So what is your project about?" I asked the boy 'interviewing' me for his school project. He became really busy noting down my details while asking his friends to tend to my query. There was some confusion amongst them and they finally concluded that they had no idea what it was about. One boy commented that even their teacher did not know.
These sweaty kids were obviously collecting data simply because they were told to, without knowing what purpose it would serve. Letting them embark on a project without ensuring that they were clear about its aim was a worrying sign about our schools.
I was lost in disbelief until I recalled how I myself never knew what my high school project was about. And how I don't remember my teacher trying to explain it to us. Perhaps our big class of 40 had something to do with it.
School was about being obedient and quiet in class. In later years, a teacher's attempt to encourage us to speak up was no match for our years of serious training to blend in; it was a culture whereby those who voluntarily spoke out were branded as "gila glamour" (glamour seeker/crazy) or something to that effect.
My conclusion was that I didn't learn much during my school days here. Fortunately I (and many others I hope) did so in later years. That led to the development of my individual mind-set and world-view. I was left wondering what the purpose of education is in our Malaysian context, and if our current education system is succeeding in achieving its goal?
We often talk about education in terms of literacy statistics but the reality is that in many countries its purpose ends in feeding the capitalist machinery. Is education merely the teaching of certain specific knowledge and skills to create a stable workforce? If so, a workforce for whom and towards what?
Or, should education also be for something less tangible - to empower individuals to be a force for positive social change? Aside from earning a living, I am inclined to include the latter definition as to the real purpose of education.
According to this purpose and definition, an "educated person" will not be, for example, a scientist who allows science to be used in a sexist way, and certainly not, say, an Oxford graduate whose language has a racist edge to it. Perhaps an educated person should include someone who is able to perceive and treat others as his or her equal. Most of us would fall short by that standard, but it is nevertheless an ideal we should strive for.
No one denies that our education system plays a major role in shaping Malaysia's future. Apart from what seems like a system to churn out an obedient and unquestioning workforce, our education policies seem to be reactionary to different demands from different groups in our society, rather than being pivotal in shaping a cohesive plan towards nation building.
As much as our education system produces the minds that shape our society, it is in itself a reflection of our society.
So how do we push for changes in our education system?
Do we have a say on how things are run?
Does our media reflect the real concerns of our people?
How do we present our concerns to those who can make those changes?
Perhaps it all starts in the actions of each and every one of us to influence each other and our decision makers.