In a Socratic classroom, questions about ideas and values are discussed, students contribute, diverse voices are heard, and learning goes both ways.
Unfortunately, the classrooms at the University of Karachi (KU) – the city’s biggest public sector varsity – are anything but Socratic.
In a communication class, a discussion about religion versus the state erupted. A student raised her hand to make a point on why she favoured secularism. “The teacher asked me to stop right there and come into her room for further discussion. There, the teacher joked that were some things that cannot be talked about inside the classroom,” shared the third year student of mass communication.
In yet another incident, after declaring a student’s presentation of a final year Bachelor’s class on child abuse “daring”, the teacher remarked, “We all know in which educational institute child molestation takes place the most, but if I talk about it in detail, I might get beaten up.” She was alluding to Madrassahs.
Speaking to The News, students listed a number of “taboo topics and no-go areas” on which if a discussion steers towards, the classroom comes to an uncomfortable abrupt end.
“Ethnic differences, sectarian violence and political parties are no-go areas,” said a student.
Another student, grinning, pointed out “sex and blasphemy”.
“Religion, the Shia-Sunni divide, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism. Apparently, we are all brothers in faith,” said Sidra Rizvi, a final year student in the art faculty.
“Certain political leaders,” quipped another.
Professor Mutahir Ahmed of the International Relations Department shared an incident that happened in the year 2003.
“I used to teach a European History compulsory course. Renaissance, reformation and the separation of the state and religion was part of the course. In one of my lectures, I discussed secularism in detail. A few days later, I received a letter from the vice-chancellor’s office. It was an anonymous letter in Urdu addressed to the vice chancellor.”
In the letter, the professor was accused of inducing “infidel thoughts” among students. “If you do not do something about the teacher, we will,” it was warned in the letter.
Mutahir laughed as he recalled the story. He dropped the course then. “I just teach one optional course now, with students not more than 20 in the class. And I tell students on my first day that let your religion and political beliefs stay at home; here we will discuss everything under the sun.”
Moonis Ahmer, director of the Area Study Centre for Europe at University of Karachi, believes there is “suffocation in the classrooms” and teachers “sometimes preach ideologies”.
“The suffocation was at its peak during Zia’s era. Now, things have improved a bit.”
He said teachers, who were not well-informed themselves, were the ones to “snub questions the most”. “I, as a practice, ask students to ask questions relevant to the topic in the discussion.”
Dr Jaffer Ahmed, chairperson of the Area Study Centre for Pakistan Studies, has 35 years of teaching experience at the campus. He said classroom censorship differed from department to department, depending on how conservative or liberal the majority of the faculty was.
“During Zia’s era, I have talked about religious fundamentalism and military dictatorship to my students. Speaking to the activists of the Islami Jamiat Talba, I have decently differed on Maulana Maududi’s stance about Pakistan before Partition.”
He believes it comes down to the integrity of a teacher. “One must take the students into confidence, let them differ and discussions should be purely academic in nature.”
Educational institutions are not exclusive of the society. They reflect the situation of the city in general. “The same topics you dare not talk about with the wider public in Karachi are the ones you cannot talk about inside the classroom,” maintained Mutahir.