An education towards... ignorance?

FRANKLY speaking, I am worried. I have been watching the goings on in this country intently and I have come to two worrying conclusions.

One, more citizens in Malaysia are educated compared with, say, 30 years ago. We probably have a 1,000% more universities, schools, madrasah and other informal learning institutions. We have 1,000% more academics, teachers and tonnes of research papers being produced by the education boom. That is one side of the coin.

On the other side, I see many important issues in this country that seem to be unchanged or are getting worse by the day.

Racial mistrust is on the rise. Religious extremism and bigotry have grown exponentially. Cultural intolerance is at its height with silly issues taking centre stage.

Floods in Kuala Lumpur are a normal affair now when once upon a time just the rare flash flood occurred. Dengue is on the rise even though we are not hearing much about it.

Drug use still exists among children, teenagers and university students. Prostitution, homelessness, unregistered citizens, illegal immigrants are all issues that are still around and they are not going anywhere.

High household debt is worryingly still there and, of course, corrupt politicians are still around, dictating policies and attitudes and propagating “pragmatic” politics.

Oh, and there are fewer and fewer bookstores, replaced by stores selling manga and romance novels.

What’s going on?

After teaching at the highest academic level for 34 years, I am privileged to conclude that Malaysia’s education system is actually propagating a form of ignorance. How is this so? Well, it depends on the definition of the word “ignorance”.

We tend to think that ignorance means something like people who do not know how to read and write. And, yes, this is ignorance in a way. But let me introduce a new notion of ignorance: When a person is educated in a standardised knowledge construct and never thinks to question that construct.

Here’s an example. If a person were “educated” by his parents or religious clerics in the rituals and concepts of a religion for the first 14 years of his life and ends up never questioning his faith, I would construe him as an ignorant person.

Here’s another example: You have been instructed in a single Malaysian Qualifications Agency-accredited and Board of Architects Malaysia-accredited architectural programme and you believe you understand all there is of architecture without an iota of doubt about the artificiality of the whole experience – this is ignorance.

I once asked a newly graduated business major student what books he would read to better himself and face the challenging prospect of 800,000 unemployed graduates. He stared blankly at me, his face seemingly saying, “What the hell man, I just graduated, no more readings required!” I then asked which company he would like to join. He replied, “Any company that will hire me lah”.

During a promotion exercise, I once asked a lecturer with a PhD where he would like to serve his industrial training. Any company with robotics, was the reply. I pressed him to name a company and its principals. No answer.

I also once asked a senior PhD lecturer, if I give you RM30,000 to spend one month at an overseas university of your choice, which university would you go to and which professor would you mentor with? No answer.

Finally, I asked a very senior lecturer being considered for a professorial post, if you were to write a book in your field that would change society, what would the message be? A completely blank stare and silence.

Am I the only one worried here? To me these anecdotes raise a serious question about our education construct, one that leaves students thinking that that’s all there is. I call this “ignorant”.

Slaves are trained in skills and not to think. They learn the skills and no more. We now teach our children and graduates in a similar way, to do things in standardised mode. Excellence is defined as following the standardised instructions closest and the production of many standardised academic papers.

Our so called educated society is a society of zombies following a flow of lifestyle, work rituals and economic structures that perpetuate total dependence on and subjugation to authority and dictated reactions to issues.

The words “awakening” or “enlightenment” rarely occur. I have never heard them uttered at talks, forums, seminars or in books from our universities.

Awakening is observing the practices and rituals of academia with critical self-assessment.

Enlightenment is the realisation that what was experienced in a standardised construct should be put in a box and a newer construct should be made so that it too can be put in another box and another construct created, and so on.

Ignorance is not realising that you are in a construct that will never change simply because you don’t know you are in this box and have been all this while.

Thus, my fellow Malaysians, we have hundreds of educational institutions with tens of thousands of teachers and academics instructing millions of students and graduates on a path of “educated ignorance”.

How then shall we proceed into a future of unknown boxes?

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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