Listless on a campus

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, Apr 21, 2024

One of my encounters this week was a visit to the University of Karachi’s campus. And thereby hangs a tale of my lamentations that I have been repeating for many years.

Yes, there is this obsession I have about what I would call the desertification of the most populous site of higher education in the country. A question that bothers me is: what is this massive enterprise contributing to a society that is so impoverished in terms of its educational and intellectual resources?

I say massive because this university boasts the strength of around 40,000 students and many hundreds of highly qualified teachers. There is a long list of departments and institutes that it encompasses. It is, verily, a large reservoir of knowledge and expertise. Ideally, this should make a difference that is visible or can be felt in some tangible way.

I am not sure if this is happening. For that matter, Karachi has so many more universities that churn out a steady stream – or an avalanche – of degree holders ready, one would hope, to change the world. In a country that is demographically so exceptionally young, these educated young people have, so to say, the license to call the shots.

Anyhow, I am talking about my visit to the campus of the University of Karachi after several years. Frankly, such a visit is rarely welcome because it is generally a very depressing experience for me. However, I was there on Tuesday to participate in a literary gathering organized in remembrance of that remarkable man of letters and a luminary in the modern history of Urdu literature, Dr Jamil Jalibi. He had also been a vice-chancellor of the University of Karachi.

The function was held in the Jamil Jalibi Library meant for research, a very good facility that is woefully underutilized. It so happened that Dr Syed Jaffer Ahmed was also there as the main speaker. He had been a director of the Pakistan Study Centre. I consider him a role model for university teachers because of his consistent academic achievements.

But his example is also a reason why I am so disappointed in the quality of the intellectual pursuits of the faculty of the university. How many Dr Jaffers can you count among hundreds of university teachers? This, I think, would be an interesting assignment for a research student.

I have mentioned Dr Jaffer because we frequently get together at literary festivals and civil society events and have opportunities to share our thoughts about what I call the de-intellectualization of Pakistan. More specifically, our views about the state of affairs at the campus of the University of Karachi almost overlap.

So, after our tribute to Dr Jamil Jalibi at about lunchtime, the two of us decided to walk around the campus to revive our memories of it. We accosted a number of students, primarily girls who famously outnumber boys, to cursorily talk about what they were studying and how things were from their perspective. This interaction was very pleasant and these young people are certainly well-meaning and they aspire to success in their chosen careers.

But it was the overall environment that seemed not very exciting. I have always thought that it is a part-time university because the students tend to depart in the early afternoon. One could see that the young students had little space to, as they say, let their hair down and have some fun. A number of them seemed inhibited and a bit withdrawn.

While walking on the campus on Tuesday, I was thinking of what I have been reading about the situation that exists on the campuses of major American universities. What is happening there has implications for the constant battle of ideas that takes place in a vibrant society. The issue, of course, is the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the focus is very much on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

For months, boisterous pro-Palestine demonstrations have been taking place on different campuses which some Jewish people regard as anti-Semitic. President Biden’s re-election is at stake because of his support for Israel. The protests taking place on the campuses are a shift of a historical magnitude.

This week, on Thursday, the president of Columbia University called in police to remove protesters who had set up tents on campus. Over 100 pro-Palestine students were arrested. Another development was reported from the University of Southern California, where plans for a graduation speech by this year’s valedictorian, – Asma Tabassum – was cancelled. She is a Muslim of South Asian descent and complaints were made that she is pro-Palestine.

I have been watching the turmoil that is taking place on American campuses with interest but the point here is that our students on our campuses are not angry or agitated about a crisis that has touched the conscience of the world. At least, they have not joined any protests on the Gaza issue.

When I argue that our university and college students do not read books and that their knowledge of the world and of even their own country is abysmal, some of my friends think that I am being too dismissive of the worth and the abilities of our youth. They are good at things they want to do and I cannot judge them because they live in a different universe in this digital age, I am told.

Perhaps. Yes, I may not be fully aware of who they are and what they mean to do with their lives. I also concede that those who can make it to a few prestigious national institutes of higher learning are smart and ambitious. But I can see that they don’t study as hard and as intensely as their compatriots in, say, the American universities do.

Finally, where are the 40,000 students of the University of Karachi and many, many more thousands of other universities when it comes to campaigning for any meaningful cause or social justice?

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: