Pakistani Academia Must Resist The Stifling Of Dissent

Pakistani Academia Must Resist The Stifling Of Dissent
I have been teaching psychology for a while now. I find myself fascinated whenever I interact with a unique mind, learn a new psychological concept or discuss a famous theory in the classroom and someone challenges it. Not too long ago, I delivered a lecture on “consciousness,” which can be understood as a state of being aware at any given moment. In the same lecture, we discussed the idea of “altered states of consciousness,” that refer to a state of being disconnected with reality. Many weeks later, a student came to see me in my office and told me that he had raised a question in another class that “is there a possibility that we all are living in the altered state of consciousness right now and one fine day we will snap out of it to real consciousness?”

It was certainly a thoughtful question and I was expecting to hear the wonderful discussion he had in the class around that, but I was disappointed to learn that he was snubbed and asked to shun his philosophical thinking. This particular instance wasn’t surprising for me at all.

I learned during my time as a student, and now from the lives of my students how brutally brilliance and creative potential are suppressed by our education system so that submissive, meek and malleable human minds can be produced for leashing and fetching, under the guise of "disciplining students." My choice of words might sound a tad bit acrimonious here, but we can’t deny the fact that we have a very few people around us who are capable of having meaningful and thoughtful discussions; who can truly speak their minds, who can look beyond localized biases induced by social media, society and who can look at the world holistically rather than through the lens of the herd.

Our classrooms have been turned into barren places where students are forced to sit for a few hours due to strict attendance policies. But who is to blame for this disengagement from education, certainly not students - because no one would like to be in a place where no interesting ideas are being exchanged?

Is it the teachers, the management, the systems, the policies, or society as a whole? The two most important entities in an educational institution are the students and the teachers. Learning happens by the direct interaction of these two entities. Teachers who have a strong understanding of their subject and are capable enough to lead and moderate reasonable discussions can create a lively classroom where students are eager to learn, exchange ideas, and have meaningful conversations. We must not forget that the leaders of the future are nurtured in the classrooms of today.

The question that follows is how to create such passionate and effective teachers, and where to find them? In my limited experience, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, teachers who sincerely strive to introduce new experiences or unconventional ideas in the classroom, which are not socially accepted, face academic ostracism. I can recall numerous names, both well-known and lesser-known "prisoners of conscience" who have been marginalized and penalized, either explicitly or implicitly, for holding dissenting opinions that challenge the status quo. These actions against progressive voices convey tacit messages to the other members of academia to refrain from using their minds beyond merely following orders. They are expected to keep their thoughts and voices to themselves if they witness any injustice. As a result, the voices of conscience gradually fade out, as people rationalize their personal security and career gains over the responsibility they owe to their students and society.

This initiates a cyclical process where people with a herd mentality breed more sheep by crushing creativity, ingenuity and voices of dissent.

Out of all the places in the world, universities should be a place where all kind of ideas should be heard, evaluated, challenged, accepted or dejected on the ground of reasoning, without any fear of being judged or being outcasted. Athenian philosophers like Epicurus, Zeno, Aristotle, Plato chose public places to teach any passersby, with diverse backgrounds and unique ideas and perspectives. Why can’t we learn to listen attentively, tolerate respectfully and accept the diversity of human thoughts?

Being a member of academia, I cannot conclude this article without remembering Junaid Hafeez, a teacher and scholar with tremendous potential who has been imprisoned for 10 years now because he dared to express his views and voice his opinions. Referring back to ancient philosophers, there were many who were executed and exiled for questioning the prevailing social doctrines and corrupting the youth. However, their ideas are still taught and echo today in most of the world's great universities.

Iqbal, the poet of the East, beautifully explained how enslaved and free spirits breathe and survive in the same environment, yet they choose their own distinct psychological worlds to live in:

پرواز ہے دونوں کی اسی ایک فضا میں

کرگس کا جہاں اور ہے، شاہیں کا جہاں اور

I pay my humble tribute to all dissenting, progressive, and courageous voices in academia in Pakistan who dare to break the cycle of slavery by shaping young minds to think and reflect, regardless of the adversities and pettiness the world throws at them.