Reconstructing the culture of our public universities
Special Issue: Crisis in Malaysian Higher Education
By Azly Rahman
My parents managed to only complete Darjah Tiga/ Standard Three of their education – poverty and the nature of ‘human capital revolution’ during the 1950s did not afford them the luxury of being in an ivory tower.
One became a taxi driver and one a factory worker in Singapore assembling microchips for a German multinational corporation. They would leave for work at four in the morning and come home at seven at night. That was the story of their lives – I am sure they had the dream of entering a place called “the university”.
They spent their time -- hard times -- that took the toll on their personal lives, raising their children to ‘enter the university”: the “ivory tower”.
But they had an intelligent hunch – they believed the university will be the place that will make everybody come out smarter and able to think critically, creatively, and altruistically. They did not have the knowledge of political-economy to think that the university is closely linked to the politics of the day.
An “ivory tower” connotes an institution that will make human beings smarter as they pass through the rituals designed by those who owns the tower.
I still believe what my parents believed – that the university ought to make people come out smarter and able to solve problems in as many ways as they possibly can. The university ought to make them able to articulate ideas, expound ideas, and make the graduates closer to the “masses” and not to the “power elites”.
The university ought to make its graduate understand the meaning of human liberation. The university ought to help that human being have all the qualities mentioned and at the same time help him/her have a decent job; one that will evolve into a career and ultimately become a calling.
Like my mother especially who would say … “Belajar lah pandai pandai Ah-Lik, nanti boleh masuk universiti…” (“Study hard Ah-Lik, you can then enter the university”)’
I too believe in this mantra which says that that universities must be the place to make one more intelligent.
Cultures of Dis-ability
What has become of our public universities? In what ways have we, borrowing the term used by two eminent American cultural anthropologists, Herve Varenne, and Ray McDermott, created cultures of disability? [Professors Varenne http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/index.html (my mentor at Columbia University) and McDermott were writing about the cultures of American schooling http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/culturedisability.html)
The public seems to be feeling betrayed. Too often now in the emerging progressive media, we hear such lamentations:
Our universities have lost its sense of historic and philosophical mission; we are seeing a university shackled by the ideology that has developed historical- materialistically out of the mould of Western and Eastern colonialism.
Our Vice Chancellors are merely pleasing their political masters; they seem to be imitating the role of a mini politician. Their creativity and sense of democracy is “guided” by a philosophy of instrumentalism.
Our academic staff are overwhelmingly afraid to speak up on issues that matters most to the destiny of the nation: increasing authoritarianism, Oriental Despotism, rule of technocracy for instance, the plundering of our national wealth by those in the ruling elites, destruction of our rainforests and our environment, blind following of the ideology of developmentalism, and silencing of the civil servants as well as the academicians through dictates and documents that are archaic and styled perhaps after the rule of J.W.W. Birch, the resident of Malay settlement of the 1800s. Theirs minds are conditioned to obey. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/33735]
Our students are being treated like extensions of the Malaysian secondary schools and they in turn treat the university as a place wherein facts are merely to be regurgitated at the end of the semester examinations; they now expect to be spoon-fed even during job interviews.
Our campuses are becoming a battleground of political leaders from the “pro-aspirasi kerajaan” (pro-government aspiration and ‘pro-pembangkang’ (pro-Opposition.) The words “aspiration” and “opposition’ are cleverly used to create the ‘good guy” versus ‘bad guy” dichotomy in Malaysian politics, masking the real issue – we need a brand new political order altogether. Our students are not skilled in reading between the lines, since they are skilled memorizers of facts and blind receptors/recipients of ideologies. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/33451]
Our classrooms are turning to be real lecture theatres wherein the lecturers and the professors are mostly not keen in engaging in dialogical, dialectical, and didactical teaching. Our university lecturers/professors think they are “the sages on stage” and not “Socrates the liberator” and a “guide on the side”. They have become “modular-type” instructors.
Our Minister of Higher Education seems to be slow in reacting to issues such as the “ISA-7”, the “Gomez Affair”, and the many complaints on the abuse of power in the ivory towers. Political influence from above is binding him as a true educational leader. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/36934].
Our universities are more interested in specializing themselves into this and that university – Management, Multimedia, Agricultural, Technology, Social Sciences, the Arts, etc. etc. – undermining the value of a broad and strong foundation of the arts and humanities that ought to form the basis of any institution called a “university”. A “Universiti UMNO” -- a little bit too much for an institution -- was even suggested . The more specialized the universities are, the better they can be ideologically controlled. This seems to be the nature of hegemonic system of thinking that is prevailing.
Our graduates were churned out in a diploma mill that produced them for only three years – we now have unemployed graduates by the hundreds of millions. They were given the promise to finish early; they ended up without jobs as a guarantee.
Our academicians do not produce enough bodies of knowledge; ones that would challenge every aspect of the foundation of ideas that is prevailing. We continue to produce knowledge base that is “instrumental reason” and technocratic in nature, produced out of lecture theatres, tutorial rooms, and textbook-publishing houses that fail to critique the dominant ideology.
Our universities are not only funded by the ruling coalition party that is under scrutiny for big-time corruption, but also by corporations at home and abroad that are interested in seeing that the graduates are graduating from the mould of the corporate-government-industrial complex.
Our universities are fertile grounds for the indoctrination of ideas and the funneling down of slogans – from “the idea of a K-economy” to “Islam Hadari”, from the slogan ‘kepimpinan melaui teladan” (leadership by example) “bersih, cekap, amanah” (clean, efficient, and trustworthy) to “cemerlang, gemilang, terbilang’ (glorious, fabulous, and world-famous). [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/37784] We continue to be sloganized. Academicians diligently frame their research question, methodology, findings, conclusion, and recommendations to fit the citra-rasa/agenda of the ruling ideology of the day. Our universities ride the waves of Nationalization, Islamization, Information Technologization, Globalization, and now Bio-technologization – because they choose not to stop and look at the waves first and ride them later.
