Warning: Formal education ahead

SEPTEMBER 26 — UPSR is over. Great, but PMR, SPM and SPTM (if the exams are still thus named) beckon. And after that, another three to half dozen years of tertiary education. Fun, isn’t it?

Every year in Malaysia there are more than two hundred thousand students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. That’s a few armies worth of undergraduates dressed like Harry Potter, shaking a VC’s hand on a stage and whose families will spend mini atom-bombs on hotel parking, flowers and teddy bears forced to smile. Ergo, if you’re obsessed about completing your Bachelor’s degree, it means you’re obsessed about being a drop in a pond.

Great education is like great conversation. The details matter, but not as much as the growing relationship between the two speakers.

What’s truly important about education is whether a student is a) growing to appreciate the subject, b) more capable at performing real-world tasks and c) able to interact with people well d) thinking more and more like a scientist (or entrepreneur or philosopher and so on).

“Scoring the highest in class” should really be the lowest priority on the radar. As long as students don’t flunk their studies, there’s really no need to “idolise” your exams and assignments.

Why the “warning”?

Formal education can be perilous.

It can destroy curiosity. It can stifle intuition and make students afraid to be creative. It can “train” students to not be ”street-smart” (nobody really knows what that means — all the more why we should pay attention to it), to not appreciate informal learning, to ignore risks, etc.

It can deceive people to associate learning with its own institutions and to link “successful learning” with scoring high in exams (that’s why SO MANY Malaysians shit their pants at the mention of the E-word).

There are dangers in the education system that a student may fail to detect (being fixated with ace-ing those papers) and thus absorb into herself. By doing so, she actually becomes less than she can be.

Formal education promotes what’s called domain dependence i.e. the inability to transfer a set of skills from one sphere of life to another. Taking exams as preparation for the real world is sometimes like practising to survive in the North Pole by practising ice-skating at Sunway.

This is why it’s very difficult for academics to become managers, or for corporate people to effectively plan and conduct a class, or for politicians to make sense: They’re all “trapped” within their own domain.

In the context of education, the tragedy is that good students often find it difficult to transcend the domain of the classroom. The skill of passing exams is not only irrelevant but is even detrimental towards excelling at a project (whether corporate or personal).

The best institutions and educators, in this vein, would focus on exam success as a secondary or by-product of learning which is simultaneously “holistic” yet casual, spontaneous and — because of that — open to pause or suspension at any time. In other words, not unlike a good friendship, students should feel comfortable in saying and doing “whatever they want” with a subject, all within boundaries of mutual respect.

Education is like happiness. The more directly you “aim” at it or the more you obsess over it? The less you actually obtain.True education is like true beauty. It’s what comes in a roundabout way, or what “shines through” at the most ordinary times.

Malaysian education embodies an institutional irony. Practically everybody declares there are some serious flaws in our system of formal education, yet almost nobody speaks out against pursuing the system’s goals. If we truly believe that the domain is heavily out of kilter, badly skewed towards rote-learning, grossly lacking in creativity, then isn’t it weird to continue immersing our children in this domain’s ideals?

Isn’t this like attending a week-long seminar on the importance of healthy eating, only to immediately pig out on some obscenely glorious bak kut teh?

An important exception to this LRT of thought is early years and primary education which are absolutely essential as it imparts some non-negotiable skills to kids (e.g. the 3Rs — Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic). Furthemore, notice how the teachers of younger children are usually more dedicated and caring? I can’t help suspecting this is also what makes kindergarten and primary school kids happier overall?


One tragedy of modern times is that boys and girls start their schooling with dreams of becoming, say, artists or dancers or chefs. But over the next decade or so their desires all converge to one ubiquitous dream: Make as much money as possible.

Then in their retirement age, they begin regretting (“I wish I was an artist, dancer, chef, etc ”).

Kids start off full of energy and vigour and somewhere along the line schools and the “system” in general takes the wonder out of life, replacing it with nothing but the desire to make truckloads of cash. Whose fault is this? One culprit, certainly, is education and the way it strips away all our ambition.

For how can ambition and desire flourish in a climate of fear of failure and needless competition over class rank?

Again, I hope no one quits his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting as a result of this piece. At least for the next decade or so, formal education is here to “stay.” The institutions and lecturers which will be forced to “go” will not be forced simply on the basis of them being a part of “formal education”, but because they haven’t learnt to enhance their brand of communicating and facilitating learning experiences. Remember that everything fragile will break and in education, the most fragile thing its practitioners can do is to disregard the fragility of formal education.

Bottom line: If you just finished your SPM, just got your PT3 results or are just starting college — or even if you came out of your mum’s womb last week — here is one amazing principle which should change your life: You’ll enjoy the scroll more if you don’t glorify it.

Ensure you don’t flunk. Give your fullest attention to the subject you love or are good at. Don’t worship your studies, but don’t be a lazy dork either.

And you’ll do fine.

* The writer works in an “institute of higher education.” Is the fact that he does so and that he’s written a piece like this render him hypocritical or disingenuous? Alas, only someone in the grip of formal education would think so.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles