In a classroom setting, a liberal arts teacher should not aim to be a messiah or a guru. Perhaps later, the teacher can step into the public/private sphere and then debate political matters and there is nothing wrong with doing so, but within the institutional confines of the lecture hall, you need to be analytical; you need to present the available positions and you need to equip students with the critical tools that enable them to take up their own positions (without forcing your views on them, to the degree that its possible). Acknowledging the fact that this can potentially be extremely difficult and understanding that there can be biases, the teacher has to hold himself responsible for an exceptionally high degree of self-scrutiny about what he or she is doing in front of impressionable students and what kind of values might be imposed as a direct consequence of his/her actions.

“…and the demagogue has no place at the lectern in the lecture hall. The message to both…is: ‘Go out on the streets and speak publicly,’ which is to say, go where criticism is possible. In the lecture hall, the teacher sits facing an audience who are obliged to attend his lectures for the sake of their careers and remain silent while he speaks. I regard it as irresponsible if instead of giving his listeners the benefit of his knowledge and scientific experience, which is his duty, he takes advantage of a situation where there is no one who can criticize him and attempts to impose his political views on them...” (Max Weber, Science as a Vocation, 42-43)

The 2013 elections were an extremely emotional, volatile and of course, divisive (not that it’s a bad thing) affair for the academia in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s PTI emerged as a potential contender for the higher echelons of power after 17 years of abject failure to make a tangible mark in parliament, seeking to overthrow the ‘corrupt thieves’ i.e. the rest of the political spectrum. His populist rhetoric and anti-corruption high moral grounds found huge support amongst many professors in urban university and college settings in Pakistan, leading to many bizarre occurrences. Classrooms became a forum where the teachers theatrically misused their authority to openly propagate their political views as absolute truth assertions, defying the noble nature of freedom of expression and democratic norms. Like lambs led to slaughter, students, often, had to follow suit and indulge in the master-slave dialectic, otherwise risking their future that, understandably, owed a lot to institutional patronage.

This was a time when the former Chief Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar was, of course, a sacred cow: a darling of both the PTI and PML (N). His efforts in completely paralyzing the government machinery with one of the most blatant displays of high-handedness in a judicial activism façade and playing to the galleries was met with epic applause while he was regarded as a ‘savior of the nation’. I remember how I was forced to play it cool, completely disregard my conscience and write an exam answer in support of the original-jurisdiction nonsense and the judicial tyranny because, well, my professor narrated these assertions in class, and it was mandatory to replicate his lecture notes word-by-word to secure a good grade. When a course costs as much as a state-of-the-art Android camera phone and your professor is a foreign PhD and might potentially be your thesis supervisor, you really do not want to mess things up for yourself!

In another politics class, a friend of mine narrated a tale of how anybody who was pro PML (N) was severely castigated, and only those supporting the PTI received A grades. Bemused, and trying not to take the story on face value, I decided to check up on the professor (Facebook profile et al) and it turned out, he/she was an active worker of the PTI. I was absolutely shocked, however, when I had to take a course with the professor the following semester. The orientation session seemed more like a paid advertisement for Imran Khan, filled with assertions such as the very popular “corruption will be rooted out in 90 days” myth! My crime was asking the simple “how” question. All hell broke loose as a consequence, and after ten minutes of various apples/oranges refutations and ad hominem charges, the unsettled professor called for a break to the proceedings

But these are trying and testing times, really. You hear about the ideological and structural domination of the Jamiat in public colleges and universities in student politics as well as teachers’ unions, and increasingly, it is becoming apparent, that a similar dynamic is fast evolving in, supposedly, relatively “liberal” institutions where a whopping majority of the student population support pseudo-revolutionary rants at face value and teachers choose to repay the favour by indulging in the same practice; each group making their job simpler and strengthening their existential security.

Responsible political education is a necessary prerequisite for any system that is trying to democratize itself over time. And while the passivity of a certain kind of student politics after Zia’s militarization of university campuses has been a sickening dynamic for our cultural configurations, if reason and logic are shunned for superficial value assertions and, if I may add, personality worship, as noted above, the dangerous consequences of the misuse of the noble academic institutional setting might lead to a crisis of enormous proportions, which might take decades to pull out of. The Higher Education Commission, in league with public and private institutions, needs to pull its act together and fix this mess. And this does not mean increasing surveillance cameras in classes and providing private security companies with the tools to enforce moral policing at their whims. This is a much deeper problem and should be treated as such.

 The writer is political analyst and a musician.

@irtiza_shafaat