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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind

Liberation Through Education
 
The crucial role of this second instrument – education – in liberating us from underneath our coconut shell is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (Discourses): “Only the educated are free!” Having been born a slave, Epictetus knew a thing or two about freedom besides philosophizing about it.
 
Teachers are liberators! Hence my high regard for them, quite apart from the fact that both my parents were teachers. Consider that as a doctor, the best that I could do is return my patients to their pre-morbid state. With a good teacher however, there is no limit to the height of achievements of her students.
 
As that great teacher Munshi Abdullah noted, “Antara mereka yang berguru dan mereka yang meniru, jauh beza-nya!” (Between those who are taught and those who parrot, is a vast difference!). Those who parrot would merely repeat and follow orders; those who are taught, and taught well, pave their own path. Others would then follow on that path.
 
The best articulation of the value of education to an individual is captured by Prameodya’s words in Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), “Seorang terpelajar harus sudah berbuat adil sejak dalam fikiran apalagi dalam perbuatan (An educated person must be just, first in his thoughts and then in his deeds.)
 
Education also confers collective benefits to society. It is an accepted wisdom in economics that education is necessary for development. The greatest societal benefit however, is contained in this quote from Horace Mann, “Education cannot make us all leaders, but it can teach us which leader to follow.”
 
Not all accept the value of education. I once met a senior Brunei official; he did not believe in educating his people. It would only make them dissatisfied and uppity, he assured me, and pointed to the disastrous 1962 rebellion in his country. I suppose if you have enough petrodollars you could bribe or narcotize your people into submission, but do not expect greatness from them. Ponder when those petrodollars dry up! Sometimes you do not have to wait that long; look at Tunisia today.
 
All these benefits of education are true with one major caveat. Where education masquerades as indoctrination, then the less education you have, the better. Unfortunately, that is the case with Malaysian education; it treats students as dustbins to be filled with dogmas rather than knives to be sharpened, to borrow Munshi Abdullah’s metaphor. This is especially true with religious education, which is compulsory for Malay students.
 
With a bin all you could possibly get out is what you put in, nothing beyond. With a sharp knife the possibilities would be limitless. To a farmer, a sharp knife would bring meat to the table; to the sculptor, an exquisite work of art; to a surgeon, a tool to cure cancer. To a thug however, it would be a lethal weapon; hence the need to emphasize the “just” and “thinking” components in education, as per Pramoedya.
 
America’s liberal education aims at producing individuals capable of critical thinking. However, as Allan Bloom concluded in his dense but best selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, today’s version with its de-emphasis of “The Great Books” succeeded only in, as asserted by the longwinded title, the closing of the American mind. Bloom lamented the moving away from the “Great Books” traditions and the ensuing cultural and moral relativism.
 
American universities may have moved away from what cynics refer to as the works of long-ago dead white men, but these institutions have enhanced their core curriculum by adding foreign language as well as science and mathematics. It makes for a truly liberal and broad-based education, well suited for our modern diverse era.
 
Today’s liberal education, in particular the learning of a foreign language and a spell of study abroad, is much superior to the earlier one with its almost exclusive emphasis on the classics. Learning another language and experiencing a different culture are among the most effective ways of opening up one’s mind.
 
I appreciate the classics but today you cannot consider yourself properly educated and comprehend the world around you if you do not know the difference between an atom from a molecule, or a gene from chromosome. Likewise your thinking and analysis cannot be rigorous unless you can appreciate the difference between simple gains versus geometric and exponential ones.
 
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 undergraduates from 24 American institutions for their book, Academically Adrift. Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010). Despite America’s commitment to liberal education, the survey substantiated and amplified Bloom’s earlier negative assessment. Fully 45 percent of these students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning at the end of two years (with 36 percent at the end of four) in such areas as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Imagine what the results would be for Malaysian undergraduates and universities!
 
Count yourselves triply lucky. You have the benefit of the great tradition of modern American liberal education, learning a foreign language (English), and living in a different culture. Those are significant advantages you have over your compatriots back home. Perhaps that explains your initiative, and courage I might add, in organizing this seminar. I doubt whether your peers back home would even think of doing something similar!
 
You should also count your blessings on another front. With the major traditions of Asia represented in Malaysia, you do not have to leave the country to experience another culture. Few appreciate much less take advantage of this unique opportunity. To many our diversity is a liability, the cause of never-ending strives. It would take a major change in mindset to consider our diversity an asset.
 
In Kuala Lumpur at Kampong Baru, you have the essence of traditional Malay culture, albeit intruded by pseudo-modernity and blighted urbanity. A few blocks away is Chow Kit Road, the heart of Chinatown. Venture further and you are at Sentul, literally Little India. Far from taking advantage of these splendid opportunities, we erect unnecessary barriers.
 
I was lost near a Malaysian Indian Congress-sponsored college (TAFE) in Seremban not too long ago. I asked a student for directions, only to get the response, “I am sorry I do not speak Malay!” His air of pride betrayed his pseudo apology. Thinking he might be a foreigner, I asked where he was from. Sentul!
 
Imagine, a college student, a Malaysian and in Malaysia, not knowing our national language! Before you get angry at that poor soul, consider that we have Members of Parliament who cannot speak our national language! How did their parties dare put them up as candidates? Worse, why did we vote them in? I assert that it would take a great effort on the part of Malaysians not to know our national language, the language of the majority.
 
Perhaps we need a Voters’ Language Act requiring new voters to demonstrate their proficiency in our national language. Our language nationalists and champions of Memartabatkan Bahasa (Dignify our Language) should advocate this instead of rescinding the teaching of science and mathematics in English. The first initiative would make voters more informed about our national affairs, while the second only disadvantaged our young.
 
Recently, the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a major component of the ruling coalition, and himself a former cabinet minister, expressed his disgust at what he considered to be “an uncivilized” aspect of Islamic culture when a female candidate from the opposition party Islamic Party declined to partake in the usual hand-shaking greetings. To think that this former minister, who was also a physician, was utterly ignorant of Islamic cultural sensitivities! How did he deal with his Muslim patients?
 
In California, physicians displaying such gross ignorance of the cultural sensitivities of their patients, and then be stupid or arrogant enough to display that ignorance, risk being disciplined by the Medical Board, quite apart from unnecessarily exposing themselves to medical and other liabilities.
 
At least that TAFE student was smart enough to feign ignorance; the minister however displayed not a hint of embarrassment after he ignited a storm of controversy even with his fellow party leaders of his coalition, specifically UMNO. What a display and best definition of stupidity!
 
Those ugly exceptions aside, Malaysians have a decided advantage when abroad because of our multiculturalism at home. In the West I can readily separate Malaysian Chinese from their counterparts from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Vancouver, Canada, saw an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong just before the handing over of that colony to China. It did not take them long to run afoul of Vancouver’s zoning laws. They would build the biggest homes on their tiny city lots, and then choose those awful gaudy colors. What would have been acceptable in Hong Kong triggered their new neighbors’ wrath in Vancouver.
 
If you have a closed mind, you think the rest of the world likes what you like. Step into any mall in Malaysia and you will be immediately assaulted with the blast of the sound system of some Taiwanese starlet intent on bursting your eardrums. Those merchants think everyone else likes what they like. Presumably these are the same idiots who complained loudly about the azzan!
 
That is what a closed mind does to you. Apart from exposing yourself to unnecessary problems, you will also miss out on the wonderful diverse world that is beyond yours.

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