Pakistanis must be inspired by their history, not bound by it

Dr Christopher Taylor recently joined Pakistan premier liberal arts university, Habib University, as the vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty after more than 25 years in various academic and administrative roles at various international universities, including Drew University.

He is a professor of Islamic studies and has undertaken extensive research work in the field social history of religion in the medieval Islamic world and the crisis of religious leadership in the contemporary Islamic. He has also authored Vicinity of the Righteous: Ziyara and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt. As he settles in his new role at the Habib University, Academia Mag talked to Dr Taylor about his experience as an educator in a country where education remains a privilege for many and where you rarely see foreigners setting up their professional camps.

For how long have you been in Pakistan? What were your first thoughts upon landing here?

I am new to Pakistan, I arrived only 4 months ago, on the last day of December, but I have lived in the Middle East for about 10 years at different points over the course of my life – mainly in Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen. When I visited Karachi back in October, there was much that was very familiar to me but there were also differences. In many ways Karachi reminds me of Cairo, another megacity of over 20 million people I have lived in for many years. Driving is on the other side of the road, and is actually more disciplined in Karachi than in Cairo, but otherwise it’s very similar. Pakistanis are more reserved in their encounters with foreigners than Egyptians are – at least on first encounter. Both Cairo and Karachi are big, bustling, dynamic cities that are teeming with people, ideas and conflict, which makes them both exciting cities to live in. I haven’t had a chance to visit other parts of Pakistan yet, so my experience is limited to Karachi at this point, but I’m eagerly looking forward to exploring the rest of Pakistan. I have many friends back in the US who are originally from Lahore and GB, and they tell me “The best is yet to come!”, but we’ll see!

The students of Pakistan are amazing – they are brilliant and they are willing to work hard and they are excited to learn. Their potential is unlimited. They are the Pakistan of tomorrow and they are worth every rupee we can invest in them.

What made you consider an opportunity to teach in Pakistan? How has your experience of living and teaching in Karachi been?

I was mainly attracted to the opportunity of being involved with the early years of one of the world’s most exciting and ambitious initiatives in higher education – Habib University. I have been in higher education for nearly three decades now, and higher education is finally starting to undergo the massive structural changes that have been reshaping every aspect of life on the planet for the past quarter century. In about 1996 the world entered a new age as the Industrial Age decisively ended and the Digital Age began as the internet became a truly global phenomenon. Over the years since 1996, our world has changed profoundly – I think that most people who are at least 35 or above recognize how much the world they were born into has been transformed. It’s obviously harder for people under 30 to recognize the change, because they were born into a world that has always been in the Digital Age. They haven’t known a world that didn’t have an internet, because for them the world has always had the internet and digital communications. This new age has witnessed the structural transformation of one sphere of life after another. Ironically, higher education, where much of this new age was conceived, has until recently been largely immune to the structural transformations of this new age, but that’s changing and now higher education on the global level is undergoing massive change.

. Like most change, this change is being driven by crisis and challenge. People are asking really good questions like: “Is higher education still worth its tremendous cost?” and “Is the higher education offered by institutions still structured by the demands of the Industrial Age relevant in the Digital Age?” Many people are answering both of these questions in the negative, and institutions that don’t respond convincingly to this challenge will ultimately fail. So at this critical inflection point in the history of higher education globally there is in equal measure both tremendous challenge and tremendous opportunity. Some institutions are frankly pretty clueless about what’s happening, and many of them will not survive. Other institutions, however, are very aware of what’s going on and they are asking very good questions and rethinking what we are doing in higher education. This second group of institutions will ultimately set the pace and become global leaders of higher education in the Digital Age.

