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Our real intellectual crisis is not that we are failing to produce Einsteins

Intellectual Crisis
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Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani |

Discerning people agree that we have an intellectual crisis in the country. However, write-ups on the crisis are largely descriptive and imply that the main indicator of the crisis is the scarcity of big-name intellectuals in the country, and/or the work of such individuals being ignored. It is true that currently, we don’t have many great intellectuals, and the few we have are largely ignored.

However, our real intellectual crisis is not that we are failing to produce Ibne Sinas or Einsteins, nor that intellectuals are ignored, but that we are failing to produce enough of a cohort of individuals with intellectual competencies that can adequately meet the demands of today’s world. Further, the smaller the size of this cohort, the lesser the chances of great minds emerging.

We start with the scientific truism that a newborn does not have any intellectual capacities as we know them. The newborn has reflexes of grasping, sucking, and rooting (turning the head towards the side of the face that is touched).

The typical government school, which the majority of our children attend, is failing in this highly important function.

These reflexive actions contribute to the development of the inborn brain structures, such that basic cognitive abilities like coherent perception and language emerge. As the growing infant/child interacts with the world, other cognitive abilities like memory, thinking, and (perhaps) creativity develop.

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The development of these basic intellectual capacities is linked with the physical maturation of the child’s brain and nervous system, so their emergence requires no education or training. Broadly, intellectual development progresses through stages of development, which are loosely tied with age ranges. Progress through the earlier stages is inherent, but through the later stages of intellectual development is a function of the nature of stimulus-environment of the child, and relative ‘freedom to act’ on that.

The smaller the size of this cohort, the lesser the chances of great minds emerging.

The child’s first environment is the family and community, and later the school. A very large number of variables are in play, but of primary importance are the nature of stimulation to which the child is exposed, and the child’s level of freedom to actively explore and experiment. Further, intellectual development is also very closely tied to the development of certain aspects of personality. In terms of the latter, central is the development of the degree of a child’s sense of trust, autonomy, sense of agency/passivity, and confidence and reliance on learning from own experience.

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In the typical Pakistani family, the child is not seen as an autonomous person, but akin to a possession. The child’s own experiences are largely ignored or negated, and parents impose their “right and true” interpretations. Parents have numerous expectations and quite an inflexible image of what their child should become, and parenting is geared to molding the child into that being.

The child learns to conform, an infraction can result in loss of parental love, disapproval, and worldly punishments; and/or is a sure path to hell.

Unquestioning conformity is appreciated and encouraged, and the child’s natural urge for activity, curiosity and/or questions are discouraged. The child learns to conform, an infraction can result in loss of parental love, disapproval, and worldly punishments; and/or is a sure path to hell.

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Notwithstanding varying early childhood experiences, the school is supposed to help the child build on the basic intellectual capacities. Overall, the typical government school, which the majority of our children attend, is failing in this highly important function. In fact, the school seems geared to (further) stifle the child’s questions, curiosity, and intellectual alertness; and is thus detrimental to intellectual growth.

Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani is a Clinical Psychologist and Educationist, based in Islamabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Peshawar; Rector Foundation University, Islamabad; Director Centre for Higher Education Transformation, Islamabad; and recipient of the prestigious Fulbright New Century Scholars award.


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