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We don’t need thought control

Since Israel began its genocidal campaign against Palestinians, observers and commentators the world over have been watching the unprecedented outpouring of public support in places where, historically, there has been little to none.

Most US colleges have a long history of being bastions of liberal ideology. Nevertheless, the scale of mobilization by various student groups marching and protesting in support of Palestinians has been unprecedented and unexpected.

What should be notable for us, sitting in Pakistan, is that although the support for Palestinians is greater than ever, the official statements made by most university leaders have been either neutral or pro-Israel. That puts pro-Palestinian student groups in direct opposition to their university leaders and US government policy.

The rights of students and faculty and (where it is the case) university leaders to disagree with their state’s and federal government’s official policy so openly and freely flows from the academic freedom both students and faculty enjoy – the freedom of students and faculty to study, teach, pursue knowledge, without undue outside interference from without (regulators and the state) or within (institutional restrictions).

The granting of tenure that usually accompanies the promotion from the rank of assistant to associate professor further solidifies this freedom for faculty members. Unless found guilty of some gross illegality, it is almost impossible to fire tenured faculty members. The purpose of granting this level of job security, which is almost impossible to find in any other sector of the economy now, is to give scholars the freedom to pursue answers even to difficult questions without fear of retaliation and jeopardizing their employment.

The current situation in Palestine is also exposing the price this academic freedom can exact. A number of law graduates had their offers of employment from a prestigious law firm rescinded for publicly supporting Palestine’s cause of freedom. At Harvard, a number of influential alumni have announced ending the support (in terms of donations or student opportunities) they have been providing the university or at least to student groups that voiced support for Palestinians. Employers cannot be forced to hire an applicant and donors cannot be forced to donate, so both are within their rights.

And while academic freedom is not absolute but has its own limits and consequences in the West, there is still enough of it where student groups can protest and counter-protest on every side of just about every issue. That is why sitting afar, we can only marvel at the academic freedom (however imperfect it may be) college communities enjoy and the public disagreement that is allowed to air on US college campuses.

Meanwhile, here at home, the term tenure has been grossly misused in the naming of the ‘Tenure Track System’ the HEC introduced over a decade ago. The granting of tenure is free of all associated meanings of academic freedom.

As chance would have it, as if to make my point for me, a few days ago several papers published the news that an assistant professor of zoology was “taken to task” by a group of local clerics in Bannu for teaching evolution in biology and speaking at a local seminar about equal rights of women under the constitution of Pakistan. Apparently, this was too much to bear for some and he was made to sign a public statement renouncing evolution as un-Islamic, declaring women as inferior to men and, for good measure, absolving the people coercing him of all blame for any future misfortune that might befall him. So much for academic freedom in the Land of the Pure. How can we expect and why should there not be a brain drain when educated people may be subjected to such indignities and threats on a whim?

And just a few days later, a well-known local community centre and think-tank in Islamabad was barred from holding a conversation on the deportation of Afghan refugees, some of whom have been living in this country for decades. Since there seem to be no other pressing issues worthy of their attention (save for the daily muggings, break ins, carjackings, and holdups), the Islamabad Police saw it necessary to intervene and break up the gathering. The state has given itself the right to stop people sitting indoors at a private venue and having a calm, civilized discussion on an issue.

Muzzles on (differences of) opinion are enforced by force, intimidation, law, threats and/or harassment, sometimes by power centers of the state at others by thugs exploiting religious sentiments – and I speak from some personal experience here. Members of the educated middle class, who have built themselves a tolerable life, have the most to lose and are, understandably, easiest to silence.

Limits on expression have a tendency to turn into limits on thinking which, in turn, leads to group-think at the national level. You may disagree, but it often feels like many people I run into on any issue hold one of a small set of predictable views, ideas, and opinions. If two heads are better than one, then nearly 250 million put together ought to be a powerhouse of ideas and opinions (and creativity).

Like everything, the ability to think freely, critically, creatively is acquired with practice. Morals and values are not learnt from a school textbook (pre- or post-SNC) – they are acquired by living by them. Entrepreneurship is not learnt by taking a course designed and mandated by a state-regulator but by trying one’s hand at a venture, even something as humble as selling boiled eggs from a bucket or a lemonade stand.

Public representatives (not bearing the name of a political dynasty) are not born fully formed or minted by forcing them to memorize a state-approved, redacted, selective account of history in a subject like Pakistan Studies for a decade – they are forged by a lifetime of service, representation and speaking up for others, possibly starting as early as school or college. Expertise and success come from the freedom to think things and try things; they do not come from stuffing another chapter into a bloated, state-mandated curriculum.

At a time when many countries are turning inward and taking a turn to the right, seeing empathetic young people standing up for liberal ideas is what gives one hope for the future. Even the best universities, which ought to be fertile ground for debate, are anything but. Conferences, study-circles or speakers on issues even tangentially sensitive to the official state narrative are routinely blocked, ‘discouraged’ or (if they attempt to go ahead anyway) shut-down.

Not everyone engages in debate on every issue but seeing facts and high-quality arguments – as opposed to fact-free opinions – put forward in a public debate by those who have them on an issue, sets standards, informs the entire community and elevates the quality of discourse in other debates. Academic freedom for students and faculty on university campuses brings up a thinking and engaged citizenry, but maybe that is not the desired outcome.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "We don’t need thought control," The News. 2023-10-29.
Keywords: Education , Institutional restrictions , Teaching evolution , Scholars , Entrepreneurship , Pakistan , SNC