To summarize the points above, we have, borrowing again, the words of Professors Varenne and McDermott , created cultures of dis-ability in our public universities.
Our politicians, especially those involved in education beginning from the time of Independence have not clearly understood the role of a university in a nation that is coming out of colonialism.
Because the developmental agenda of the nation is tied to the role of the universities, the latter has become apparatus of the ideology of modernization and hypermodernization; two continuing processes of the development of base and superstructure that define what we are now: a neo-colonialist corporatist nation that is even more complexly tied to the international system of modern slavery ruled via the regime of globalization.
What inroads need we take to reconstruct our public universities? We must go back to philosophy for possible solutions.
Cultures of Ability
To enable our public universities, we ought to embark upon, borrowing the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, a “long walk to freedom” by taking the steps to:
Understand the philosophy and historic mission of universities; those in the business ought to be able to articulate the meaning and manifestation of a university.
Understand the meaning of ‘hegemony” [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/33035] and how it was crafted in the previous regime of Tun Dr. Mahathir and how we ought to craft ourselves out of it. We ought to understand how not to get into a “newer form of hegemony” that is being mounted in the name of the Reformasi movement. We ought to understand how to be totally free and how to live a philosophical life that values the quest for meaning rather than the quest for political and material Epicureanism.
Understand theories of knowledge and its application to all spheres of university education so that we may not merely turn our ivory towers into creating people and ideas that will turn this nation into a haven for economic exploitation of global multinational corporations. Our universities are increasingly influenced by “market forces” in that we become slaves to industries that are themselves slaves to technological inventions that do not have an end to their own “progress”. Our graduates in the scientific and technological fields are discovering that they are becoming victims to the onslaught of “shifting technologies” and the emotion-less system of advanced capitalist formation that shift jobs and retrenches people in the name of “corporate downsizing,” “corporate re-engineering”, and in meeting the needs of “specialized labor”. This means that these major global corporations that dictate the needs of labor to be produced from our universities are finding it more profitable to either automate or to move their operations to nations that can sell human labor even cheaper.
Understand the role of universities viz-a-viz truly democratic nation; in a democracy that values pastoralism and meaningful participation rather than one that advances protectionism and the plundering of public wealth. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/36153]
Study progressive reform movements that has helped advance the development of intellectual culture of universities.
Learn to deconstruct ideology by understanding what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas call ‘ideologikritik’; the art and science of understanding the structure of knowledge and the “human-constituted interests” that embody it. By understanding how knowledge, particularly instrumental/technical knowledge is constructed, and who owns and control its development, we can better understand how to deconstruct it to be more humane.
Inject Critical Theory and Critical Sensibility in our daily academic practices. Familiarize ourselves with the work of institutions such as The Vienna Circle, The Berlin School of Logical Positivists, The Frankfurt School of Social Research, The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, LEKRA, ASAS 50, and our own Malaysian school of progressive thoughts.
Encourage cutting edge social and cultural research and understand alternative economic theories that value the development of the people, by the people, for the people.
Improve the quality of Foundation courses so that they may help our graduates ground their studies and future practice in the reading of great works in cross-cultural, inter-religious, and socially-real human experiences. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/37577]
Work on affirmative Action and Cultural diversity policies that will help us understand and be aware of what “Equal Opportunity Employment” means.
Improve instructional practices across the board, taking advantage of emerging digital technologies that will be used for the advancement of “digital proletariatism” rather than to enrich computer technology vendors well-connected to politicians.
Improve faculty workload so that they may have time to think like a philosopher rather than be, like a “homo academicus in the age of the smart machine”; the academician who is being caught in the conveyor belt of knowledge production controlled by those who owns the nation and international production-house of knowledge. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/33934]
Ignite intellectual fervor in our students. Challenge them with more and more questions, like Socrates did with the Athenians. To be smart one’s thinking need to be radicalized.
Improve students’ higher-order thinking skills; challenge them into newer intellectual heights.
Ensure that politicians who do not know much about university education not be given the platform to interfere with learning. [http://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/36717]
Involve all levels of people in continuing education.
Attract competent teaching faculty from diverse philosophical perspectives to intellectually enrich our students in the universities.
Monitor and deal democratically and dialogically with all forms of extremism in thinking.
Explore the idea of “creative de-evolution” and “revilligization” as an alternative to urbanism. There is beauty in agricultural economy.
Explore transcultural socialism and its philosophical and practical underpinnings; one based on a system of moral economy that ensures equitable, regulative, and distributive justice and one rooted in the supremacy of metaphysics.
Since we are interested in the future of our children’s intellectual development, let us begin our dialogues on how to reconstruct our public universities.
Let us inquire into the complex relationship between the State and the Universities and how the contradictions are always present. How much intervention must the Universities allow the State to have? To whom must the allegiance of the universities lie?
Education is about renewing prosperity, rejuvenating hope, and redefining our practices.
Above all, education is about “educare” (from Latin) meaning “the drawing out” of human potentials, so that our students, as my mother would say:
‘boleh jadi orang pandai… boleh tolong anak bangsa’ (“can become intelligent and can help the children of your race”)
I would adapt her notion of social justice to… boleh tolong bangsa Malaysia (“to help the Malaysian race”) or, better still, borrowing the great storyteller Pramoedya Ananta Toer, boleh tolong anak semua bangsa (“to help the children of Humanity”).