Saturday, 23 November 2013

On developing a knowledge community

On developing a knowledge community

Farrukh Pitafi one of our leading media personalities has recently been lamenting our lack of creativity on twitter. This has been a passion for me and I welcome a debate of this. I recalled a debate many years ago that I had with Akmal Husain and Ejaz Haider on something similar and I dug out what I had written then. Here it is:
“To achieve serious reform and enlightened thinking in society, debate is essential. But what is debate? A debate occurs when several leaders of intellectual thought participate fully on a subject at a time in a concentrated manner. They actively confront each other’s ideas acknowledging contributions with the sole purpose of advancing knowledge. The audience of the debate gets increasingly involved and eventually owns the emerging knowledge.

Let us try to understand this proposition and see how we can judge the standard of liberal debate in Pakistan?

Developing leaders of intellectual thought: They stand outside the government and emerge from the universities and thinking sectors. They publish, talk and debate. For them to emerge, we need the infrastructure of high-quality universities, think tanks, forums where discussions take place, a publishing industry and a government and society that is capable of engaging. Where universities have been colonised by the bureaucracy, as in Pakistan, there is little room for the emergence of any intellectual leadership. We do not have leaders of intellectual thought for there is no process for them to emerge.

Plurality of participation regardless of hierarchy: In our feudal grundnorm, where rather than learning and achievement, hierarchy and ego derived from it are a priority, recognition is granted only to those who have managed to get some official recognition. Thus even intellectuals are looking for government ministerial appointments and when they do get them, they hide behind their title intellectually and refuse intellectual engagement. Newspapers and publishers discuss and publish government announcements; ideas are secondary. Conferences and seminars are arranged around the appearance of a political chief guest; learning is ancillary. Discussions revolve around the title and stature of the speaker and not the weight of her argument. In this milieu participation on the basis of ideas is not possible.

Concentrated engagement: This is important to all learned discourse on a subject. Participants must listen, stay with a line of argument and confront each and every argument dispassionately and independently of the personalities involved, source of publication and other primitive notions. Plato lived years after Pythagoras but made it a point to confront his arguments.

At seminars in Pakistan, people like to talk about issues relating to the current government when the topic is lunar landing. The convention of discourse is that everyone addresses the topic of the seminar; the chosen speaker of the day has presumably researched the subject and will make the presentation, others will confine themselves of short comments and questions. Not so in Pakistan: people come to seminars to make their favourite speech and will make it regardless.

Remain engaged by reading each other’s work and commenting on it: The few who aspire to intellectual awareness remain infested with their feudal grundnorm and do not submit to the rules of engagement — i.e., participation and confrontation. For that, they need to read each other’s work and address the issues raised. Recently, I tried a little experiment. I sent a few articles for comments to 10 Pakistani intellectuals that I know well and to 10 foreigners including Indians that I also know. I got no response from my Pakistani friends and considered and pointed response from 7 out of the 10 foreigners. When confronted, one Pakistani said, “I had no comments! Excellent work!” with a smirk on his face, another, “we knew the argument already.” None of the foreigners, many of whom are eminent professors, shared these views. They did not try to dismiss the work with superlatives. Instead they tried to confront the argument to see what was new and fresh in its nuances and how robust is it to alternative assumptions and approaches. All of us learnt from the second approach whereas none of us benefited from the first. “Not commenting” for an academic and a professional is not an acceptable position.

Work with ideas regardless of the author (confront ideas and not each other): In a deformed feudal society, you will often hear intellectual arguments based on criticising the writer rather than the thinking and the ideas put forward in the writing. Seldom will you hear people cite each other’s work or attach a name to a particular argument. I asked the author of a book why he had not referenced a book that some of his argument can be attributed to, his response was “I cannot quote a book written under a pseudonym.” Famous pseudonyms (George Eliott, Mark Twain, Student, even Anonymous) have existed through history and are referenced as such. But in a feudal society, arguments or intellectual work cannot be dissociated from the person and that person must be of stature to be cited.

The importance of citations and acknowledgement of contributions: In feudal societies, ideas as well as all other things are owned by the authorities. In Pakistan, I have heard people say, why do I need to cite an author when I can tell you I had thought of the idea first regardless of the fact that a written work is available? Speakers tell me that there is no reason to cite an author because it takes too much time to cite a name in a lengthy speech. It is important to cite people associated with arguments for two main reasons: first, because most intellectual endeavour is based on the reward of citation and the acknowledgement of authorship. If we take acknowledgement of the effort away, we have intellectual barrenness! Second, citations also show a body of evolving knowledge that has broad participation. This shows the audience how the subject has evolved and how various minds have contributed to it. The knowledge of such a development process and the teamwork involved develops confidence in the proposed idea. How can you trust ideas that appear to be coming from only one individual who claims to have thought it all up in his bathroom?

Engaging the audience: People often tell me that economists can never agree on anything. Obviously this stems from the lack of citations among economists and their feudal desire to show themselves as the champion of all economics in Pakistan. If the audience has to be engaged, these principles have to be followed and we have to associate ideas with individuals who developed them. It has served as a good mnemonic device for centuries and it will again, in Pakistan. But the ideas must evolve through research that spills over into debate, a process that clearly develops knowledge.

Knowledge: Ali Khan is a major professor in economics and was giving a talk on general equilibrium at the Pakistan Society of Development Economics when a retired civil servant interrupted him to say that anything other than dreaming up policy proposals for Pakistan is a waste of time. The concept of knowledge put forward was that of activism and issues and actions of government and hierarchy. Knowledge stands on its own regardless of government, hierarchy and Pakistan. The motivation is only to understand the world and the universe. Unless we pursue pure knowledge for the sake of knowledge, good things like policy, applications, and development cannot happen.

We also have phrases such as “let us be practical and not theoretical!” that is used at most occasions to kill intellectual discourse. In other words, do not research, think or clarify. Shoot from the hip! We have to accept the principle that “no research is useless and that nothing without research is practical”

To highlight this view of discourse please note that we learn much of the early Greek thinkers like Thales, Anaximander and Aneximenes from Plato and Aristotle because they cite them and confront their ideas some two and a half centuries later. In his dialogues Plato virtually confronts all the thinking of that era. He was fully engaged. That is the academic tradition of citation and confrontation of ideas.

Where we lack is the inability of institutions and/or intellectual leadership to take the enlightened concepts to the people and develop them through a process of discussion, debate and education, an enlightened endogenous grundnorm. The government won’t do it. That much is clear.”