A little while ago, while surfing the net I happened upon a television show that featured a Pakistani religious scholar. The gentleman in question is described as coming from the modernist tradition; as having a contemporary and transparent understanding of Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he lives in self-exile today.During this particular broadcast, the scholar happened to mention that he is a firm supporter of liberal arts education. Indeed, he went one step further by saying that if he had his way – it would be made mandatory here in Pakistan for children up to the age of 12. When it comes to education, ‘liberal arts’ is another way of describing a broad-based curriculum. Meaning that students focus on general areas of study – like philosophy, mathematics, literature and economics – as opposed to specialising in a single filed. The idea is that this approach provides an extensive introduction to multiple disciplines and learning strategies.The scholar was paying particular attention to the madrasa system in this country that specialises in religious education and admits children as young as three. He argued that if a child is exposed to a liberal arts education – he would be better equipped to make an informed decision about whether to pursue the religious sciences as an academic subject or choose an entirely different path. This approach benefits not just the child but also the state itself. For syllabus plurality is crucial to keeping children buffered against intolerance and extremism. Sadly, these points appeared lost on certain quarters of Pakistan’s mainstream media. It was all too predictable; the bashing of any narrative that doesn’t uphold that of the religious right. In the absence of logical debate, the scholar found himself being labelled ‘an agent of evil’. This is to say nothing of the false linkages made by our media pundits that hold a liberal arts education as being directly responsible for so-called western ‘immorality’. I began to understand why the gentleman had decided to leave the country.Yet it would be a gross misstep to dismiss the importance of studying liberal arts; especially on the basis of such propaganda. This is a subject close to my heart given that my own experience with this system of education has been nothing but positive. In fact, it took me from a small school here in Lahore, which was at the top of my lane, all the way to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). And it is a journey that was set in motion by my years spent as an undergraduate student at the Forman Christian College (FCC, a chartered university). At FCC we were always allowed to hold discussions that weren’t necessarily directly related to our syllabi. Thinking outside-the-box was actively encouraged. And I can’t quite find the words to describe how liberating it was to be able to question each and everythingWhen I first arrived at FCC, beyond being excited by the opportunity to study – I honestly didn’t have much idea about what my academic studies would have in store for me. And truth be told, it took me some time to get to grips with the notion that it was up to me – and only me – to select my own courses. Meaning that there was no one to stop me from choosing to specialise in political science or else chemistry, say, or physics or maths or sport. In fact, it was mandatory to study at least one module for each category. I still remember how I balked at the prospect of having to study biological sciences; for it was a subject with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Little did I know then that the skills data that this module afforded me would come in useful when getting my point across during a seminar at LSE.It’s not just that a liberal arts education throws up the chance to study a whole spectrum of distinct subjects – there is a certain satisfaction that comes with knowing different things about, well, different things. And at FCC we were always allowed to hold discussions that weren’t necessarily directly related to our syllabi. I found this immensely stimulating, not to mention utterly enlightening. For thinking outside-the-box was actively encouraged. This was a considerable departure from my previous experience with education where rote learning was always the order of the day. I can’t quite find the words to describe how liberating it was to be able to question each and everything.One professor in particular springs to mind, and his impact on me was long-lasting. He would engage students in discussions on the university’s football pitch as well as other equally unconventional locations. And the best thing was that these discussions weren’t always limited to specific academic texts. Meaning that we might be found discussing political philosophy one day and the (de)merit of wealth redistribution the next. Or else, Plato’s concept of an ideal ruler in the morning and Ghalib’s vigorous dedication to writing letters in Urdu in the afternoon. There was another teacher, well known and respected for the concise manner in which she expounded theories and ideas. Yet her engagement with students went beyond history to include life concepts. And I’ll never forget the great service she did our entire class when she advised us that the ‘b’ in ‘plumber’ was of the silent variety.Moreover, the liberty that teachers enjoyed when it came to selecting reading lists is something that helped me enormously. Had this not been the case – goodness knows how long it would have taken me to learn the significance of Julius Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration. Then there were the various student-led societies that FCC had to offer. From adventure to philosophy: these not only afforded students from different departments to mix with each other in an informal setting – they also helped to instil leadership qualities in all of us. For my part, I served as the political science society’s general secretary and used the platform to organise events focusing issues that are all too often sidelined. Part of my ‘mandate’ was also to get students to think about concepts such as tolerance, multi-religious harmony and constitutional rights. The privilege of listening to experts from various fields, those coming from both ends of the political divide, taught me to disagree with others in a logical and non-confrontational manner. But the best lesson for me was to understand how healthy it is to have divergent opinions within society in general.And while critics of liberal arts education may contend that the latter doesn’t go into subjects in sufficient depth given that it spreads itself too far and wide – I would have to say that I respectfully beg to differ. The aim of this approach to learning is to establish a solid foundation of essential knowledge. It is meant to build a well-rounded student who is not only an expert in their chosen field, but also a critical thinker who understands the importance of narrative pluralism and accompanying disparate perspectives. But above and beyond all that, the liberal arts approach is tasked with giving the student the best gift of all: an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Something that Pakistan’s religious right feels deeply threatened by. Sadly. The writer is a staff member and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @zeeshanyousaf09Published in Daily Times, November 12th 2017.