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Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Express Tribune
Dated: Monday, 8 October 2012

In my preceding article I had suggested that one of the core functions of a university is to nurture the intellect. This involves at one level, scholarship by faculty members and training students to undertake scholarship in their respective fields. Now such a training of the mind develops the ability to understand particular problems and phenomena in terms of fundamental principles. Then these principles are applied back to the problem or the particular issue at hand for an effective solution or a new intellectual perspective. Thus the ability for abstraction is the basis of creative thinking.

The distinction between the practical and the theoretical that is often drawn in Pakistan, as if they were divorced from each other, is a false one. Indeed archaeological
research based on fossil records, indicates that the ability of Homo Sapiens for abstraction is what distinguished them from the Neanderthals, and gave the former superior survival capability. The evidence shows that Neanderthals were also tool using animals, but their technical change was slow, because it was based on trial and error. By contrast the Homo Sapiens were able to conceive an abstract design of the tool and then fashion it accordingly: That is why their technical change was more rapid.

The ability for abstraction and use of symbols is essential to human cognition and use of symbolic means of expression such as language. David Robson in a recent paper in the New Scientist says in the history of animal species "indisputable evidence of speech conveying complex ideas comes only with the cultural sophistication and symbolism associated with Homo sapiens".

It is not that the university does not produce "professionals" in various fields. Rather the graduate of a world class university has developed the discipline of mind for rigorous thinking: the ability to grasp the principles or the observed regularities underlying apparently diverse phenomena. This lies at the core of originality and innovation. It is also a mode of knowing the world. Thus the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is linked with developing a higher level problem solving ability.

The mathematician, Alan Turing when he was a fellow of King's College Cambridge, did mathematics so abstract that he thought it had nothing to do with reality. Yet when he was hired by the British Ministry of Defence during the Second World War, he was able to deploy his mathematics to break the coding system of the "Enigma" machine used by the German military for secret communications. His mathematical formulations in that period were also the basis of the modern computer.
The latest research on economic growth by Professor Aghion at Harvard, shows that long term economic growth is a function of the depth and range of innovations in an economy. Now the capacity for innovation it can be argued is based on the institutional structure wherein the university is at the apex, since it trains students to do creative and original thinking.

A university in nurturing the intellect not only produces research, and trains students to do so, but also develops a humane sensibility, combining Reason with the aspiration of the heart: Virtue. Graduates are then able to innovate in the "practical" spheres but are also able to develop their humanity to the great heights that Iqbal indicated: "Develop your being to such transcendent heights, that God may ask the human individual, what is your wish".

To be able to fulfill its core function, of posing and pursuing new questions, of nurturing the intellect, freedom in a university is essential.

The ability to Reason and to apprehend the beauty of transcendent Truth through a loving heart, is integral to the intellect. To the extent a university nurtures these human faculties, it helps develop the economy, society and indeed human civilization.


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