Whither academic culture? By Ayesha Siddiqa

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WRITING opinion pieces in a newspaper is a tricky job. While many people may agree with the opinion expressed, there are others who become extremely unhappy.

There is nothing surprising about such a divide in opinion especially in a country of 160 million people.

I am not assuming that all these people read newspapers but some do. And not to forget those who access newspapers on the Internet these days. The unhappiness of readers relates to the fact that they expect more from an article than what, in their view, was presented. So, there is always the accusation of all sorts of bias of the writer on a certain issue.

This is where the readers must also be blamed for their unhappiness with opinion pieces. There are two issues which must be kept in mind. First, these columns or opinion pieces are not necessarily written by trained journalists (in any case, there are very few trained journalists in this country. The list of those who joined journalism because they didn’t have any thing better to do is rather long.) Second, opinion pieces are more like teasers to highlight a certain issue and present a certain perspective on a matter and nothing more.

These daily columns are meant to draw attention towards what the writer thinks is significant. The biases, of course, are there. And why not? Opinion pieces are not academic articles which are meant to present all arguments or the thesis and the anti-thesis on an issue to be followed by the synthesis which is the writer’s opinion on the subject.

Unfortunately, the above-mentioned method of argument is not the forte of scholarship in many countries, particularly South Asia. So we see lots of books that are not strong on their scholarly credentials. However, as far as op-ed pieces are concerned, these are certainly not meant to do the job. The basic parameters of newspaper columns, as mentioned earlier, is to make people think about an issue — perhaps get emotional about the issue and feel angry about or agree with what was written.

What is even sadder in Pakistan is that op-ed pieces are treated as scholarly articles which are meant to present both sides of the argument, which is certainly not possible in the limit prescribed by a newspaper. Such confusion is owed to the advent of the modern media, particularly the electronic media, which in the past decade or more seems to have produced ‘scholars’ who would otherwise fail the test of scholarship in a decent academic environment. So, not only do we have people pretending to be scholars but we also have trained academics who have stopped doing the job they were actually trained for and are using the print and electronic media as the main source of information and forum for expressing their views.

Resultantly, there are fewer books being produced by Pakistani scholars, especially those based in the country. The majority of publications are memoirs of retired civil and military bureaucrats. Of course, the media is not the only reason for the dearth of scholarship. In social sciences, in particular, local academics rarely get access to information and are ostracised and rejected the minute they come up with an opinion or hypothesis that is not supported by the establishment. The other day, someone asked me why there wasn’t any book-sized work by a Pakistani academic on the Afghan war of the 1980s. The answer is simple — locals aren’t trusted with information that is provided to foreigners, especially those with acceptable skin colour. Furthermore, why should anyone burn the midnight oil if ultimately he will be accused of being a foreign agent?

The blame must be shared by academics as well who fall into the trap of immediate publicity by appearing in the media. The number of non-journalists writing in newspapers creates the false impression that op-ed pieces are scholarly articles, which are meant to go into the intricacies of issues, discussed in a 1,100-1,200 word space. These pieces are at best what fast food is to cuisine; they showcase a larger concept. So, it is interesting when people argue that someone has left out such and such an idea.

Perhaps, it is the information age that we live in which attracts people towards such fast-lane scholarship through column writing. However, a greater problem is due to the nature of the public sector university system which does not encourage great scholarship, particularly in the social sciences. Research and writing requires availability of resources including money and material which means books, access to information and the ability to meet people. All public sector universities are short on resources. There is no concept of travel grants, meeting people for interviews or getting access to published journal articles and books. There is so much published material being produced outside the country all the time which a scholar must access for his work. The inability to stay up to date has a negative impact on academic work.

Not to mention the fact that public sector universities lack intellectual autonomy which means that once there is a tradition of holding back ideas people slip into the habit of not producing at all. It is very rare for Pakistani academics in public sector universities to have written books. This is not to say that private sector universities are doing any better. The academic staffs of most private universities are either engaged in consultancies or teaching which means that quality academic work in the form of a book is not produced.

The Higher Education Commission’s policies of the past nine years have not favoured the social sciences either. There was little encouragement in this field which means that the next decade will be barren in terms of social scientists, who are needed by every country that seeks to progress. While pure and natural sciences are vital for technological, scientific and industrial growth, the social sciences provide direction for the future. Sadly, even those monitoring the Vision 2030 programme at the Planning Commission were natural scientists.

At this juncture, Pakistan lacks a third generation of analysts based in the country. Most of the good research on Pakistan is being conducted outside the country for reasons given above. But the most important reason for the dearth of local analysts is the lack of an academic culture in educational institutions. The responsibility for such a state of affairs does not fall solely on the government but also on senior scholars who have used universities as launching pads or platforms for themselves rather than for the growth of academics in the country. A glance around and I can only find one professor at the University of Karachi who has made consistent efforts at mentoring students and encouraging them to work.

In the absence of good social scientists we will find it even more difficult in the coming years to project ourselves as a sane society. We will all have to pay a cost for politicising our universities.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.


Source: Daily Dawn, 31/10/2008

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