Without reading books and thinking independently, we are merely downloading information instead of actually learning.
OUR country has never before had so many schools, colleges and universities. There are about 450,000 teachers and 5 million students under the Education Ministry. The more than 100 institutions of higher learning in Malaysia has some 3,000 professors and 30,000 academics.
Add to that the informal teaching that occurs at houses of worship of all religions and we have a mountain of knowledge being taught and produced.
The funny thing is, this translates into so little wisdom at these learning centres and in the leadership of the country. I am even tempted to say there is no wisdom at all.
I have watched very carefully those who are responsible for education at the professional, intellectual and religious levels. I see many activities, papers, conferences and academic forums, but I also see so very little wisdom coming out of all of them.
Why is this so?
I think in the race to teach, write papers and give lectures, we forget that knowledge is there for the betterment of all humanity. Knowledge is now either a tool of economic gain or worse, a tool for political domination.
So many Malaysians have been through these education institutes, schools and houses of worship but so few of them know anything about what wisdom entails or what true learning is about.
Very early into my time studying at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, I discovered a curious understanding of true learning and what may be called wisdom.
I stumbled upon a book titled Living with the Himalayan Masters. It was about the teachings of a mystic named Swami Rama. At that time, I was reading many things about religions and the main characters like Jesus, Siddharta, Prophet Muhammad and Lao Tzu. I had not understood anything about Hinduism because it had looked complicated until I read this second-hand book that I had bought.
The author went to Swami Rama to learn to be at peace through meditation. When they first met, the swami asked the author: “What have you learned so far?”
The author explained his school and university background and his professional experiences. After three hours of listening patiently, the swami stopped him and said: “So you have learned nothing.”
The author was aghast and protested that he had learned reading, writing and all the university knowledge. The swami looked at him kindly and said: “You have only imitated, but you have not learned anything.”
Fast forward 40 years, I am a professor with many written works and thoughts and ideas to my credit, and and I remember the words of this book.
What the swami was saying is that all of us have received and “downloaded” information, pre-packaged constructs of knowledge, other people’s attitudes and opinions about things, and narratives of history and people from certain perspectives and agendas.
Many have learned nothing because they profess nothing. Learning means you would profess an opinion, a perspective or a construct of ideas of your own making after critically assessing what you have downloaded throughout your life.
When I interview architectural graduates coming into post-graduate programmes, I ask two main questions. First, what book have you read? Second, how would you improve housing in a way that can resolve racial conflicts in this country?
On the second question, as a professor of architecture, I have written and talked extensively about my ideas on how this can be done. My thoughts are not just in seminar or journal papers but out there in my opinion pieces and other articles published in the media and through interviews with reporters on TV, radio and live streams online.
Housing is a fundamental issue in architecture. Lim Chong Keat, one of the great architects in Malaysia, has often said you are not a good architect until you can resolve public housing issues.
Now students with CGPAs of 3.8 would tell me that they have not read any books during their years pursuing degrees. As for my second question, students would offer solutions similar to what developers like to construct and these would not contribute one iota to the narrowing of our racial divide.
My conclusion is that students neither read nor think independently to come up with ideas, opinions or perspectives of their own. How are we to expect wisdom or true learning without reading?
Sadly, some lecturers think student learning is only through their PowerPoint presentations of imitated knowledge. There are even PhD students nowadays who do not read a single book for their dissertations. They read journals and think that is all that is needed.
A lot of PhD supervisors too do not read books apparently. I have sat through many Masters and PhD vivas and examinations to know that postgraduate degrees often have little relevance to the word “philosophy” although those degrees are for Doctors of Philosophy or Masters of Philosophy.
Reading a book is different from reading a journal. A journal presents facts and short statements. A book presents opinions, attitudes and experience through a dialogue in the mind of the reader with the spirit of the author.
You can have a dialogue with the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright from reading his books although he died over 60 years ago. Or you could debate with Al-Ghazali through his Ihya Ulumuddin though he passed away many centuries ago. Both men dealt with the issues of man and his world and their ideas and thoughts can never be outdated even in the age of 5G internet speed.
I have a simple analogy on learning, wisdom and book reading.
Before there was MTV, I used to listen to songs on my Walkman. The music and songs interacted with my thoughts, experiences, desires and anticipations. I am sure if a hundred people listened to the same songs, they each would have a different interaction as their thoughts, desires and experiences are different than mine.
But once MTV started playing the same songs accompanied with music videos, the interaction of thoughts, desires and experiences stopped. All 100 viewers who used to be just listeners are glued to a single interpretation of the song via the images in the music video.
The brain dies when it no longer thinks because thoughts are pre-formed through the images that are projected. Mass learning without reading and independent opinions is slave education.
We are slaves of our education because we can no longer think independently to produce ideas to solve our problems. That’s why we still have our racial, religious and political conflicts. We possess no wisdom to look at the issues and problems in a different way. We are all tuned to that one video channel that airs only one song and in only one meaning that is never ours in the first place. This it seems is “education” in our country.
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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