For Wasif, Education Is Misunderstood In Pakistan


We can often stereotype the type of a person who would be prone to terrorism. Someone, who doesn’t have access to education, perhaps comes from a low-income family, and usually, feels disillusioned from their environment. But for Wasif, only the last of the three generalisations can stand up to scrutiny.

“You won’t be able to name one history major involved in terrorism,” Wasif says in his spacious office overlooking Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighborhood, “Many bright young graduates see the world around them, failing to understand it,” adding, “then they create a narrative, and look for people who can reinforce it.” For Wasif, it is the engineers and doctors who would be more prone to the extremist narrative, because they have not been taught about the world around them, just about the skills they need in their professions. “Even engineers think about the world.”

Guided by an appetite for indigenous knowledge, coupled with a liberal framework, Wasif has led a team to establish Habib University, Pakistan’s first liberal arts college. Habib’s contemporary campus promises a unique sense of freedom — most rooms provide views of the chaotic, swaggering cosmopolitan around it. At times, making the tranquillity of the campus itself feel like the calm before the storm.

The design is intentional, putting its students face to face with challenges of modern day Pakistan. “The essence of education is allowing you to make the sense of the world around you without you getting angry,” Wasif told me with a certain zeal, adding, “the only reason you get angry is when you can’t understand.”

Wasif laments on the misunderstanding of the learning experience in Pakistan. “There is a daunting question of history which remains unaddressed here,” he adds, “once addressed then we can talk about creating a future.” At Habib, Wasif has created intellectually rigorous courses on modernity, and more critically, religion. Courses that all students have to take, regardless of their major.

Religion is particularly important for Wasif. “We’re being ruined as a society,” adding “we have been buried under a burden of heritage which we don’t understand.” Unlike other universities in Pakistan, Habib is tackling these questions heads on. “We can’t ignore these questions.”

For Wasif, the misfortune has been that universities in Pakistan don’t focus on bigger, deeper questions. Instead, most Pakistani universities have emerged from vocational roots — roots, which for him, they haven’t been able to segregate from. Instead, it is the critical thinking ability fundamental to a quality liberal education, Wasif wants Pakistan to adopt. “It is the liberal art graduates who have the skills employers need,” adding, “liberal education gives students enormous confidence.”

“The most significant event in education is when something you have been completely convinced about,” he adds “turns out to be completely wrong.” This is what Wasif is trying to do at Habib though what he calls “structured intellectual reflection.” Idea most Pakistani universities would be unfamiliar with. However, there are plenty of challenges, for one, the government isn’t doing enough to support private universities. “There is unnecessary hostility between state and private universities.”

Wasif doesn’t want to Habib to be big, at least not now, instead, he’s focusing on classroom experience. But he admits, “that there are very nonsensical, narcissistic stuff going under the liberal umbrella,” arguing that liberal education has to confront the real challenges of the world. “Most of Ghalib’s poetry comes out of being engaged with his environment.”

This is part of our #BeyondClassrooms series, you can view it here.

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