Education, a double-edged sword

Many of us are concerned about what we perceive to be the declining standards of education in the country.

Sep 16, 2016

By Anil Netto
Many of us are concerned about what we perceive to be the declining standards of education in the country. Indeed, there appears to be a correlation between the quality of education available to the majority and the depressing and difficult economic times we are confronted with.

Tens of thousands of diploma-holders and graduates are unable to find jobs that enable them to earn a decent living, what more school dropouts.

What is at the root of this educational malaise — not only in Malaysia but also in many other countries? Is it something to do with the training of teachers? The large classroom numbers? Teachers being overworked? Too much paperwork and bureaucracy? The medium of instruction?

Our ancestors, even those who did not have the opportunity to receive a proper education, recognised and placed great value in education. Perhaps deep down they realised that a good education would open doors and help students to realise their full potential.

The religious brothers and sisters, many of them foreign missionaries who arrived in our country in the 19th and 20th Centuries, spurred the advancement of education in the country.

But then, as huge leaps were made in science and technology, the demands placed on education grew higher.

The education system in many parts of the world absorbed the path-breaking ideas and theories of the great 19th Century philosophers and thinkers. The 20th Century economist and thinker EF Schumacher pointed to various several “large ideas” theories that emerged during this period. Theories such as evolution, natural selection and survival of the fittest.

The idea that all higher manifestations of human life (e.g. religion, philosophy, art) are nothing but “necessary supplements of the material life process”. Or Freudian ideas which reduce our impulses to the “dark stirrings of a subconscious mind”. Or the idea of positivism, which is only interested in know-how and states that such knowledge can only be gained from the methods used in the sciences.

These ideas have seeped into the thinking of the generations after that — and they have seeped into education.

Schumacher lamented that something is lost in the process. These ideas have reduced the human being to little more than an accidental collection of atoms. They deny a higher order and point to a lower order — according to these ideas, the human being is motivated by lower desires such as economic greed or sexual frustration.

Schumacher observed that these ideas claimed to eliminate metaphysics, which is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being and the world that surrounds it, including identity, time, and space. Metaphysics tries to answer deep questions about life — why are we here? What is out there? What is it like?

But instead of eliminating metaphysics and ethics, “all we got was bad metaphysics and ethics”.

As education increasingly focuses on the sciences, courses on the humanities have suffered. More and more specialised courses in science and technology were introduced in the pursuit of know-how to ensure that graduates are able to serve the needs of “industry”.

Certainly, we are producing school-leavers and graduates with greater know-how. But, for Schumacher, we are also left with greater confusion about our place in the larger scheme of things — the awareness of who we are, what motivates us, the higher ideals — these are lacking.

“What is at fault is not specialisation, but the lack of depth with which the subjects are usually presented, and the absence of metaphysical awareness,” wrote Schumacher.

All subjects, no matter how specialised, he observed, are connected with a centre like rays emanating from a sun.

“The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions, by those ideas which really have the power to move us. In other words, the centre consists of metaphysics and ethics, of ideas that — whether we like it or not — transcend the world of facts.”

“Our task — and the task of all education — is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices.

Sometimes, we tend to justify ethical lapses and compromised values. But as the theologian Leonardo Boff says, “If there is one perennial contribution that Christianity has brought to the ethical debate it is certainly this: the non-negotiable nature of personal ethics.

The religious brother and sisters have tried to remedy some of the shortcomings in mainstream education in recent decades by setting up learning centres which impart values-based education and stress ethical considerations.

For Schumacher, the problems of education are merely a reflection of the deepest problems of our age. These, he said, cannot be solved by organisation, administration, or funding alone.

“We are suffering from a metaphysical disease and the cure must therefore be metaphysical,” he said. “Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence.”

In short, education today is failing to inculcate wisdom about who we are and the higher ideals and values that we should strive for, or worse, it may even be inculcating warped values and ethics.

No wonder, the world is in a mess. It is our central metaphysical convictions that are in disorder and as long as this trend persists, the disorder will grow worse, warned Schumacher. And then, education, far from being humanity’s greatest resource, “will then be an agent of destruction”.

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