When academics are ‘ignorant’

I HEARD that a public university in Malaysia once boasted a class of over 600 PhD graduates in one convocation.

Many thought that this is indeed a great feat for a small country like ours. Many also thought that now we will have a more learned citizenry. I would not bet any money on these lines of thinking.

I have met and worked with these types of PhD graduates and I discovered that these people are learned fish in a small bowl.

Let me explain how what I call “academic ignorance” seems to permeate these large new crops of doctoral graduates.

I do not mean to belittle all these graduates, as I feel that most of them deserve their “Dr” titles. However, they do not seem to understand that a PhD is nothing more than a beginning, a ticket to eventually becoming an enlightened or “awakened” individual known as a scholar, or golongan ulamak.

When I interview these graduates, they do not seem to care about any discipline other than their own. They do not seem to want to read any book even in their own discipline that philosophises about something, even in their own fields of study. And they are not interested in listening to people talk about experiences tying in different fields like history, economics, culture, religion and many others, with their study area.

Just take the example of the incident when Bharatanatyam master Ramli Ibrahim was dropped from a symposium on the arts at a local “research university”. Apparently, none of the professors knew two cents about the importance of the arts in nation-building so they let a couple of religious clerics decide on the relevance of knowledge that no one in the whole university knew how to care for. Case closed.

When I lecture a new batch of PhD candidates, one of my sessions deals with the types of knowledge that we humans have lived by all this while. Academic knowledge is only one of five kinds of knowledge that human beings use to survive in this world. A problem arises when the new PhD candidates do not know about, do not care for, and fail completely to acknowledge the importance and presence of the other four types of knowledge.

To them, these other types of knowledge have not gone through the “critical” academic process and are therefore worthless. Well, I would argue that academic knowledge is the least important when compared with the four other types.

First we have experiential knowledge. If you want to start a business venture, who would you ask for advice? A business professor or an entrepreneur with 40 years of business dealings? I would choose the latter.

Experiential knowledge is the most valuable form of knowledge to help humankind progress because it has been tried and tested. Young academics must document this kind of knowledge for posterity and try to find formulas or lessons from it.

Second is practised knowledge. Who are you going to hire to build your house? A contractor or builder who has spent 40 years building things or a professor of engineering working with theory? There is no replacement for practised knowledge.

Young academics need to document this knowledge via audio visual media and use it to teach others and also derive principles of practice.

Third is wisdom or philosophy. This is the kind of knowledge that most PhD academics in the technology field despise. One PhD lecturer in engineering calls my talks on public communication “nonsense” even though my “nonsense” comes from 20 years of direct engagement with the public. To him, if knowledge is not about numbers, formulas and tables, then it is pure nonsense.

Wisdom and philosophy ties in many aspects of history, art, politics, religion and other subject matter into a construct of understanding. Academic knowledge deconstructs issues and deals only with minute aspects of a problem, and this “scientific deconstructivist” methodology has made many PhD graduates “ignorant” in so many senses of the word.

In universities, no one dares to supervise anything that involves more than two disciplines, and thoughts on ideas, constructs and narratives are seldom the subject of academic discourse or discussion.

Fourth is “revealed knowledge”, or knowledge from God. Many PhD academics pooh-pooh this knowledge as it can never be verified and requires that you die first to find out its truth.

For me, speaking as a rationalist, knowledge from the scriptures and tradition has been around for centuries. This form of knowledge is the oldest and most enduring form of understanding that has shaped billions of people.

This knowledge has been around and has been tested, tried, tested and tried thousands of times. This knowledge merits a special place in our human history. I am not advocating accepting in total all the knowledge, but I know that it is important enough to be carefully documented and recorded.

The last kind of knowledge is academic knowledge. To me, academic knowledge is the least important because it is based on a small framework of thought and most of it is hardly tried and tested, comparatively.

Academic knowledge is simply the first act of structuring information into an “academic box” so that we can carry it around and manipulate it in many ways. It will only earn its importance as time passes and it is filled with other stuff and tested for endurance. So although PhD research may cost millions, because of its short time frame and untried usefulness, it must be tempered with humility and an awareness of its limitations.

Having a PhD does not mean that one is “clever” or “knowledgeable”. It is supposed to be a humbling experience that opens one’s eyes to the vastness of human experience, practice and wisdom, and a possible bridge to the “unseen beginnings” that form the wealth, existence and inspiration that we simply call humanity.

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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