better by not allowing ourselves to free our minds from the preconceived notions of respect and importance so cherished by our society? When will we, the students of science, get to enthusiastically embrace disciplines like philosophy, sociology, humanities, literature and art? Are they any less important?
We all like to live in the shades of our past glories. The Liverpool fans can only rant about their history, Pakistan about its nuclear weapon, and muslims about their past political control. So what went wrong? The “Golden Age” of Islam is often referred to as the times when Muslims ruled over large parts of Europe, and for me, it is not a mere coincidence that muslims prospered when the premium Islamic institution, the “Madrassah”, trained its scholars with a curriculum in Ma’qulaat (rational sciences) and Man’qulaat (transmitted sciences). The rational sciences focused on disciplines like Mathematics, Art, Astronomy, Logic, Theology and Architecture. The aim was to produce religious scholars of pedigree that were culturally sensitive and intellectually vibrant. Today, the curriculum, Dars-e-Nizami, has no association with rational sciences at all. It is not a surprise that the Madrassah is in the state that it is today.
So, how do our universities compare? Of course, most of them are very similar to the Madrassah. There’s not a lot to do with diversity. Engineering is for four years, and learning to be a better human being, a better person is for zero. Why should there be a need to produce better citizens? Aren’t we doing just fine? Well, it is indeed a shame. I see a lot of my friends asking me what course to choose, and they set the prerequisites exactly as follows: “Who needs learning? Tell me, who’s the better grader?” Sure, it is indeed a race out there. Do not let anyone make you believe otherwise. Eventually, you have to raise a family and provide for them, and remember, the market is tough, so choose wisely between a respectable grade point average and learning. These are the individuals that will run the future corporations that are profit-greedy. These are the individuals that will man the public service seats, in order to serve themselves more than to serve you. If you ask me again why I feel let down, you probably have your answer here.
So, what can learning philosophy, art, culture, and all of this “thoughtful non-sense” change? After all, most of them are random theories with little practical durability. I honestly do not have answer. However, after going through a few courses in philosophy and reading some of the best works in literature, I feel that I have become a better human being. Its a good change from being a drone/slave in the service of science. I think about humans more than code, and in a good way. If this exposure can impact me, it can impact you too. But hey, I won’t just stop my analysis here. While reading some of the best and diverse works from Immanuel Kant, Diogenes Laertis and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a very non-original thought struck me straight away: “are we producing quality writers, philosophers and artists?” And just for the record, no, I do not mean people like Atif Aslam or Ali Zafar. Do not get the wrong idea.
I endeavoured into researching a little about the well-known English authors from Pakistan, and to be honest, there wasn’t much of a surprise there. Born in a metropolitan city, educated at a top-tier high school, went to great colleges and have had the experience of living abroad. Pretty much a no-brainer when you listen to the accents and witness the bravado. But more disappointingly, there was no one who could say, “hey, look at me, I’m a well known author hailing from a less developed region of the country with little or no exposure to a foreign culture”. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against experiencing a foreign culture or hailing from a metropolitan, however, there’s already too much of that with our authors. I want to hear a new narrative. I want to hear stories from remote villages of the KPK and Sindh, and I want to hear the tales from a quality writer from Balochistan who has something important to say. I want a little more inclusivity.
There are a lot of questions I have already asked in this little write up of mine, and one more clichèd question beckons: “are we a part of a tolerant society?” I think the answer to this question is painfully obvious, which makes this a redundant exercise but the point I am trying to make is why are we not a part of a tolerant society? We often offer ourselves interesting explanations, too. “Education is a huge factor. Most people who are less tolerant tend to be less educated.” Which is true, but what about the people who are educated? Believe me, we aren’t angels. We are as desensitised and incapable of a contributing to a pleasant debate as Mamnoon Hussain, who happens to be our President, how apt. I believe that we have a lack of a different point of view altogether. Who knows what the other guy has to say, and frankly, who cares? Gradually, these alternate voices fade away, and all that we are left with are some opinion columns about what should happen. I know, I am a part of this intolerant society too, so you are not alone in this either.
I was building all of this to an idea that I wanted to impart. This idea is specifically targeted to the place where I study, and perhaps, it is targeted to you as well. What if you could start engaging in disciplines like sociology, theology, philosophy and art? I believe it will challenge a lot of pre-conceived notions you have about others, and most importantly about yourself. I also firmly believe that it will make you a better person. Someone who can now digest opinions that are revolting and uncomfortable. May be someday, someone from a KPK and Balochistan will come to my university, and not simply become just another scientist or accountant or economist. May be they will have a story to tell, some wisdom to impart and a performance to deliver. And I want a museum, alongside a thriving art school to emerge in my university. Imagine being exposed to paintings, literature and other forms of potent art where it colours itself with profound philosophical meaning. Imagine being lost in stories from all the cultures in your country that you never knew even existed. Tell me, won’t that make you better?