by Azly Rahman
We live in a world I call of a C-3-I; of consciousness, individuals, institutions, and ideology that dominates us. As an educator I am interested in seeing those I ‘teach’ become, like a ‘Buddhist monk-in-training’ in a Zen Buddhist temple somewhere in the mountains of Vermont.
I want them to be aware of their surroundings by first being aware of themselves and the world of the ‘prison-house of language’, as the American literary theorist and postmodern theorist Frederick Jameson would say of the cognitive matrix we are in.
In the following passages, my thoughts on learning and teaching in general use Malaysia as a case study of a country whose material progress does not seem to correlate the progress in creating a thinking citizenry. What is the nature of the cognitive world we inhabit? What ethos should govern our lives as educators? How should schooling respond to our increasingly complex world?
Our world, heavily mediated
I begin with this soliloquy:
We live in a world demanding our understanding of the semiotics and cybernetics of the self and to understand how to read ourselves and the world within and outside of us. We live to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct our inner and outer worldviews, to see life as a complex process of authoring of the self and re-authoring our world that is constantly shifting, and to have a sense of what the ‘core’ is if there is indeed one.
We are then brought to see the linearity and multi-dimensionality of our invented realities as one, to see ourselves as an organic mechanism of a grand narrative with multiple subplots with no narrative structure and as a complex novel with no plot but a story begging to be told - stories of joys and suffering and meaning and meaninglessness.
We are to see chaos as a beautiful pattern of randomness, to master the art of being a metaphysical anarchist that will use the sense of being to resist the hegemonising power individuals, institutions, and ideology to dominate and destroy the self.
We are to do much more of these and ultimately to construct this final statement of beingness - to live free, or die happy in the hands of the state and religious, cultural, or any ideology and to live, love, liberate, and die laughing at tyrants, totalitarian regimes, and theocracies.
Herein lies an idea linking the self, schooling, the Socratic notion of a ‘life examined is worth-living,” and what the mind of the 21st. century human being should be like.
Sometimes thoughts of de-schooling society, first proposed by the Russian thinker Ivan Illich, or to ‘un-school the mind’ as Howard Gardner (famed for his ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ comes avisiting me as I write about education and how the mind of Malaysian children, in this case, is being endangered.
Endangered minds, cybernated
We are endangering the mind of our children. Our education system is breeding mediocrity and an unthinking citizenry. Our curriculum is not challenging enough to meet the needs of globalisation and to create the next generation of children who will become global thinkers able to produce ideas and to translate them into artifacts and applications that would help advance the social, creative, critical, and ethical purpose of humankind.
There is a disjuncture between what we wish to showcase (e.g. ‘Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor’ and ‘Biotech Nation’) with what we are teaching children in schools. We have created spaces of knowledge and power in the framework of education and national economic development.
We are only interested in producing a generation of students skilled in memorising facts and to regurgitate them when the need arises. We have little interest in giving birth to thinking citizens who are able to relate to each other inter-culturally, and able to be transformed into life-long learners, imbued with the passion of changing the nature of society and government when the ruling class no longer serves the interest of the rakyat/masses.
We have created many generations of followers and a silenced the majority, happily living their lives as American sociologist Herbert Marcuse calls one-dimensional beings; reproduced human beings blind and mute to the massive corruption unfolding before their very eyes destroying the fabric of our ethical culture.
We are leaving our children in the hands of those who are ill-prepared to develop them into the ‘everyday genius’. We are full of slogans on success - ‘world-class this and that’, ‘regional hub for education’, ‘smart schools’, ‘vision schools’, ‘independent schools’, etc.
We are interested in rhetoric, in pleasing political visitors to our schools, in preparing our students to get as many As as they can get through drill-and-practice type learning and teaching, and to create showcase schools so that foreign and local corporations can also showcase their ‘generosity’ and commitment to our educational system, paving the way for gentler and newer way of ‘glokal-styled’ colonisation.
We are interested in cutting ribbons and displaying huge mock checks and forcing our school-teachers to work long and late hours on things other than teaching and preparing for classes - on things that would only please the headmaster and the local politicians who do not have any idea how children develop cognitively.
We have been systematically killing the creativity of our teachers by burdening their minds with mundane activities to be completed out of unreasonable fear of authority.
We have successfully created classes of society through our classification system of schools and through the class ideology we directly or indirectly teach in our classrooms. We have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. Like labeling batteried-chicken eggs, we assign ‘grades’ to our schools.
When our schools are failing, we try to create independent schools and profit from more private schools, leaving behind the children of the poor of all races to be recycled in the system of structural mental-ideological violence. We are wasting good talents. Instead of making the slogan ‘brain gain’ a reality, we are making ‘brains go down the drain’.
We have also created, in Malaysia for example, the dispossessed youth with passion for death-inviting drag-racing, the Mat Rempits, the essentially loan-shark artist ‘Alongs’ preying in the financially desperate, and gangsters groomed in the rubber estates and depressed urban areas.
These are the products of an unthinking schooling and reproductions of the post-industrial society. We have neglected the development of their minds and created successful failures through the schools we build. We have appointed educational leaders who perhaps have not set foot in the classroom, let alone in those of the most impoverished areas of our country.
