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From the Office of Wan Ahmad Fayhsal

The Usefulness of ‘Useless Knowledge’


Wednesday, Oct 06

1. YB Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the Member of Parliament for Muar, Johor and a great friend of mine made an interesting claim that a local university graduate must spend more time to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Malaysia compared to countries like the UK, Australia and Singapore.

2. He further argued that by dropping some of the ‘less relevant’ subjects, students can shorted the duration of their studies and therefore transition more quickly into the labour market. Whilst the thesis may appeal to some, I must respectfully disagree.

3. Firstly, the comparisons made were not like-for-like. In general law student at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) must spend two years completing the foundation of law course, four years to obtain his bachelor’s degree, yet need not complete the Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP).

4. A law student in the UK must spend two years doing A-Levels, three years reading law, and need to sit for CLP before joining law practice proper. Overall, there is not much difference between the two.

5. Obtaining a Bachelor of Engineering degree in the UK similarly takes two years of A-Levels and three years of undergraduate studies. After a year of matriculation, a student at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) needs only four years to obtain the same. This is quite similar in Australia and New Zealand. Again, very much comparable.

6. Secondly, YB Syed Saddiq suggested that by doing away with certain subjects (making them electives) – like TITAS, Malaysia Studies and Ethnic Relations, all of which are in the realm of humanities – students can otherwise utilise the equal number of hours ‘saved’ on ‘more relevant subjects’, thus graduate more quickly.

7. However, unless the amount of credit hours required to complete a course is also reduced, this only means that students have less subjects to choose from, which will further limit the scope of their education. It is therefore safe to say that this point is moot.

8. Thirdly, it is a folly to assume that subjects in humanities (or more broadly liberal arts) are not relevant to one’s education, not ‘impactful’, or does not deliver ‘value’ to our students’ development.

9. Let us do another quick observation. Students at my alma mater King’s College London are encouraged to pursue the Associate of King’s College London (AKC) course, a research-led programme of lectures that aims to promote intelligent, open-minded reflection on ethical and philosophical questions, to be completed alongside their main programme of study.

10. It is not uncommon for UK universities to require their students to take ‘unrelated subjects’ such as humanities and languages to broaden one’s perspective. Oxford and Cambridge students have it tougher with their broad approach to any subject. US universities adopt an even more liberal attitude to education in general, which we can discuss next time.

11. On top of that, students are generally encouraged to explore life beyond academia. Other than the non-compulsory internships, they are encouraged to travel, work part-time, volunteer and explore other interests. Enthusiasts of Netflix’s The Crown might have noticed that Prince Charles took up acting when he was at Cambridge.

12. How many among us in either academia or industry would dare suggest that such distinguished institutions make it a habit to waste everyone’s time by encouraging their students to take up philosophy, theatre and Latin? Very few if not none, I would imagine.

13. Fourthly, we should not confuse education with training for skills development. Great thinkers long before Cardinal John Henry Newman (The Idea of a University) or more contemporary than Malaysia’s own Tan Sri Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (The Concept of Education in Islam) have long argued that universities are meant to be the guardian of reason, promote the advancement of knowledge, and provide education that makes a person complete; not a factory that churns out mere workers.

14. If we want skillful workers, we should rightfully invest more in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), as we are now doing. We should also promote modular and more flexible regime for learning, encourage micro degrees and professional education, and expand continuing professional development (CPD).

15. Fifth and finally, studies have shown that subjects in humanities do actually add value to one’s education and personal development. Robbert Dijkgraaf, the director of Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton University thinks that humanities subjects provide the fertile soil that serves as the nourishing medium to grow intellectuals and statesmen.

16. This very much echoes the same idea championed decades ago by renowned modern educationists such as Abraham Flexner in The Usefulness of the Useless Knowledge (1939) and Mortimer Adler in the Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982).

17. Even in the STEM world, skills such as critical thinking, qualitative and quantitative reasoning, problem-solving and teamwork – all of which are now considered highly valuable – can be better acquired through liberal arts.

18. Alarmingly, the World Index of Moral Freedom 2020 ranks Malaysia 129th among all nations – certainly not something we should be proud of. As a country currently battling for its soul and in desperate need of political stability now more than ever, I daresay we stand to benefit from more focus on humanities.

19. It stands to reason that we should critically reexamine the content of humanities subjects currently on offer. Subjects which are otherwise a repeat of what we have learnt at schools can probably be dropped. We should also continue to heavily invest in STEM alongside humanities, yet not promoting one at the expense of the other.

20. On the question of whether or not we should study less or more humanities, I firmly stand with the latter. However, on the question of reimagining education in Malaysia, we certainly need a separate discussion on the matter.

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal bin Wan Ahmad Kamal
06 Oktober 2021

DISCLAIMER: Any view expressed here is done in my personal capacity. It does not reflect or represent the view of any other porty.

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