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The Idea of a University
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Dated: Thursday, 4 February 2016

The armed forces are fighting the terrorists with great valour and determination. The terrorists are retaliating by attacking students and teachers with a monstrous brutality. Our soldiers, through their skill and sacrifice, are affirming the human values that underpin a dynamic nation. By contrast, the terrorists signify an inhuman sensibility. Therefore, this is not only a war of survival for the state of Pakistan but also the cutting edge of the struggle for civilisation against barbarism, knowledge against obscurantism.

It can be argued that high-quality education ensures the development of an enlightened and humane consciousness which can prevent Pakistan’s society from becoming the breeding ground of terrorism again. It is in this context that it becomes important to pose the question of the meaning of high quality education. In a report which I wrote as chairman of an FC College University Committee a few years ago, I had discussed many of the ideas presented in this article.

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 analyse and synthesise.

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 BC, so that the students learn to understand the grounds on which a particular proposition is predicated. Only then can one think for oneself and make an original contribution to knowledge.

The ability to synthesise 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 synthesised 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.

In his lecture, ‘Knowledge and Religious Experience (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam)’, Muhammad Iqbal argues that the reference to the beauty of nature in the Quran invites us to observe the concreteness of empirical reality around us and at the same time to awaken in us the awareness of the transcendent reality of which nature is a symbol. Iqbal notes, “… the general empirical attitude of the Quran which engendered in its followers a feeling of reverence for the actual and ultimately made them the founders of modern science.”

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...”.

John Henry Newman argues that the university is a “place of teaching and universal knowledge” which involves understanding the interconnections between the various fields of knowledge to acquire a holistic perspective and a humane sensibility.

Quite apart from the inherent inter connections between different fields of knowledge in the sense of Newman, recent breakthroughs in a number of subjects such as particle physics, biological sciences and economics have created a more material tendency for crossing the boundaries of specialized disciplines. For example, advances in theoretical physics such as M-theory attempt to combine the fundamental forces of nature. Attempts to combine Quantum theory with Einstein’s theory of general relativity are enabling physicists to raise questions which were traditionally in the domain of philosophy.

Breakthroughs in the study of the human genome following the discovery of the DNA are leading to a new linkage between the biochemistry of cells, the treatment of disease, the reproduction of body organs through selective stem cell reproduction, and the nature of human consciousness.

Similarly, the New Institutional Economics has been introduced by Douglass C North and his colleagues. They conceptualise an institution as a set of rules which in so far as they embody incentives and disincentives serve to shape human behaviour. Consequently, economics is linking up with cognitive science, the study of constitutions, law, the study of violence and international relations.

Thus recent breakthroughs in both the natural and social sciences have set the stage for inter-disciplinary research and teaching. This has important implications for the way the university pursues its core functions.
Both the leader of the terrorist group and the authoritarian state rely on the “tyranny of the glamorous phrase” (Pasternak). Both prosper on the basis of citizens with narrowed minds and the inability to subject emotional slogans to logical scrutiny. Both are lacking in a humane sensibility and the creative imagination. It is time to build a real university which is as essential to the war against terrorism as it is to the building of democracy.

The writer is a professor of economics at the Forman Christian College
University, Lahore.


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