. There are two important characteristics about the Digital Age. First, the physical local of innovation and change can be anywhere in the world and it doesn’t depend on the massive scientific and technological expenditures that defined the Industrial Age. Second, this moment of massive tectonic shift, from one age to another, levels the field – as least temporarily – and it creates the possibility for the most agile and innovative institutions to not only catch-up to ancient leaders, but even to overtake them. I was drawn to Karachi because I see in Habib University one of the most bold, ambitious and innovative experiments in global higher education. Habib is not trying to copy an American model – a model that is very much in question at the moment in the American context itself – but instead Habib is, along with partners in the US and around the world rethinking what higher education in the liberal arts and sciences look like in the 21st Century. Who would have thought that one of the most innovative experiments in higher education in the 21st Century would be launched in the Indus Valley? Welcome to the Digital Age! This was an exciting challenge that I just had to witness and be a part of. My experience in Karachi and at Habib so far have been wonderful and I am thrilled to be here. It has met and exceeded all my hopes of what it would be like.

Please tell us about the differences you noticed between the education sector in Pakistan and the rest of the world? How would you rate Pakistani students and their potential?

My answer to this question is partly answered in my answer to your last question. Another characteristic of the digital age, wherever you are, is vast and often jarring disjuncture. In moments of major historical transition, as we’re living through right now, at least for awhile, the past and the future coexist – no matter where you are. Think for a moment about the early age of the automobile. A century or so ago, when that great invention that so defined the Industrial Age in the 20th Century, emerged, it coexisted with horse drawn carriages and other modes of pre-automotive transportation. Gradually the automobile took over, but for a time horse drawn carriages far outnumbered cars. I’m not an expert on the Pakistani educational scene by any sense, but I’m aware that it’s not all the same or cut from the same cloth at this point. There are some great cutting edge institutions of higher education in Pakistan, and I’m fortunate to be working at one of them, but I understand that not all of the higher education institutions here are in the same place. It’s not simply a matter of resources, it’s mostly an issue of vision and leadership.

My answer to this question is partly answered in my answer to your last question. Another characteristic of the digital age, wherever you are, is vast and often jarring disjuncture. In moments of major historical transition, as we’re living through right now, at least for awhile, the past and the future coexist – no matter where you are. Think for a moment about the early age of the automobile. A century or so ago, when that great invention that so defined the Industrial Age in the 20th Century, emerged, it coexisted with horse drawn carriages and other modes of pre-automotive transportation. Gradually the automobile took over, but for a time horse drawn carriages far outnumbered cars. I’m not an expert on the Pakistani educational scene by any sense, but I’m aware that it’s not all the same or cut from the same cloth at this point. There are some great cutting edge institutions of higher education in Pakistan, and I’m fortunate to be working at one of them, but I understand that not all of the higher education institutions here are in the same place. It’s not simply a matter of resources, it’s mostly an issue of vision and leadership.

Pakistan is blessed to have a healthy number of cutting edge thinkers about higher education. These leaders are very aware of what’s going on globally. I hope that the leadership of Pakistan has the wisdom to recognize that we stand at this pivotal moment of transition in higher education globally, and further that this pivotal moment of transition offers Pakistan a very rare opportunity to leap frog in advancing its entire education system. The two critical things for the leaders of education in Pakistan to think about in the coming years is where is education going in the Digital Age? And “How can we invest in our educational system so that we can take full advantage of the disjunctures of this moment of transition to dramatically advance education in Pakistan?” If the right decisions and the right investments are made now, the dividends that Pakistan will reap in the decades ahead will be tremendous. It’s sort like having an opportunity to invest say $1,000 in Apple stock in about 1976. If Pakistan makes bad decisions now, and invests its resources in simply copying a system of higher education in the West that is itself now seriously in question and undergoing massive change, the opportunity to leap frog this country’s education system will be lost. Unfortunately, these moments of transition don’t last forever, like all opportunities, they are fleeting.

The students of Pakistan are amazing – they are brilliant and they are willing to work hard and they are excited to learn. Their potential is unlimited. They are the Pakistan of tomorrow and they are worth every rupee we can invest in them.

Having studied Islam, what are your views on Pakistan being portrayed as a radicalized country? Do you see this radicalism in the students and people you interact with on a daily basis?

Having lived in the Islamic world and the Middle East for a long time, I am unfortunately keenly aware of the disconnect between the image portrayed by much of mainstream Western media and the reality. Again, one of the good things about the Digital Age is that the mainstream media is rapidly losing its monopolistic control of information. It’s much easier today for people to get a more accurate view of any part of the world than it was say twenty years ago. Not everyone takes advantage of access to the many resources at our disposal for learning what another society is really like, which is partly a failure of education and partly a lack of curiosity or imagination. But the good news, is that I think most people in the US today are much more critical of the images of the Islamic world that they receive from mainstream media. Most people know they are being sold an image that they can’t rely on. The Digital Age is making it possible for Pakistanis to get their own story out, and they are doing so in multiple ways, and it’s having a real impact. For example, one of my former students in the US is Pakistani-American and over ten years ago she launched an online magazine called elan (http://www.elanthemag.com/) and has become an expert in social media. So the good news of the Digital Age is that the once monopolistic hold that mainstream Western media once had over information is rapidly falling. The bad news is that we are facing new challenges now. The democratic access that the Digital Age gives us is not limited to those who are of good will. Evil people with evil agendas can and do access the internet and they can and do spread hatred and misinformation. As educators the challenge we face is in training people to think critically about everything they read. Not everything that is written is true, of course, and it’s even more critical now than it was in the Industrial Age for people to analyze the information they’re getting and validate it themselves. So, with much greater access to information has come the responsibility to evaluate that information critically.

What motived you study Arabic and Islamic history?

My father taught at the American University of Beirut for several years when I was very young, so my early exposure to the Middle East and the Islamic was formative for me. My earliest memories as a child are of living in Lebanon. Growing up, so many of our friends were from the Middle East and South Asia that when I went to college and found myself drawn to the study of history, it wasn’t surprising that I was pulled back to the Middle East and the world I first knew as a child.

Pakistan is trying to retain its image in the world and the government is promoting tourism unlike before, would you invite and recommend your friends and family to travel to Pakistan?

Absolutely, and I have a long list of people already signing up to come and visit now that I have my own place and can host them! Here again you can see the power of modern social media. I was recently introduced to the vlogs of Eva Zu Beck, a young Polish woman who spent 8 months in Pakistan making videos of her journeys all over Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are viewing those videos online. My point here is that the word about the real Pakistan is getting out, and I have no doubt that the world will come to visit this beautiful country and its wonderful people.

Do you have any policy recommendations for the Pakistani government to improve the education sector?

I answered this question in my response to your third question. The only other thing I would add is to stress that this golden opportunity to change the education equation in Pakistan will not last long. These moments of transition pass quickly, so the time for action is at hand

What is your message for the students/youth of Pakistan?

My main message would be: believe in yourself! Believe in what you can accomplish if you invest the time and energy. Few things worthwhile in life come easily and prepare yourself for struggle. You will surely face that in life. However, you have amazing potential and creativity. You are the heirs of one of the world’s oldest and most accomplished civilizations. Draw inspiration from your history, but don’t be bound by it – make it! Recognize that the world is changing. Master the skills that are determination in the Digital Age. Finally, be open to opportunity. Listen to your heart, even if you can’t see how it will possibly earn you a livelihood. Whatever you’re drawn to, do it passionately. When you are truly passionate about something, you will do it extraordinarily well – you will make the effort to excel. And when you excel, you will be a leader and as a leader, you will make a path – even where none seems to exist. View life as a journey, not as a destination

Do You have any policy recommendation for the Pakistani government to improve the education sector?

I answered this question in my response to your third question. The only other thing i would add to stress that this golden opportunity to change the education in Pakistan will not long. These moments of the transition pass qucikly, so the time for action is a hand

Aisha Saeed is feature editor of Academia Magazine. She can be reached at aisha.saeed@academiamag.com and on twitter @MsAishaK