Graphic by Emily Wang/The Gazelle

Creativity in a coma: education in South Asia

Too many times have I been asked the question: “So, are you an engineering major?” Every time I say no, I see a surprised look on the face of the ...

Feb 22, 2014

Graphic by Emily Wang/The Gazelle
Too many times have I been asked the question: “So, are you an engineering major?” Every time I say no, I see a surprised look on the face of the person who asked the question that seems to say, “Huh. I always saw you as an engineering major.”
I don’t blame people for thinking a Pakistani would be an engineering or premed student. In fact, if it were up to most South Asians, that’s how it would be. Hence this stereotypical image of a South Asian parent who tells everyone, “My beta will become an engineer.”
For a region as full of culture and diversity as South Asia, you would think that more people would choose less conventional education paths. The Indian subcontinent is home to many of the greatest poets of all time, studio to some of the most extraordinary music ever composed and home to some of the most beautiful and complicated landmarks in human history. The city where I come from, Lahore, is a cultural force in the region. Yet very few parents in Lahore aspire for their children to follow in the footsteps of Bulleh Shah, Ghalib or the legendary poet Iqbal.
It’s not hard to imagine why. There’s a general principle that societies follow when it comes to the amount of resources possessed. When resources are limited, societies tend to follow successful precedents and shun creativity. Anybody who seeks to break the mold is shunned because it is too risky to waste resources. The Bedouin tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia are a wonderful example of this. There was an established code they followed, set in stone by their ancestors, and there would be no deviation from this code. Morals and ethics were dictated by what was needed for survival. This involved the concept of brotherhood and doing anything for the tribe, be it murder or plundering.
While Pakistanis, or South Asians in general, might not live in such a cutthroat world, the competition is intense. There are too many people and too few resources to allow for creativity to flourish. The arts program in Pakistan is basically non-existent, and what was once a vibrant and open theatre program is now dead. Obviously, this has to do with many, many other factors as well, but money and funding play a huge part in the death of creativity. There are no longer patrons such as the Mughals anymore.
What are the implications of so many aspiring to be doctors, engineers or lawyers? It overloads the system. The standard of education is bound to fall because it is under pressure to accommodate so many students. The more pressing and interesting problem, however, is that the education systems then gears itself to a more rote-learning approach. Rote learning is memorizing more than anything else, and thinking critically is sidelined. By this I am not, by any means, saying that engineering and medicine do not allow for creativity. But they require less introspection and creative exploration than, say, literature or poetry.
The result is a falling standard of education that fails at one of the most important aims of education: to teach people to think critically. Degrees are merely trophies that display an ability to memorize rather than demonstrate how proficient you are at exploring different ideas from different perspectives. That applies to the national rhetoric as well. While politics is significantly bland throughout the world, Pakistan seems to have concocted its own flavor of a lack of thinking when it comes to national issues. For instance, it makes sense on many levels to reduce hostilities between India and Pakistan, but factions on both sides refuse to think about the issue from a logical perspective. They’re driven by this illogical belief in nationalism that could only stem from being unable to think critically.
There are other problems that are derived from this drive to create more doctors or engineers. Art and artists have an important role to play in society, and South Asia is a good example currently of how and why a society suffers under stifled creativity. Hopefully, the future will see more Ghalibs and Iqbals. But for now, the education system will keep churning out more doctors and engineers while creativity lies in a coma.
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