At the dawn of our lives, a familiar question silenced our desires: “What is your ambition?”. We ‘should’ say scientists, pilots, teachers, and doctors, because the ‘adults’ would praise us for saying these with a certain level of youthful confidence.
The question however presupposes something else. Early authorities taught us that ‘labour’ is inevitable and natural; that we must study for a future different from toilet cleaners and garbage collectors. Defection curbs reward; discipline and punish: one system imposed the quest for capital on the few million children.
Obviously and forcefully, contemporary universities and parents follow the working of corporate businesses. On the top, universities no longer value organic intellectuality and philosophical creativity. The better famed the university is, the greater a tuition fee we must pay before three or more years of self-codification into fresh blood for labour. At the bottom, choosing a highly employable course is – for our parents, and sometimes even for us – preferable to choosing one of our passion and talent.
Recall the Nottingham bus, by which advertisements of this commercial university go around Semenyih, Kajang, and Kuala Lumpur. On it, we saw the university was the 77th in the 2014 QS World Ranking, a renowned annual survey where academic research plays a major role. In 2016, we improved to a joint 70th. Today, we’re the 84th. Of course, this drop in research performance doesn’t seem to matter too much, because The Sunday Times ranked us as the best in employability. Why impress the intellectual industry, when students can serve the workplace for a lifetime?
Perhaps we learned to never have “passion” in the first place, because it’s pointless for future work. As mundane Malaysians, do we love fine arts, filming, dancing, literature, or philosophy? Practical children would rather solve a page of mathematical problems as soon as possible, have dinner in plausible maturity – and before sleeping, memorise the list of vocabulary for their S.P.M. English exam. Economically valueless stuff is, at most, a pastime.
This was never the case before the nineteenth century. Who knows what has happened on a large scale. At the time of Socrates and Plato, the most revered members of society defended their love of wisdom, even when it meant death. Confucius fought for his revolutionary thought against authorial figures in ancient China. Fast forward to la Renaissance, les gens were ‘reborn’ because literature, knowledge, and arts flourished, in opposition to the past of Catholic monopoly. In the eighteenth century, collective emancipation from suffering through intellectual work was so central to civilisation that it became known as the Age of Enlightenment.
In brief, before a historical rupture in the nineteenth century, the greatest society was one where people with serious commitment performed the task of philosophical, literary, and artistic enquiry. Those days, people did what they loved as a way of life.
Today, the greatest society is one where people perform what they constantly complain about to their friends and families: work. You can try promising that you’ll never ever complain about what you’re doing and persuading yourself – with an enforced blindness – that the workplace and the market are natural. Here, we witness the rise of social standardisation. In this age of capital, we do what we hate as a way of life.
This ‘enforced blindness’ was imposed on us as children. In kindergarten, alongside the family, the media, and the religion, a certain Reason took root in our heads: a system of binary ideas. This Reason stresses that the antonym of ‘good’ isn’t ‘bad’, as Nietzsche concludes, but ‘evil’; the antonym of ‘normal’ isn’t ‘different’, as Foucault discovers, but ‘mad’; the antonym of ‘legal’ isn’t ‘illegal’, as it seems, but ‘God-defying’. The list can continue for pages. But it’s clear that our rationality is algorithmic and extremist: 0 or 1.
Afterwards, in the primary and secondary schools of at least the current Malaysian Government, we see a binary order of things.
- Subject. Certain subjects are counted for grades and are regarded as ‘important’ within the school; others are reduced into the non-graded category. We almost have no doubt about this: compare Matematik against Pendidikan Seni, for example.
- Classroom. Schematic arrangement of classrooms according to the economic value of the academic programme: students of the ‘science stream’ are together; those of the ‘arts stream’ form another mass.
- Student. Miniature relations of authority and followers: prefects, librarians, emcees, class monitors, presidents of clubs and societies, in contrast to the mundane boys in plain white and the mundane girls in unnecessary skirts.
Finally, let’s not overlook the strategic allocation of scholarships according to demands of the economy and the State: one usual criterion is our choice of engineering, applied natural science, business, or law as an undergraduate degree. I dare you to find an equivalent scholarship in Malaysia which specifically supports students in Sociology, Astrophysics, Classical Philosophy, or English Literature.
Thus, early institutions of knowledge and power have disciplined us into thinking that we are taking care of ourselves through our ‘rational’ choice of tertiary education. On the other hand, they have determined which Bachelor’s degree won’t lead to a ‘good future’. They have categorically defined what knowledge is, what knowledge should serve, which knowledge is a priority, and which knowledge carries impracticality. Vicious discourses of capital: life degrades into a mechanical routine and the monotone of mildly paid labour.
Our industrial society emphasises binary reasoning and formulaic fixedness. Our industrial society excludes radical, fluid, and debatable ideas. Our industrial society wants conformity, homogeneity, and control, in natural as well as social sciences. Theoretical Physics, to which Stephen Hawking had devoted his life, and which emphasises conceptual innovations, seems as rare as Cultural Theory; in contrast, Civil or Mechanical Engineering receives as massive an attention as Business or Accounting does.
These days, salient on social media and public sentiment has been a theme of the loss of direction among young people. Perhaps this has been around for decades. Perhaps there has never been a purpose among many university students, other than the opportunity for employment, and the genuine worries of their working parents. As educationalist Sir Ken concludes:
I met all kinds of people who don’t enjoy what they do. They simply go through their lives, getting on with it. They get no great pleasure from what they do: they endure it, rather than enjoy it. – Sir Ken
In our age of capital – where ‘money’ seems omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, even though it’s a historical construct – we are blatantly stupid. We therefore need nothing other than a radical change: a new educational culture; a realisation of a governing power in relation to our binary Reason. In fact, through philosophies of Kant and Nietzsche, Foucault has already warned us about our periodical “Reason”:
“What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers? How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to practicing a rationality that is unfortunately crisscrossed by intrinsic dangers? One should remain as close to this question as possible, keeping in mind that it is extremely difficult to solve.” – Michel Foucault
Fellow millennials, wake up: ‘our’ education hasn’t been ours.
Written by Teoh Sing Fei
Featured image from rafy-a.com
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of IGNITE.