Poverty of Thought

Muhammad Hamid Zaman PhD

While the immediate challenges facing the Muslim world may be related to national security, rampant disease and bad governance, the long-term crisis we face is not the poverty of means, but the poverty of ideas and reason. A society that is quick to blame the outsiders for all its ills, that believes in giant conspiracies behind every calamity, little or large, is unlikely to change the status quo. The prevalent poverty of imagination and reason itself is well-suited to be declared a conspiracy against a society that used to produce the champions of logic and reason. A careful look at our own actions and approaches should set this record straight. While some may argue that our poverty of thought is because of our poor education, yet in circles of the society that are apparently educated, there is little interest in rigor, in thought and in reason. The problem therefore is not with education, but our approach to education and what we want to get from the process of learning.

First, we have distilled all conversations about education to getting a degree. For us, education is a means to get a better job. The entire purpose of education somehow has been reduced to wealth and economic prosperity. While aiming to achieve a stable economic status is a worthwhile goal, the purpose of education should not be only to get a degree but far beyond it. Somehow, we have taken learning completely out of the equation. The argument to move to a better school district in the suburbs may, on the surface, seem like a noble goal, but deep down, it is so that our youngsters can end up in better colleges and universities, which then implicitly focuses on a better economic outlook. There is nothing wrong in that, but if that is the only goal of education, then we are missing the big picture. Our discussion on education has moved from a process of learning and development to one that resembles a cookbook, that has one single recipe for economic success in life which is delicious to our taste buds but unfortunately devoid of nutritional value.

Second, the love of learning for the sake of learning, and becoming a better person has been long lost. University education for many of our children is scripted and directed with no room for change. The idea of experiencing the joy of learning has disappeared from the conversation we have with our children. We are quick to put them in “Russian Math” classes but pay no attention to their ability to express themselves through creative activities. Students, according to an unscripted constitution in our community should all be pre-meds or IT engineers. Lawyers are also ok, but we don’t want them to be thinkers, artists, philosophers, art historians and string theorists. Well before our children enter universities and colleges, we brainwash them about better careers. Better, in most cases, is defined by a stable and a well paying job, not by making an impact on society, on reduction of poverty on equity and justice, on research and knowledge.

In particular, most of our youngsters, upon pressure from their parents, declare their majors in college to be “Pre-Med”. We stifle creativity, imagination and innovation by essentially forcing them to choose a path that they may or may not be well suited for. While many do excel in medicine because they may be gifted, countless others struggle but continue under pressure to mediocre outcomes. As an educator and advisor to many students from our community, it pains me to see them develop a split personality, where the pressure from home is at odds with the passion in their hearts. We deprive them of innovation and impact, thereby making them poorer, not richer, by education.

Third, the idea of research, inquiry and rigor has somehow become a bad word in our conversations. It is all about reaching “stability” in our careers, the journey itself has become a necessary evil, the focus is only on the “end”. We want our children to utilize all possible short cuts to reach the end of their education, as if there is a prize at the end given to whoever finishes first and with the least amount of “damage”. The damage would be, any expansion of imagination, any detours of inquiry and any experiments in creativity. In our sermons and lectures we are quick to point to Muslim luminaries in knowledge and inquiry, from Ghazali to Iqbal, but we often forget that for them there was no destination in knowledge. Acquiring knowledge was a rigorous and continuous process, not a means of reaching a certain station in life. Our approach is therefore inherently hypocritical. On one hand we talk admiringly about the period where those engaged in acquiring and disseminating knowledge were the most respected, but should our children decide to become teachers, writers and poets, we lose all respect for them. We encourage our children to focus on classes that give them the “edge”, that make them more marketable in the competitive economic climate, but take no interest should they show interest in subjects like philosophy, writing, history or anthropology. Should the youngsters of our community show interest in pursuing research or go for a PhD, our immediate question is about what kind of job they have post PhD, not what is their area of inquiry or the focus of their effort.

Our current crises, at the local, national and global level demand not arm-chair political punditry but a deep look at ourselves. We have to imagine a world where scientists contribute to shaping our knowledge about nature and the universe, where philosophers amongst us enable us to think, our ethicists help us make better decisions, our teachers contribute to creating imaginative individuals endowed with critical thinking, historians from us provide lessons from the days past, development experts change the status quo and lift people out of poverty, our foreign policy experts shape a better future through better data and analysis not through hyperbole and conspiracy theory, and of course, doctors promote healthy communities and saving lives.

There in so denying that we live in a complex world and in difficult times. As we think about shouldering our responsibility to leave the next generation a world that is better, safer and more just, we should start with, reforming our own attitudes towards education, learning and knowledge. We may find that a more diverse community that is rich in disciplines may end the poverty solutions to many of our problems.

Muhammad H. Zaman is Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and International Health at Boston University. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in Physical Chemistry..

Prof. Zaman is an ardent believer in broad education access, improvement in quality of education in developing countries. He is actively engaged in bringing quality education in engineering in several developing nations, something that is very close to his heart. He is currently involved in setting up biomedical engineering departments at universities in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia. He is co-Director of the UN Africa Biomedical Initiative. He is a regular contributor on issues of STEM education and global health for the Project Syndicate, Huffington Post and writes a weekly column on higher education for leading Pakistan daily, Express Tribune (part of International New York Times).