Posted by: Titus Presler | October 10, 2012

Integrity Project at Edwardes College cultivates open discussion in Peshawar

On the whiteboard was the sentence: “The purpose of education is to teach students to interact with people different than themselves.”  A student came up with this formulation, and the lecturer had jotted it down as part of a free-flowing class discussion among about 35 young men.  This was happening in Peshawar, exactly one week after riots in this city about the “Innocence of Muslims” video killed six people, wounded over 70 and trashed the streets.

The destruction across Pakistan on Yaum-i-Ishq-i-Rasool, Love for the Prophet Day, on September 21 horrified people within the country and around the world and left many asking, “What can be done to shift perspectives so that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to react this way?”  Answers have to address many factors such as economic disparity, religious extremism, political instability, and joblessness among the majority of Pakistanis – one recent report claimed 65% – who are under age 25.

Education for that 50% or 58% or 65% is a reflexive answer, but it’s hard to see that alone bearing fruit in the many overcrowded classrooms that stress rote learning for passing stale external examinations – which students are driven to pass in order to get into the medical or engineering colleges that their families have taught them are the only route to social status and financial security. 

So what was going on in that classroom at Edwardes College in Peshawar was something new and different – the first day of the Integrity Project.  All over campus classes were tackling the eight topics they’ll be discussing weekly for the rest of the academic year: purposes of education, discernment of talents, ethical understanding, moral behavior, diversity tolerance, gender relations, community responsibility, and servant leadership – all directed to the challenges facing Pakistan today.

Many Edwardes students have first-hand experience of the violence of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, whether they come from cities or from tribal areas along the Afghan border.  I heard the other day from an applicant whose efforts to enroll were hampered by operations against militants in his area.  Last year a student returned to college after having been kidnapped and held for most of the previous year.  Another was wounded in a bomb blast in Peshawar.  About 93% of the students and 90% of the faculty are Muslim; the rest are Christian, with a sprinkling of Hindus and Sikhs.  Women are about 15% of the students.

I wandered among classrooms to get a flavor of how it was going.  “Education enables us to give rights to other people,” was one student suggestion.  “Yes,” replied the instructor, “and when people don’t feel they have rights they take revenge against society, like suicide bombers do.”  He went on to highlight critical thinking in being able to differentiate between right and wrong.

Across the hall another instructor fastened on the theme of tolerance, and she wrote up an aphorism: “I have learned tolerance from an intolerant person, kindness from an unkind person, silence from a talkative person.  I have learned a lot from these people, but I am not grateful to these teachers.”  She asked the students to come back next week with a quotation or an example of tolerance.

Gender relations dominated energetic discussion in another classroom.  “What do you think about male students making remarks to female students about their appearance?” the instructor asked.  One man replied, “Aren’t the girls used to it?  This is how it is in the whole world, so how can we change it?”  “We shouldn’t have co-education,” said another, to which a third replied, “That’s not the answer: the genders are kept separate in the villages, but women and girls get raped there.”

A persistent theme was the relationship between society and the individual.  “Shall we blame society or our own selves?” was the question in one classroom.  In another, a student got up and said resolutely, “If we want to bring change to our society we must change ourselves.”  To which the instructor quipped, “If people fought sin as much as they do middle age this would be paradise.”

I was impressed.  The faculty were guiding the discussions with focus and passion, as though they’d been waiting years for a chance to tackle the Big Issues of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan alongside the quadratic equations and literary works they’ve got to keep up with.  The students were terrific: hands shot up, suggestions multiplied, and conversation accelerated.

Given the religious pressures of this region, the home-grown curriculum of the Integrity Project is intentionally not religious in any specific way.  Yet we are aware that virtually everyone – whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Sikh – is bringing religious sensibilities to the topics.  Students and faculty are free to express those sensibilities as part of the perspective in which they experience the topics, just so long as they are not imposed on anyone else.

Obviously, Edwardes is neither a madrassa nor a politicized public university, where the pressures are more intense.  Indeed, it was the first college established along British India’s northwest frontier, and it has a long tradition of open discussion in a harsh environment.  Yet many of its students and faculty come from hard places in that harsh environment, and nevertheless those remarkable discussions could and did occur on Friday, as they will throughout the Integrity Project.

So, yes, Edwardes is an island – and not the only one – in a very different kind of sea, and it’s hard to know what future storms will bring.  Yet there is ground for hope.  Questions are being asked.  Debate is flourishing.  Creativity is being engaged.  In Peshawar, right now, that is very good.

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Responses

  1. […] Integrity Project cultivates open discussion in Peshawar (titusonmission.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Thank you for this. Prayers for everyone there and blessings for Edwardes continued life as a center for such powerful conversationa.


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