For there to be an intellectual renaissance at university level, we must have students whose minds have been primed from young to be open to new ideas.
YEARS ago when my daughter was getting her UPSR results, I waited at home chewing my nails. She had refused to let me accompany her to school for the results so I had to wait, hardly able to breathe, at home.
Luckily she had a happy score to give me and we all celebrated afterwards.
As I scanned photos of anxious parents waiting, I recall that time and sympathise. No matter what anyone says about how standards are slipping, you still worry for your children and want them to successfully get over this hurdle.
It is only when you do not have children going through this process, that you begin to look at our exam-oriented education system with a more dispassionate eye.
We groan and moan about how our kids are only learning to pass exams and nothing else, yet every year we exult in the numbers of As our kids get.
Each exam cycle, we reinforce the importance of As even while we complain about how our children are automatons who are unable to think creatively or apply whatever they learnt.
The other week our Deputy Prime Minister called for “an intellectual renaissance to open up and liberate the minds of students”, stating that this should start in universities.
While I agree that we should certainly have such a renaissance, surely starting at university level is just way too late.
How do you undo twelve years of robotic learning and the total suppression of curiosity and enquiry?
For there to be an intellectual renaissance at university level, you must have students whose minds have been primed from young to be open to new ideas.
Yet in both primary and secondary school, children are generally not encouraged to ask too many questions or to use their own initiative to find answers that they need.
The sole purpose of school is to get through the syllabus and to be ready for exams. How do you have an intellectual renaissance (which means “rebirth”) when you have not given birth to it, nor nurtured it in the first place?
We complain about the quality of graduates that our universities are producing and how unemployable they are. But did this unemployability start in university or even sooner?
If you come to university without the necessary skills to cope with whatever “intellectual” acumen you are supposed to pick up there, can three years bring you up to speed?
Last August, I had the opportunity to visit a wonderful project called the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Set up to provide tertiary education to young women from poor families around Asia, the AUW aims to produce women leaders who will go back and become assets to their own countries.
New students do not go straight to university courses. Instead they begin at the Access Academy where they are taught four subjects; English, Mathematics, Computer skills and Critical Thinking.
When I met them, the first batch of students had been there only four months. But they spoke excellent English and were able to give highly sophisticated presentations using computer and videomaking skills.
They could articulate what they wanted for their own futures. The Cambodian girls, for instance, were envisioning what they themselves might do for their country were they to take over the helms of government.
These girls came from even less-advantaged backgrounds than many of our own back home. Yet their confidence was impressive.
One student even wrote to me to correct something I had written afterwards. You just know that these girls are going to become something one day.
So why can’t we do the same thing? Why can’t we spend time and money to prepare our students for that intellectual “renaissance” by teaching them what they really need? Critical thinking particularly is something they could all use.
Of course for them to be able to use their skills effectively at university, you need university environments that are open, liberated and conducive to debate and discussion. Otherwise university is simply an extension of school. And we’ve seen what that produces.
As the AUW has shown, English is an important skill that every potential leader needs. I am heartened to see that most UPSR students answered their Maths and Science papers in English. Hopefully, that would discourage any move to reverse the policy.
Indeed it should be reason to extend the policy to include other subjects or at least to have innovative programmes to improve English proficiency.
All parents want their children to have a good education. I doubt any parent would be selfish enough to seriously disadvantage their child for merely political reasons.
If that happens, I fear the day when students graduating from a new university in Bangladesh would be more employable than any from ours.