Discerning the dangers of formal education

JANUARY 26 — This one’s for all the school-leavers or college freshies.

Education is kinda 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, however, is like one big self-deception. Practically everybody recognises 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 why is it so hard to see that to continue immersing our children towards achieving this same domain’s highest values (“becoming a top scorer”) is to shoot ourselves in the foot? (see Note 1)

Isn’t this like attending a weeklong seminar on the importance of silence, only to immediately spend a bomb on the latest high-tech speakers?

Reminder: Formal education can be perilous (see Note 2).

It can destroy curiosity. It can stifle intuition and limit creativity. It can “train” students to not be street-smart, to not appreciate innate learning and gut feeling. 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 students may fail to detect (being fixated with ace-ing those papers) and thus absorb into themselves. By doing so, a student actually becomes less than he/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. 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 on a project (whether corporate or personal).

Education a dream killer?

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…”). Let’s put that in graphical form, as per below.Kids start of full of energy and vigour and somewhere along the line, schools and the “system” in general take 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?

Every student’s priority?

So if you just finished your SPM, just got your PT3 results or are just starting college or, heck, 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 worship it.

Whenever I ask beginning (or even senior) college students what their most important focus will be over the next few years, the inevitable answer is: Get the degree (or diploma).

Wrong answer. Or not a very good one.

A better reply could be “Over the next 3-4 years, I want to…”

Attend half a dozen conferences (especially some overseas ones)

Make a new friend every month and maybe a VIP acquaitance every now and then

Conquer two mountains, three rivers, one desert?

Finish four marathons (or cyclethons or walkathons — as long as it’s not the typical Malaysian thing, the eatathon)

Make a movie (or a short film)

Publish a book (or an academic paper)

Give away half my belongings

Visit half a dozen countries and ensure I “do something” there (e.g. run a class, learn a dance, work with the locals on some project, paint, solve a crime, etc, etc; the point is to not be merely a tourist)

Get the picture?

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

As long as you don’t flunk your studies, there’s really no need to “idolise” your exams and assignments. Every year, in Malaysia at least, there are about two hundred thousand undergraduates dressed like Harry Potter and shaking some VC’s hands on a stage. So a dude who obsesses about completing his Bachelor degree is really obsessed about being a drop in a pond.

Wait — what about job prospects? What about academic credentials as a prerequisite to getting work, earning money, etc.?

Yeah. Like I said, don’t flunk. Take care of that aspect and everything else is up for grabs.

Seriously. No employer cares about how many As you got. No boss cares about you winning some Book Prize or (unless he’s an Academic Dean eager to boost the scholar credentials of his faculty) and no manager will care about how “terror” your assignments are.

Almost the only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform on the job and whether or not you’re a jerk in the office, two aspects never quite “examined” in school?

Note 1: With the exception of early years and primary education, which, despite any imperfections, are absolutely essential as it, imparts some non-negotiable skills to kids (e.g. the 3Rs – Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic). And notice how the teachers of younger children are usually more dedicated and caring? I can’t help suspecting this is also what makes kindgarten and primary school kids happier overall?

Note 2: No no no I’m not saying let’s close down every school and college or let’s throw away exams, etc. What I’m saying is — look, just re-read the article?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online. 

Related Articles

Up Next