By Muhammad Hamid Zaman
March 20, 2018
R Stephen Berry is a distinguished chemist of worldwide acclaim. His work on thermodynamics has been pioneering, but so has been his effort to bring scientific literacy across the globe. When the Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) started its initiative to create a school of science and engineering, Steve was part of the advisory committee. During a meeting Syed Babar Ali, the pro-chancellor of LUMS, asked Steve what should a modern chemistry student know? Ali was expecting that Steve would talk about nanotechnology or some new and cutting-edge field of chemistry. Instead, he said, a modern chemist should know Shakespeare!
Steve wasn’t joking. He and many others leading thinkers have argued for decades that literature, art and music are essential for our cultural awareness, creativity and humanity. They ought to be more than mere hobbies or pastimes. Instead, rigorous engagement with art allows everyone, including the hardcore scientists, to see the world in a different light, to learn from masters of a different discipline and above all recognise the beauty in creativity. Broad engagement with art and literature is no longer a leisurely pastime, it is something that even high-tech companies like Google increasingly expect from its new recruits.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is known the world over for its technical prowess and its brainy students. But arts are just as vital to the MIT experience as circuits, problem sets and new technologies. In opening the brand new MIT Theatre Arts building, the MIT president shared the vision of previous MIT presidents, including Jerry Weisner. President Reif said, “Jerry understood better than anyone that the arts are not something you do when you need a break from your problem sets. They are not an add-on to a world-class technical education.” Jerry understood that “the arts are critical to the MIT experience. That they complement scientific exploration. And they give our students the tools they need to succeed, not simply as scientists, engineers, managers or designers but as informed contributors to society as citizens.”
We have the good fortune of living in a region that is rich with culture and has a long tradition of literature, music and paintings. While literature does make an appearance in the curriculum in some ways, exposure to other forms of art is non-existent. The South Asian schools of thought, in paintings, that are studied the world over, are never talked about in our schools or in our curricula. It is unlikely that a young student from our schools would be familiar with the original school of thought of calligraphy of Sadequain or the depiction of rural landscapes by Ustad Allah Bakhsh. How many may know the contributions of Abdul Rahman Chughtai whose work graces the UN headquarters, the Peace Palace in the Hague and the US State Department. The sad part is that these artists were not from hundreds of years ago, but continued to work well after the creation of the country and died not too long ago.
At a recent trip to the Lahore museum with an Iranian colleague (who also teaches at MIT, but was visiting Pakistan for the first time), I was stunned that he knew more about the paintings of Zainul Abedin, Allah Bakhsh and Chughtai than the curator of the museum. I felt sorry for the loss of our own heritage.
The list of those who are known the world over except among our own is long. But our choice to ignore the riches and richness of our own culture is neither a conspiracy of the elusive hidden hand nor a consequence of a coordinated global strategy. It is a reflection of our own myopic desire to create semi-literate technicians and not informed citizens. The education system focuses on ideologies and not intellect and sacrifices culture in the name of copycat robots. By failing to appreciate the richness of imagination, and the genius of our artists, it is hardly surprising that our goals are bigoted, our views rigid and our ability to tolerate the other nonexistent.
Muhammad Hamid Zaman is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University.