What is our problem with this gentle profession and enterprise called ‘Education’? How must we act and feel as teachers - those ‘transmitters of culture and Grand Narratives’ and at the same time “subverts of the human mind and promoters of Constructivism in thinking? How do we mediate these two roles; of the managers of virtue and cultivators of critical thinking?
Having been immersed in this ‘passion’ called the ‘teaching profession’ for more than 25 years now, teaching in the two cultures ‘East and West’. i..e. in Malaysia and in the United States in both the secondary and at the tertiary levels both ways, I have these to say about what teachers ought to become and how the ‘Socratic ethos’ need to be in synchrony with the mind the millennial child that resides in the 21st Century.
Socratic Ethos and the millennial teacher
The noble profession of teaching should only be reserved for the best and the brightest in society: the Socrates amongst us. It should be reserved for those who have the passion, dedication, and discipline to turn children into radical thinkers who will question everything and anything and who will create useful artifacts for society and dedicate one's life to the improvements of the mind, body, and soul of fellow beings.
This is necessary so that society can constantly be renewed, refreshed and be brought to reach the height of periods of evolving Renaissance. This will be our Socratic process of bringing humanity from darkness to light as in the Sanskrit term ‘guru’.
Having said this, many of those teaching in our classrooms today ought to leave the profession for many are there whose unintended goal is that to destroy the minds of an entire generation.
A good teacher is one who is skilled in the art and science of planting doubts in the curious young minds and good at training minds to be scientists and philosophers.
A Socratic teacher as such will to leave each lesson with more questions than answers, to respect each and every child as if each one of them is a teacher one can learn from, and to shower each child with questions that will make him/her shake the foundation of the self, invigorate the critical sensibility in the self.
This is done so that the child will grow up thinking as freely as how he/she ought to live and die, and free as Nature wish human beings to be. Such notion of freedom is the creed of a free society, one that is free from the dictates of dogma and dictatorship of the few; those powerful few who themselves were trained to think as free as how oppressors and immoral aristocrats ought to be.
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” as the Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques-Rousseau said and we do not have anything to lose except of chains, Marx concluded.
I have a suggestion for nations to consider.
Today’ schools need to be abolished and education to start at Year Zero of a new educational revolution that should rest on of the idea of Singularity and Complexity and the multiplicity of the fluidity of knowledge that is constantly evolving and organic.
This philosophy of education is yet to be conceived and crafted as the nature of the human self and the mind is being reconstructed, leaving behind the legacy of Industrialism, Post-Industrialism, and Quantum Physics as paradigms. Schools will one day respond to these mega changes and cease to exist in its current shape and form and purpose.
They will one day soon replace institutions of power and knowledge controlled from above such as the ashrams, madrassahs, abbots, convents, and kibbutzs. These are prison-houses of mass indoctrinations of mono-cultural cognitive linearism for the state to mold the children into citizens obedient enough to be slaves to the power elites and the new global imperialists and newer mandarins.
Essentially in this post-industrial social design called ‘instrumental education’, today’s schools are mere factories producing an unthinking citizenry living in a matrix of absurdities.
The ‘smart-schools’ movement in hyper-modern countries such as Malaysia primarily succeeded in these areas: the selling of more computers to schools and the creation of a new generation of teachers and administrators that cannot articulate the meaning of technological change vis-a-viz the meaning of education.
Worse, cybernating societies as such have merely made the ground of education fertile for meaningless experimentation of the ‘power of computer technology to liberate humanity’, ending up instead of hardware dumped into the junkyard of man-machine technology and leaving the development of software failing to be in synchrony with the speed of evolution of technology itself.
In the end technology controlled by the forces of new global imperialists and profiteers of these fantasy machines outsmart the ability of the ‘smart schools’ live to their expectations of producing children smart enough to grow up to outsmart machines.
From the above considerations on human consciousness and it is impacted by the interplay of individuals, institutions, and ideology - the C-3-I of beingness as I call it, the antidote of Socratic learning and teaching is needed as an antidote the increasing neo-Frankensteinisation of our society.
Schooling needs to respond to this extravaganza of the onslaught of technology on the human mind. The post-post-neo Luddites are now part of the world of hybridity between man and machines.
Metaphorically, Marxists and Maoists too are marrying Machines and are becoming smarter in their analysis of the idea of ‘technological determinism’, and are now more in love with their Apple gadgets than becoming seekers of truth living on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden pond.
The notion of the ‘democratisation of technology’ and the ‘digital proletariatisation’, of technological applications have become the leitmotif of a world mediated. Critical sensibility much needed to be cultivated in schools take the form of the teaching of Thinking Skills using computer programs designed by companies producing computer software and hardware.
The cybernated world has produced cybernated schoolings, and in the conveyer belt of education, are producing little techno-monsters designed by newer Dr Frankensteins.
We need to bring back our Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Kungfu Tze, Ibnu Rushd, Ibnu Arabi, Shankara, and our Siddharthas and Zarathustras back into our society. First and foremost, we need the ethos of our first teacher, Socrates.
This should be our agenda for the 21st century.