VIEW: Producing knowledge —Dr Irfan Zafar - Thursday, March 31, 2011

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VIEW: Producing knowledge —Dr Irfan Zafar
Ever wondered how many writers, scholars and intellectuals our educational institutions are producing? Almost none. What we are witnessing in our country today is the total collapse of our higher education

Over 1,000,000 books are published each year throughout the world. According to available figures, the US produced the maximum number of titles, numbering 288,355 (self-published equals 764,448) followed by the UK at 206,000 and around 136,226 published in China. Neighbouring India produces some 11,903 books per year with many promising writers debuting on the scene every year. Ironically, Pakistan stands nowhere in the list of nations producing knowledge. There is a dearth of good authors/writers, the root cause being the shameful literacy rate of 49.9 percent and the budget allocation for education being only 2.5 percent of the GDP. The only worthwhile contribution towards education comes from the literary scene, which owes its gratitude to the western educational institutions grooming our literary fraternity.

Sara Suleri is an author and professor of English at Yale University. She received her BA at Kinnaird College in Lahore in 1974. She was awarded an MA from Punjab University and then went on to graduate with a PhD from Indiana University in 1983. Suleri is a founding editor of the Yale Journal of Criticism. Her memoir, Meatless Days, is an exploration of the complex interweaving of national history and personal biography. Her other works include, The Rhetoric of English India and Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy.

Bapsi Sidhwa, an author of Pakistani origin, is best known for her novels Ice Candy Man and Water. She received her BA from Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore in 1957. She has taught at the University of Houston, Rice University, Columbia University, Mount Holyoke College and at the Brandeis University. Her works include City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore, Water: A Novel, Bapsi Sidhwa Omnibus, An American Brat, Cracking India, The Bride and The Crow Eaters.

Kamila Shamsie is a Pakistani novelist who was brought up in Karachi and attended the Karachi Grammar School. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Hamilton College and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the MFA Programme for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her literary works include, In the City By The Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography, Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows. In The City By The Sea was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her novel, Salt and Saffron was selected as one of Orange’s 21 writers of the 21st century. She is a reviewer and columnist for the Guardian and has been a judge for several literary awards including The Orange Award for New Writing and The Guardian First Book Award. Her books have been translated in a number of languages.

Mohsin Hamid is best known for his novels Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He attended the Lahore American School and went on to graduate from Princeton University in 1993. He attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1997. Similarly, H M Naqvi is the author of Home Boy and the winner of the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He attended Frobel’s Elementary School and later attended PS6, for two years in New York. He graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in economics and English literature. He attended the creative writing programme at Boston University and also taught writing there. Naqvi has written on contemporary Pakistani art, minorities and Balochistan for the Global Post. He is the winner of the James D Phelan Award for Poetry (American Academy of Poets).

Mohammed Hanif is a writer and journalist. He graduated from the Pakistan Air Force Academy as a pilot officer. He initially worked for Newsline, The Washington Post and India Today. In 1996, he moved to London to work for the BBC. Later, he became the head of the BBC’s Urdu service in London. He graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2005. His novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. It has also been shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in the Best First Book category as a winner from Europe and the South Asia region. He has written plays for the stage and screen, including a BBC drama and the movie, The Long Night.

They all have one thing in common: their earlier schooling in Pakistan created a strong foundation, which was subsequently translated into excellence by western educational institutions. Ever wondered how many writers, scholars and intellectuals our educational institutions are producing? Almost none. What we are witnessing in our country today is the total collapse of our higher education. While the western world is picking up our bright minds, we, on the other hand, are processing these bright fellows in a manner as to churn out illiterates at an alarming rate. While we are doling away worthless degrees, the world is striving for excellence by converting data into knowledge and then translating that knowledge into action. We certainly have the potential to excel, provided we are guided into a system that can bring out the creativity lying dormant within our bodies.

The writer is a social activist. He can be reached at

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