Decadence in academe

In this second part of the discourse on academia, we focus on decadence in our education philosophy, as well as moral and cultural decline.

This decadent trend is damaging because our political and intellectual elites do not seem to be aware of an impending crisis.

Decadence is characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure, luxury, degeneracy, hedonism and corruption. All of us know that these characteristics do not benefit the majority in any society. The last four decades of our political development attest to that.

Decadence does not only apply to the politician. It also can characterise the private-sector decision-maker as well as civil society attitudes, academics and members of the general public. Selfish, vested interests are their modus operandi.

In academia, a dominant trait of decadence is the conscious indifference to the real objective of higher learning.

The ideal objective is to produce a well-balanced individual. However, decadence has seeped in because our decision-makers feel that the objective is to produce “marketable”, relevant and “sustainable” graduates.

To them, education should be focused on how marketable the students will be. How much wealth they will bring to the nation; how their education will benefit the country in terms of ringgit and sen. At best, this aim is short-term.

Following the above logic, why would we need universities then?

The word “university” originates from the Late Latin “universus” which means “the whole”. In ancient India, the purpose of university education was its search for the truth, for the knowledge of “Atman” (individual soul) and the “Brahman” (supreme soul).

Our current emphasis is not on this “whole”, but on marketability. As such, should we not be content with vocational institutions then? Vocational graduates can be given comparable degrees to which the market can re-orientate its requirements. They are more cost-efficient, require less human resources, and can produce more STEM experts in a shorter period of time.

Why continue to ape historical traditions, and give false prestige to the notion of “a university education”?

My questions, of course, are rhetorical. We desperately need quality, well-rounded universities.

One of the problems with the vision of our higher education is whether this vision is geared towards a “holistic” student; one who is equipped to grapple with most aspects of societal change beyond their employment years, i.e. after they retire.

The reality is that globally, many economically-advanced societies are ageing. In the very near future, will our education system be able to see the bulk of this segment of population through their non-working lives?

Will they be equipped with the problem-solving skills one learns in the humanities and social sciences, for instance?

A recent 2013 study revealed that over two-thirds of humanities majors in the US got jobs in the private sector. Subjects that constitute the humanities are philosophy, literature, art history, languages, linguistics, archaeology and jurisprudence.

Almost 60% of US CEOs have degrees in the humanities. However, universities receive less than 0.5% of federal research money in the US for the humanities. In Europe, it is about 1%. Malaysian universities face similar difficulties.

There is evidence that demonstrates how studying the social sciences and humanities benefits societies, employers and individuals.

The humanities help us understand others through their languages, histories and cultures. They foster social justice and equality. They reveal how people, throughout history, have tried to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of the world.

The humanities teach empathy. They teach us to deal critically and logically with subjective, complex and imperfect information. They teach us to weigh evidence skeptically and consider more than one side of every question.

Both social science and humanities students build skills in writing and critical reading. They are equipped to reason about being human and to ask questions about our world.

The humanities develop informed and critical citizens. Most importantly, for contemporary Malaysia, at least, without the humanities and social sciences, democracy cannot flourish. It merely exists.

The humanities and social sciences equip individuals with the skills to analyse the flaws in humankind and how it can be improved.

These cultural aspects include speech, beliefs, arts and customs. It examines and prescribes the type of behaviour considered appropriate to an individual in his or her efforts to achieve the status of being a cultured human being.

A cultured person is often thought to be refined and well versed in the arts, philosophy and languages.

The crux of the problem in our society lies in the repetitive narrative pushed by our leadership. On the one hand we are told about the need for “critical thinkers”. On the other hand, history and philosophy departments in universities are no longer regarded as relevant, let alone prestigious.

For instance, recently, a public university obliterated the name “history” in a faculty restructuring exercise, in the process of re-naming an academic school. Historians in that particular academic school were dumbfounded.

This particular university seems to believe that traditional academic subjects that have always nurtured critical thinking are now insignificant for human development.

Why? Because our decision-makers feel it is not required by “the market”.

Increasingly, the logic is to separate human development from economic growth and nation building. Is it no wonder that we live in a nation that is still bogged down with racial and religious dissent.

We continue to be a society that seriously debates about whether a Muslim can touch a dog, or whether the Batek community are facing the scourge of measles because they have not been converted to Islam.

Our public universities’ present policies that are inconsistent with the original purposes of higher education. This is a world-wide phenomenon.

However, unlike the Harvards, Columbias and Sorbonnes of the West, Malaysian universities do not have the luxury of a great intellectual tradition.

Academic civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik (GERAK) have made it a point to highlight this problem. Individual academics have as well. There are vocal critics and intellectuals who continue with their constructive critiques.

We should pay attention to Malaysians working outside Malaysia (such as Azly Rahman, Wan Zawawi Ibrahim and Syed Farid Alatas), as well as to those within Malaysia (such as Ahmat Adam, Syed Husin Ali and Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid).

We need more thinkers to emerge from their dungeons. More “cultured” academics need to expose the practice of our universities and reformat our education philosophy.

Universities should stop their shallow sloganising in order to appeal to the youth and their parents. Slogans like “marketability”, “preparations for life”, “lifelong learning” and “effective living” have only a superficial effect.

It is the task of the universities to balance the notion of marketability with being human.

Politicians and university administrators must realise that equitable funding should be channeled across different academic disciplines. They should also expand their knowledge of what it means to be truly university-educated.

This is the second of a three-part series. The third part will focus on university administrators and demands on academic staff.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.