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Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Myth of Education

At the very outset I must caution the reader that this article is not intended to pursue the position that “education” is unimportant or irrelevant. Rather, this is an attempt to invite readers to consider, among other things, whether what we consider “education” today is indeed what we think it is.

In the broadest sense, education has been part of society since man began to think and reason. Each community had to pass on their cultural and social values, religion, tradition, knowledge and skills to the next generation and such. Before the invention of writing and printing, all of these are transmitted orally. With the advent of writing and printing, much of this knowledge can be accurately transmitted and studied by future generations. Such education I would term “informal education” to distinguish it from what I intend to discuss here ie education in the formal settings of kindergarten, school and universities. This I would like to refer as “formal education” or the “education system” for the purposes of this article.

The history of formal education is both interesting and informative including developments in ancient civilizations (such as Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece), in the early Islamic world, India, China, Europe and so on. The medieval Madrasahs founded in the 9th century are the first examples of a university in the modern sense of the word. The University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco is thus recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world with its founding in 859.

My humble study of the history of formal education seems to suggest that in the early stages of its development, formal education had more to do with inquiry, learning of skills, creation of good citizens and less to do for a job. “Job skills” are mostly learned by apprenticeship with the ‘master’. It thus appears that formal education then had to more with the acquisition of knowledge rather than for the purposes of using it as a qualification to obtain a job.

What appears to be the scenario today? Firstly, the fact that, like almost anything else important in life, formal education today is highly commercialized is undeniable. There are many private schools, colleges and universities today each with a commercial objective to achieve. The courses, curricula and modules are tailored to meet the existing demands of society and to ensure that the provision of these “services” remain commercially viable to the providing institution. I dare say that the factor of commercial viability does involve the sacrifice of many “noble principles of education”. There are two important points that emerge from this proposition:

1. The student that graduate may actually be graduating at a sub- standard level but perceived to be fully competent and knowledgeable in the discipline studied;
2. Content of formal education fluctuates with fluctuating demands of the society.

How do we determine what is the current demand of society? A simple approach would be to determine, inter alia, what is the dominant economic and political philosophy of that particular society. I would say that in Malaysia, the basic philosophical foundation is capitalism and this is probably true for most parts of the world.

Simply put, the central objective of capitalism is: profiteering or as ABBA sang: “money, money and money”.

Our economic world view is shaped today by western ideas of capitalistic society, consumption and acquisitive values, market forces, and such philosophies as expounded by Adam Smith, Keynes and the like. This is the dominant ‘way of life’. It is this dominant way of life that dictates the demands of the society towards the kind of formal education that is required. Essentially, it is largely directed towards the physical development of society and self. The acquisition of knowledge towards assisting “physical development of society and self” is largely what education is about today. Admittedly there are many courses that offer arts, and the like but these are peripheral, not dominant. Even here, the acquisition is more for economic ends rather than anything else.

Hence with this world view, education today is geared towards preparing the student to find a job, to get a qualification that can open the door to employment. It has less to with acquisition of knowledge and more to with passing the grades.

The more qualifications you get, the greater is your opportunity of finding a well paying job. The better your grades, the bigger your chances of being employed. This is the mindset and the new game. We need to understand this in order to understand the myths which I shall discuss shortly. Hence there is greater emphasis on the “kind” of qualifications to get, the method of passing exams, the shortest way of obtaining relevant degrees, masters and Ph.Ds.

Today, there are more and more people with paper qualifications. Due to this, the level of qualifications to enter into employment has thus been raised. I find this ironical and it exposes flawed thinking. It assumes that the higher the qualification the more competent the person is – which is not a necessary result.

With this background, let me share the myths.

First myth is the perception that one with a degree and such is an “educated person” and thus his views must necessarily be relevant and sound in almost all matters. This status of being “educated” is not entirely clear. Does it mean that he is generally knowledgeable or that he is knowledgeable in the area of his study? The myth becomes compounded when one assumes that therefore he must be intelligent! Somehow, the acquisition of a formal education seem to be equated with intelligence, competence and even, frighteningly, with wisdom.

There is an assumption that one with a degree is competent in his discipline. This means that if you have a degree in economics, you have good knowledge of economics. Often this is not the case though the expectation is understandable. It is a fact that once you get into a university, you have to be completely irresponsible not to make the grades. Likewise too, the more frightening assumption is that one with a formal qualification in some aspect of some religious study is an “expert” and hence he is authorized to tell you what is and is not in a religion.

This “religious expert” assumption is very prevalent among the current religious society. The expert becomes the authority whose very words cannot be challenged. To challenge his understanding may tantamount to a challenge towards the religion itself! It appears to miss these people that accumulation of data and regurgitation is no indication of thinking. A computer is able to accumulate more data and reproduce it better than any human. Generations of regurgitation of falsity, for example, does not make it true. Garbage in, garbage out.

Such prevailing mythical mindset among the people allows persons with vested selfish interests to acquire formal education for the purposes of duping the public behind the garb of “being educated. This is the kind of phenomenon some thinkers have labeled as the production of “educated fools”.

Thirdly, it is also a myth that formal education is the answer to “raising the people’s general awareness and maturity”. The very nature of our formal education is largely geared towards making the person employable rather than into a good human being or a good citizen. If our true objective to raise awareness and maturity, the entire current curriculum and mode of teaching has to change. What we have today is a completely examination orientated system of education with very little time for students to reflect and think. Very little attention is given to building up character, morals, citizenry and such. The so —called religious classes have in my view equally failed. The evidence is visible in daily life.

Fourth, is the myth that formal education will make us better human beings. I recall that my headmaster in Penang Free School often reminded us that “academic brilliance is no substitute for poverty of character”. The syllabus in the schools does not build character and is not meant to do so. Students are never taught the art of inquiry, introspection, reflection, “thinking out of the box”, and other thinking skills. In multi-cultural Malaysia, we are never taught the value of a diverse culture. I would say that the schools today and especially the universities are constant reminders of our differences in a negative way. We have to change this. After 50 years, we still have thinking that runs counter to the spirit of being human beings and being Malaysians.

You may want to share your thoughts?

5 comments:

Bulans said...
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Bulans said...
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Bulans said...
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shams said...

It is interesting that bulans should link education or lack thereof to politicians. Come to think of it, do you realize that you do not need academic qualifications or apprenticeship training to be a minister?

You do not need a course in finance to be finance minister, law degree to be home affairs, sports science to be sport minister, medical knowledge to be health minister, environmental studies to be environment minister and the list goes on. Probably mot of them will not even be employed by the ministries they head if they were not in politics! That explains why politicians shout their mouth be before they engage their brains.

Bulans said...
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