Re-inventing the Wheel
By Shoaib Hashmi

Sages, and ordinary people, have been advising against it for ages. It is a waste of time, silly and an exercise in futility. But my friends have never been daunted by such unsolicited advice, and one of them once set out to prove them all wrong.

He wanted to reinvent the wheel! He was serious and diligent, and he is clever, and after much thought and experiment, he did come up with a new design for -- a square wheel. He insisted that it was an improvement on the old design because it could be crafted with four straight cuts of the saw, and you didn't have to muck about drawing circles with compasses and making them on fretsaws and jigsaws and lathes and stuff. He even got them to try it out, and they agreed the making was easier, but the use was not because it was too bumpy. He went back to the drawing board and worked some more, and came back triumphant with a brand new design which he insisted was even better than his last.

This was a Triangular wheel! When we asked how this was an improvement on the last design, he crowed, "It eliminates one bump per revolution"! You cannot argue with solid logic! Now he has been followed by a whole plethora of high-powered organizations like the Federal Education Ministry, the provincial governments, the Senate bodies of a dozen or so universities, and above all the vaunted Higher Education Commission. They have all been killing themselves reinventing the wheel. The case in point is the bachelor's degree and the time required to gain one. For almost two centuries, we have got by with the old Brit system of education in which you went to school for ten years, spent an additional two at college, and went on to the two-year graduation degree.

It is no matter that for a thousand years before that, we had done even better with the older 'Madrassah' system of schooling. That was the ancient way because the word comes from the Aramaic Darsh which means a lesson and is at the root of the Hebrew Midrash. It was still in use, for religious education at least until my youth, when you heard of degrees with quaint names like 'Adeeb Alim' and 'Munshi Faazil'. We scoffed at it, but in its time that system did give us Hafiz and Rumi, not to mention Ibn-e-Sina! But as I said for some time we had done all right with the Brit system -- until we started mucking around with it.

First at the lower end with decades of pre-school and pre-pre-school and what not; so you had to register your kid for school before he was a twinkle in your eye, and he was middle aged before he matriculated. Then the Americans got at the other end and insisted that a bachelor's degree was four years and a two-year degree just wouldn't do. I tried to tell a few people that our degree did take four years, only we called the first two years 'FA' but no one ever listened. Then first the UGC and then the HEC jumped into the fray. First they simply tried to extend the degree to four years; and the parents baulked. They were darned if they were going to pay four years worth of tuition fees for a degree which their fathers got in two.

So they compromised and, I think, now the system is that the degree is four years, but you can get it in three if you put your nose to the grindstone and take all the required courses in two years. Some people made the offer that they would not only put nose to the grindstone but would also bust their butts and take all the courses in two years -- or one! So committees are meeting to reconsider the whole schmozzle again. Forgive my cynicism, but surely the worth and value of a degree should lie in what you are taught and what you learn and know, and not in the amount of time you spent.

I know any number of people who went to school for decades and are still as ignorant as the driven snow. But no one is listening still, and instead a degree has been defined as a certain number of 'Hours of Class Contact'. It is the New Year and I will follow my resolution and be a dog of the wrong gender and remind you of the old story. This group of yuppies was having a wild party, and the hosts' nine-year old son who was asleep upstairs woke up, came down and wanted to join the fun.

The parents took him up and tried everything. They gave him toys and comics and cartoons on the telly, but he kept trotting down. Eventually a wise old uncle took matters in hand, he took the boy up, talked for two minutes and came down and the parents didn't hear a peep out of the kid for three days! They asked the uncle what magical formula he had used and he told them. He'd taught the boy to play with himself, if you get what I mean. That could keep him busy for a four-year degree!


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.