Educating our young ones

  • Musings
  • Thursday, 28 Jan 2016

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, we should not be surprised at the consequences.

I HAD another of those moments when my mouth simply gaped recently. A friend told me the text that was used in his daughter’s school for her SPM English Literature paper was the Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.

I was shocked. For one thing, the Brothers Grimm were German, not English. For another, Rumpelstiltskin is a story for little children, not 17-year-olds and definitely not worthy of an exam.

In comparison, the equivalent British school exams in English Literature look at authors like Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Eliot and, of course, William Shakespeare. How does anyone study English Literature without studying Shakespeare who was so influential in the English language? Do our students even know of the many common phrases we use daily which originated from Shakespeare?

Some might say that English Literature is not important to us since English is not our native language. But a look through the Bahasa Malaysia literature texts doesn’t impress either. I haven’t done Malay Literature since my own school days so I might not know who are the great Malay writers these days. But surely it cannot be someone who writes about the adventures of a girl during her school holidays?

Our school literature syllabus seems to suggest that our students cannot handle any form of sophisticated writing at all. I looked through an exam tips website on Rumpelstiltskin and the values our students are supposed to derive from the story are absurdly childish – don’t boast, don’t tell lies, don’t be greedy. There is no nuance or ambiguity to any of it. Students are simply told what to think about these stories with no room for opinions of their own.

Is this the state of our education today, one that treats our children as infants throughout their school life? How are they meant to handle the complex world we live in?

I was in London not so long ago when I went to view an exhibition of the works of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist known for having been kept in solitary confinement for eight months and then banned from travelling because of his critical views on what was happening in China. His works are beautiful, thought-provoking and often moving. There were reconstructed trees, marble grass and straightened steel rods made from wreckage of buildings destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The stories behind these works tell about censorship, groupthink and cover-ups of the true costs of natural and manmade disasters.

People form long queues to view this exhibition. But what I really found astounding were the groups of schoolchildren being taken around the exhibition by their teachers. Surely this was too sophisticated for them? But apparently it was not.

Children can surely learn about art and beauty from a young age, as well as what messages artists want to convey through their work. What child doesn’t understand unfairness, or not being able to give an opinion? Which child would not be moved by the long lists of names of the schoolchildren lost in the earthquake, killed by the shoddy workmanship of their schools?

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, why should we be surprised at the consequences? We see adults with embarrassingly shallow capacity for analysing the information they get, who are easily provoked to react to gossip and false stories, who constantly harp on the least important points of any piece of news and who refuse to read anything in-depth because it contains too many long words and therefore is too difficult. And who will vilify anyone with more knowledge and maturity than them and call them names as a way of distracting from their own ignorance?

The infantilising of our people doesn’t only occur in schools but all the way to the top where we’re often expected to accept the most ludicrous explanations for all sorts of things, from missing funds to polluted waters to what constitutes terrorism. To be sure, there are many of us who do not accept these explanations but the very audacity of the people offering them is what is insulting and unacceptable. (Maybe when we get rid of them some day, we can just say it’s because they smell bad and they cannot complain about that.)

I listened to Turkish author Mustafa Akyol recently who said that the intelligent response to Islamophobia is not to ban people or books but rather by countering it intellectually. While I agree with that idea, it does presume that Muslims in our country have the intellectual capacity to do that.

But how do people still reading Rumpelstiltskin at age 17 counter the views of much more intellectually sophisticated people like Richard Dawkins and the like?

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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