Training engineers when the nation needs poets


Pakistan was founded by poets. Our heritage is found in the words of those who understood and related to the world using their hearts as well as their minds. They understood that the world was too complex for easy answers, and they left a legacy not of formulaic solutions but of words that require thought and interpretation. Sometime ago, however, we began down another path. We saw the world breaking away in a technological revolution that seemed to provide better lives through science. As we sought the luxury and privilege that science could bring, our poetic heritage fell out of fashion. Today the dream of every family is for children to become doctors or engineers. But somehow this has not translated into the scientific utopia that we expected. Could it be that we have trained too many engineers, when what our nation needs is actually poets?

Hajrah Mumtaz’s column in Dawn is an excellent explanation of the problem that has resulted from our obsession with science over humanities.

Science teaches certainties that have the equivalent of a moral upper hand through being absolutely and invariably correct. In this way, we have in people the inclination to either totally accept as right, or totally reject as wrong, ideas and attitudes. And so, quite possibly, we have a society that is one step closer to allowing extreme viewpoints or ideologies to take root.

Students of the social sciences and humanities, by contrast, are taught to navigate their way through endless possibilities with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to light the path. Philosophy, history, literature, anthropology, etc are all areas that require the student to traverse the grey areas and the ‘what ifs’, where the only moral upper hand can be logic and rational, coherent debate. These subjects ask the student to take in context and connections and search for alternatives.

And Hajrah is not the first to notice link between engineers and an intolerant, unrealistic mindset

According to personality experts, engineers are more likely than humanities students to view society like a big machine. And when that machine breaks down, engineers often tend to think it can be fixed by eliminating the so-called bad parts and replacing them with good ones. This clear distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, broken and fixed, appeals to scientific minds, which are more likely to be troubled by the idea that life might have messy moral gray -areas. It’s a mindset of “either the equation works or it doesn’t,” says Mitchell Silber, head of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department. Silber says this mentality helps explain why engineers are more likely to make literal interpretations of Islamic holy writings that appear to call for violence or jihad.

This is a mindset that I worry is becoming increasingly common: the view that if we can just fix what is wrong, then all will be fine in society. We even hear scientific analogies used to describe the problems: Corruption is ‘cancer’, politicians are a ‘weak link’. These analogies provide easy solutions: Cut out the cancer and we will be cured, replace the weak link of the chain and we will be strong.

But society is not a body or a bridge. Politics is not medicine or engineering. What we are suffering from is not a broken leg or a faulty carburetor that can be mended. Our ailment is in the soul, and the answer cannot come from science. There is no pill that can cure us.

Actually, this dilemma is not new. Prophet Sulaiman (PBUH) is revered for his wisdom and judgment, and this wisdom comes not from science but from the understanding of the human heart and the soul as given him by Allah. Approached by the shepherd and farmer, an engineer or a doctor might have advised as Prophet Dawud (PBUH) to give up the sheep as compensation though this would surely ruin the shepherd. This is the ‘black and white’ understanding of the case. But Prophet Sulaiman (PBUH) saw a better way – on that restored the farmer without ruining the shepherd in the transaction. The wisdom that Allah gave to Prophet Sulaiman (PBUH) was the wisdom of the poet, not the training of the engineer. Is it any coincidence that the Holy Quran was revealed in verse?

I have never heard a single person argue that any of the political parties are without fault. Political parties are made of men, and men are imperfect. Show me a man who has no mistakes in his past, who is thoroughly without fault. Show me the man of impeccable character in the world who does not, even only to himself, look back over his life with some feeling of regret over things done or not done. Show me this man, and I will eat my own shoe. So why do we keep looking for the leader of impeccable character, for the secret formula for success?

The body may be like a machine, with bones and muscles and organs that function together to keep us alive. But we are more than merely the bodies that we inhabit. Doctors and engineers play a vital role in our society. They fix the machines by keeping us healthy, giving us bridges that do not collapse, and buildings that shelter us from the elements.

But we must not neglect that other part of our selves that is not body but soul. Recall the words of Rumi, that deepest influence on our own Allama Iqbal.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

This field beyond the ‘black and white’ world of wrongdoing and rightdoing is the place not only for lovers and friends, but for politics especially. It is here that we will find the answers we are looking for over laughter and tears. It is in this field that we will come to understand not only each other, but ourselves also.


Author: Mahmood Adeel


  1. Pakistan does not need poets only but artists and sensitive thinkers of all types. Science lacks the empathy and understanding that the humanities requires, and this is what is sorely lacking.

  2. @Fatima.You misunderstood Adeel when he stated Poets gave
    birth to Pakistan; Allama Iqbal was a Philosopher who took
    to poetry, to convey his thoughts through his verses.The modern poets are far from philosophical thinking.Europe
    progressed through her philosophers,poets and artists.The
    scientists came much later with a mind that could use both
    deductive and inductive reasoning.We stuck to deductive logic from the 14th century and refuse to give up.Besides
    Rumi and Iqbal there is a river afloat with Attar,Saadi,
    El Arabi,Jami and Khayyam.We need engineers,doctors and other people of science but with power of inductive logic.

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