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  • Narratives and LegacyThe Humanities Crisis in Pakistan
  • Syed Nomanul Haq (bio)

Some years ago, in a newspaper piece Sheldon Pollock aptly quoted Bhartrihari (fl. ca. fifth century CE), the great Indian poet who was so affectionately rendered into Urdu and Persian by Pakistan's national poet, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938).1 "One should not wait until the house is burning to dig a well," so said the Sanskrit elder, Pollock tells us. Pollock continues: "And the house of Indian classical language study is not only burning, it lies almost in ashes."2 But only if he were to look at this side of the Indian border, at Pakistan—he would find the situation much worse. In Pakistan, one feels that the house of all languages, not only classical languages, has all but burnt down; and more, even the ashes seem now to have been blown away, for the disaster is hardly talked about any more. The loss, almost total, has been effaced from the society's memory by the scythe of a hardened preoccupation—the preoccupation with scientism; not science, let's note, but scientism. The evidence shall follow.

I shall come back to scientism shortly, but first some facts. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC), that high-powered, supreme executive body that has been overseeing university education in the country, often does not even seem to know what the humanities are. In the facts and figures of "higher education" that it publishes, the humanities are lumped together with the social sciences—but this is typical in Pakistan. What obscures our vision particularly and leads us into confusion is the adventure of HEC statistics to lump the humanities together with fields like business studies. Given this adventure, one would not know how many individuals in a given sample are studying, say, Seraiki literature, and how many are engaged in learning to balance the books in banking audits. In fact, the humanities are never mentioned by themselves, and most frequently they are classified under the composite taxonomic category "arts and humanities"—a vague and unstable category, for it is never clear what disciplines it includes. And, in numerous statistical surveys the humanities do not figure at all.

If we look at the HEC official statistical reports made public periodically but at irregular intervals, certain trends are thrown into perspective. For example, while the humanities are often included in new growth programs, no activity whatsoever is reported in this field.3 Then, over a short period of time, the [End Page 162] field typically disappears altogether from such initiatives.4 Inclusion of the humanities may therefore seem like a trope meant merely for embellishment. Similarly, there is in the reports a total absence of any humanities periodicals from the official list of Pakistan's research journals that have an "impact factor"; note that this is a reckoning that generates financial rewards.5 As for research output, in awards of scholarships, fellowships, and a whole variety of what is called "research support," as well as financial incentives, the appearance even of the fluid category arts and humanities is meek and abysmal, frequently falling into statistical insignificance.6 Particularly significant, the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP), a joint US and Pakistan federal government venture whose flagship Fulbright Program in Pakistan is one of the largest in the world, reinforces this trend in its selection of academic disciplines for the disbursement of scholarships.7

This is an inadequate body of facts. But even this is enough to tell us how desperate the situation has become. Yes, the HEC statistics are inadequate because what they do report is, to repeat, unclear and unfavorably fluid; the data have yawning gaps and need further refinement. The humanities are never recognized in their own right as a bona fide self-sustaining discipline of critical scholarship. This may betray an attitude of disparagement. Then, the blanket category arts and humanities is generally considered by Pakistani authorities to include, for example, the fine arts, musicology, the visual arts, architecture, and even clinical psychology and mental health, as well as business studies, as noted above. So again: a PhD in, say, the study of contemporary residential architecture in...