Pakistan now has a large number of universities, yet precious few qualify for that title. However, a number of centres of learning in both the private and public sectors are currently establishing institutional procedures and processes through which they could achieve international standards at some point in the future. It may therefore be helpful to discuss the idea of a university.
A university is perhaps the most complex institution ever devised, since it aims to nurture the highest human faculty: the intellect. It can be argued that two of the defining features of a university are: (a) the production of knowledge by the various faculties through reflection and research; (b) intellectual training of the students so that they too can produce knowledge at some stage. Thus research and research based teaching are essential to the enterprise of a university.
The aim of intellectual training is the pursuit of truth while the means is the discipline of the mind: the ability to concentrate and bring to bear one’s diverse mental faculties. John Henry Newman in his discourses on the idea of a university at Dublin (in February 2008), echoed the view of thinkers through the ages, when he said that “truth is the proper object of the intellect”. Such an intellectual quest involves developing both the capacity to analyze and synthesize.
Sharpening one’s analytical ability requires training the mind for critical thinking. This was the method used by Socrates in his Dialogues in 4th century B.C., so that the students learn to understand the grounds on which a particular proposition is predicated. Only then can one think for oneself and get into a position to make an original contribution to knowledge.
The ability to synthesize involves comprehending wholeness within diversity. Therefore the university environment should provide students exposure not only to specialties within subjects but also the opportunity to develop an inter-disciplinary perspective on human knowledge. The rules and procedures that shape the intellectual interactions within a university ought to enable the nurturing of both reason and the creative imagination: They must allow those moments of reflection and insight when the diligence of intensive reading, of tutorials, lectures and seminars are filtered within the synthesized university experience of a student into what Newman calls “the faculty…. of clear sightedness, of wisdom, of philosophical reach of mind”. Thus a university is not a place for vocational training which is important, but best left to vocational training institutes. A university is a place for acquiring the power of clear thinking and developing a humane sensibility.
The intellectual traditions of both West and East combine the use of reason with the nurturing of virtue in the human intellect. Socrates in his Dialogues through his questioning method trained his students to use reason as well as the creative imagination to understand the concepts of justice and the importance of ethical values.
Ibn Al’ Arabi, the great Arab Sufi and philosopher writing in the early 13th century discusses the God given human capacity of combining Reason with the experience of transcendent truths. “Know that the universals, even though they have no tangible individual existence, yet are conceived of and known in the mind….”. Shah Hussain, the 16th century Punjabi Sufi poet spoke of the relationship between knowledge, virtue and social action: “What (the teacher) said, has entered my consciousness, and so I must seek to actualize the truth”. Martin Lings, the great Sufi master and scholar of the contemporary period suggests that the ancient world of both East and West considers the ‘heart’ as a synonym of the ‘intellect’ not in terms of the contemporary misuse of this word, but its actual meaning in the Latin intellectus which is “the faculty which perceives the transcendent.”
Pakistan today is ravaged by bigotry and violence. Reason has been banished from political argument, and religious discourse divorced from its root in the loving heart. The university in fulfilling its core function of nurturing reason and humanity, of teaching students to think for themselves and being creative can make a vital contribution to reconstructing Pakistan’s society.