David Brooks’ column “The Service Patch” in the May 25 New York Times, where he argues for recovering an ethos of service and a liberal arts breadth in higher education, resonates strongly with me from the perspective of leading a church college with a majority Muslim constituency in Peshawar.
Issues here in Pakistan are different in many ways, of course, but there are also similarities. At Edwardes we’re responding with a new initiative, the Integrity Project, that we’re rolling out for the academic year that begins in September.
But first some commentary on the column: Brooks bemoans what he calls the brain drain of top USAmerican graduates into investment banks and financial consulting firms, even as he acknowledges the interesting points made by some of those graduates, a Stanford cohort, such as the notion that knowing how to move capital around can be good preparation for later NGO work in poverty alleviation. Then he comments:
The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.
The listing of “the ministry” first among the neglected options jumps out at me, for indeed religious leadership is one of the paths least taken by graduates of elite universities. Brooks’ note reminds me of Derek Bok’s keynote speech at Harvard’s 350th anniversary celebration in 1986, in which he, like Brooks now, lamented the lack of a service ethos. Few Harvard medical graduates were going into direct medical care, he said, few of its education graduates were actually teaching, and even among the divinity graduates the proportion going into pastoring congregations was startlingly low. Having just returned to Cambridge as a missioner in Zimbabwe, I appreciated that comment, especially from a Harvard president who himself was not a church attender.
Service is one concern cited by Brooks, but he argues well for the development of the internal moral compass that will enable people to navigate the challenges they will encounter in whatever field they enter – and here’s where the Integrity Project at Edwardes comes in.
The challenges of Pakistan are well known. The poverty rate is high: 43% in the country as a whole and 46% here in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The disparity between the very rich and the very poor is huge, as is the incentive for financial corruption. Insurgencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and the spillover terrorist attacks in other parts of the country keep the nation on edge and affect people’s confidence in the future. Karachi is in turmoil. International relations are rocky, as every day’s headlines attest. With 190 million people, Pakistan is the world’s 6th most populous nation, and by 2050 it is predicted to be the 4th most populous. Environmental threats to air and water are intensifying.
In this context, the pressures to get a degree, or several, are intense, as are the pressures to do almost anything to get “top marks,” and then to do almost anything to get a “top job.” Many Pakistani families believe the best route to future financial security is for sons and daughters to become doctors or engineers, and most young folk assimilate this ambition uncritically, so that untold thousands of graduates are disappointed in their attempts to beat out their peers for the tiny number of medical and engineering school spots. They then cast about for other professions not out of passion or a sense of their own gifts but out of disappointment that they “didn’t get into medical or engineering school.”
Even getting into medical or engineering school does not guarantee a job, of course. Just last evening I met an obviously bright engineering graduate who has not found a job in two years and has consequently been living at home. “Don’t look for a job, but make a job,” I advised, echoing many others’ emphasis on entrepreneurship.
In today’s Dawn, the national newspaper, Ahsan Kamal, a political historian at leading Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, had this to say in a column on “Politics on Campus”:
Our public institutions are being privatized and education is being commercialized. The goal is to churn out “skilled labour” rather than learned and responsible members of society. The logic of “profit now” dictates many of the decisions of an otherwise academic environment. Often this means the rapid expansion of programmes and intake of students, which results in strains on facilities and falling standards of education.
Amid prevailing economic pressures and often bankrupt ethical norms – whether in the West or the East, the North or the South, the USA or Pakistan – we in higher education must not content ourselves with the goal of subject competence among our graduates, difficult as that is to achieve. Our broader goal must be the personal maturity and integration that enables people to live in responsible community with others in family, city, nation and beyond. Responsible community life requires broad education in both humanities and sciences, correlation between personal talents and professional occupation, ethical understanding that issues in moral behavior, and commitment to service in the broader society.
The Integrity Project that we’re developing at Edwardes for the 2012-13 academic year is designed to nurture such personal maturity and integration. We’re making room in the weekly timetable for one session every week when faculty and students will meet for group discussions of a particular set of topics that will be covered through the year: aims of education, discernment of talents, ethical understanding, moral behavior, tolerance of diversity, community responsibility, and servant leadership. All of these foci will be correlated with the challenges of contemporary Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan.
We’re developing the curriculum from resources within the College and outside. The role of each faculty member will be not to “teach” a topic, but to provide just enough background material to catalyze conversations that explore the topic in illuminating and, we hope, life-changing ways. Pakistan is a very religious place, so religious resources – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and maybe others – will doubtless come in at various points, but religion will be in the background, not the foreground.
For the problem of the vocational bottlenecks – rabbit holes, I like to call them – we’ll be bringing in speakers who can highlight the many career possibilities that students have not even thought of because their exposure to the professional world has been limited before coming here and the family pressures have generally been so overwhelming in favor one single pre-chosen career. You’re interested in healthcare? – Well, what about pharmacy, eldercare or nursing? Not sure you cut out to be an engineer? – Well, what about disaster management or journalism? What about theater, or fabric design? Ever thought about social work? And what about the mosque and the church?
“This is not just a step, it’s a jump!” said Dr. Khalid Khan, Additional Secretary in the Higher Education Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, during our Executive Committee meeting Thursday after the Integrity Project was presented. “We will produce good human beings,” he concluded.
Well, we can’t be sure of that, but we’re doing what we can – as the College motto has it, “to the greater glory of God” – Ad majorem Dei gloriam.