When things fall apart, when societal deterioration accompanies imperial collapse, we become disillusioned, disenchanted, and this emerges in our literature, art, and philosophy. But how might this disillusionment extend to our pedagogy?
Right now, we are living through catastrophic times, and our pedagogical and critical engagement with contemporary cultural production has begun to reflect this. Not only are we in the midst of unprecedented ecological and epidemiological disaster, but we are also reckoning with what Professor Nauman Naqvi of Habib University, Karachi refers to as “cognitive catastrophe,” that is, the dismissive attitude of the ruling classes towards these crises. Overcoming this crisis of thought, a process Prof. Naqvi calls “cognitive reparation,” is no easy task. For Prof. Naqvi and his colleagues at Habib University, this process must begin with a kind of disillusionment with modernity itself. Undergraduate students in the liberal arts at Habib, therefore, begin their studies not with an embrace of modernity’s concepts and institutions, but in rejection of them, in a daring move to encourage critical thought and reflection on the world around them.
At Habib University, students take a five-module course called “What is Modernity?”. Prof. Naqvi described this course in his talk entitled "From Modernity to Hikma: Cultivating a Philosophical Sensibility Today" at the second Stanford Humanities Core Conceptual Workshop, which took place in a hybrid format on December 2, 2021, The modules within this course ("Modernity and World Historical Identity," "Political Modernity," "Economic Modernity," "Modernity and Ecology," "Modernity and Religion") expose students to the theological and racial underpinnings of the notion of “progress,” the origins of the colonial and apartheid nation state, the emergence of capitalism, and the genealogies of religious nationalism. “What is Modernity?” is followed by a course on “Modernity in South Asia,” which draws attention to the intrinsically colonial shape of contemporary cultural formations and rejects government pressure to equip students with a distinctly nationalist training. In sharp contrast to what Paulo Freire described as the “banking” model of education", in which teachers provide students with knowledge in a one-way transaction, Habib University’s students are asked to develop a set of orientations that encourage deeper reflection on the circumstances in which they find themselves and their community at the local, regional, and national level. That this reflection may induce disillusionment with the world is a bonus, rather than a disadvantage.
Professor Andrew Hui of the Yale-NUS College in Singapore has embarked upon a similar mission, as described in his presentation entitled “Global Humanities Pedagogy.” The key difference here is one of chronology: where Prof Naqvi starts with modernity and works backwards, Prof. Hui’s team-taught, team-designed Common Curriculum begins with the literature of the ancient world. The literature and humanities sequence, which Prof. Hui has been teaching for almost a decade, seeks to create a community of learning so that students, no matter whether they’re exploring the concept of genre through epics and myths like the Odyssey and the Ramayana or novels like Mrs Dalloway and Season of Migration to the North, can connect over an exchange of ideas in the small college. Where Prof. Naqvi seeks a disillusionment with modernity, Prof. Hui looks to stimulate uncertainty in his students, a concept that Prof. Ato Quayson enthusiastically took up in his response during the discussion. Educators cannot communicate transparently to university administration, parents, or students that a primary learning objective is confusion, rather than certainty—Prof. Hui states that one of his goals is for his students to lie awake at night, perplexed—but it remains a silent, central part of the liberal arts curriculum in a world that encourages easy binaries and quick solutions. As Prof. Naqvi said, “Students regularly come up to me and say, "Sir, I'm having an existential crisis." I say, "Congratulations. That's where you need to be."
Much as Prof. Naqvi’s students reckon with the specific history and present condition of Pakistan in their education, so too do Prof. Hui’s students learn about Singapore in a local and indigenous context. A 2019 op-ed by NUS student Faris Joirami successfully pushed for the inclusion of Malay texts in these courses as a way of challenging Sinophone and Western dominance within the ideological manifesto of the literature curriculum. Looking at both Habib University and Yale-NUS College’s liberal arts curricula, it becomes clear that simply including non-Western texts in a syllabus is just one step towards meeting the needs of students in Karachi or Singapore. Studied attention to the specific matrix of indigenous, colonial, and modern histories in each place must be central to building a core curriculum that helps students navigate the difficulties of our catastrophic times. As Profs. Naqvi, Hui, and Quayson agreed, liberal arts curricula must move away from the urge to “diversify” based solely on identity politics and instead assist students in becoming engaged, reflective members of their intellectual, religious, and political communities, which necessarily involves attending to the particular geographies and temporalities of the content within each university course.
In a world in which the threatened collapse of the humanities is ever-pressing, we are reminded that it is a cause for celebration when literature, art, and philosophy are taken up and engaged with. Prof. Hui quoted a letter from John Adams, in which he said to his wife that he “must study politics and war so that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." The students at Habib University and Yale-NUS College are leading the way in the embrace of this purported luxury as a means to better understand the world around them. This encourages us here at Stanford to think, too, about how the arts and humanities might prepare our students not only to become thoughtful global citizens, but conscientious members of our intellectual community here at the University and in California more broadly. As we see how ecological and epidemiological crises affect us differently in different places and contexts, tailoring our pedagogy to our specific lived conditions is a lesson from our colleagues in Karachi and Singapore that will shape the future of our teaching here at Stanford.