American Liberal Education: Lessons for Malaysia


November 6, 2017

American Liberal Education: Lessons for Malaysia

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Morgan-Hill, California

Western secular, humanistic liberal education may have many faults but it is still superior to what is being offered elsewhere. That is a good enough reason for Malaysia to embrace it.–Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Image result for allan bloom the closing of the american mind
Professor Allan Bloom–The Closing of the American Mind

 

My praise for American liberal education notwithstanding, there is no shortage of criticisms of the system. Allan Bloom may be among the earliest and harshest, but you could have a small library compiling books, monographs, and essays critical of the system. A few years ago The New York Review of Books carried an article reviewing eight such books, including one co-written by the former President of Princeton University.

Examine the typical American high school today; it is huge. The largest has an enrollment exceeding 5,000. As there are only four high school years, this means the graduating class would have about 1,250 students. That is less a school, more a huge human educational factory or warehouse. Many American schools now have policemen patrolling and metal detectors. Still that had not prevented great tragedies like the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 that shocked the nation

The physical challenges brought on by the sheer massive size of these institutions aside, there are other even greater non-physical crises. For the most part they are hidden and consequently become entrenched and pervasive.

Then there are the exorbitant and rising costs of college which defy rational explanations. They are then hidden by the ready availability of student loans. Those loans contribute to the problem as universities can now raise fees with impunity. Economists predict that the next financial crisis in America will be with student loans. The scale and impact would be much bigger than the current [2008] housing bust.

Then there is the faculty. At many universities especially the top ones, professors are more akin to full-time researchers, with teaching a chore to be avoided at all costs. Professors brag about “protected time” from teaching, that being the new badge of honor! Teaching falls increasingly on over-worked adjunct (part-time) faculty and graduate students.

More alarming, researchers at universities are mostly funded by industry or special interest groups, thus calling into question the integrity of their work. An alumnus of Harvard Business School related how the luminaries there were heaping praises on Royal Bank of Scotland’s management right up to the bank’s collapse. No surprise there as those professors were highly-paid consultants to the bank at the time.

At the other end of the spectrum is the corrupting influence of lucrative collegiate sports. On many campuses, the highest paid and most influential individual is not the president or the brilliant professors, but the football coach!

Those criticisms do not detract from the value of the American broad-based liberal education. It aims to produce “T” graduates, depth in one field with interest and general understanding across broad areas. In contrast, the Malaysian system we inherited from the British produces “I” graduates with narrowly focused skills and interests.

The world now recognizes the value of a liberal education. China, India, and Japan (indeed the world) send their best students to America. These countries are also busy enticing American colleges to set up branch campuses in their home countries. The greatest concentration of American colleges is in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf States. Within a generation this will prove transformational for the Arab world. Already in Egypt, the most prestigious university (where the elite send their children and where the graduates are highly sought after) is not the centuries-old Al Azhar but the American University in Cairo, established less than a hundred years ago. Likewise, despite the turmoil in Lebanon, the American University in Beirut remains the crown jewel of Arab intellectual achievement.

My concern is not with the American criticisms of its system, rather those coming from commentators and intellectuals of the developing world, specifically Malaysia. Those criticisms carry much more weight with local policymakers and parents.

To these Malaysian critics, American liberal education is devoid of “values” and geared only to serve the needs of the economic machinery of its capitalistic system. They hold up as exemplary the Islamic education system with its objective of producing “good” citizens inculcated with the “correct” moral values. To these critics, unless you believe in God, (not any God however, only the God that they pray to), you cannot be moral, ethical, or “good.”

These critics belittle the achievements of Western education in producing competent engineers and scientists, denouncing them as mere “tools” of the capitalistic economy. That may well be, but by being those “tools” these graduates are serving and contributing to the good of society. When American universities produce competent engineers who design safe jet planes, the whole world benefits; likewise when the system produces scientists who discover vaccines against major killers like polio. Those graduates fit the Islamic definition of being soleh.

Condolence to Syed Hussein Alatas
Professor Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas
Image result for The Myth of The Lazy Native by Dr Syed Hussein Alatas
 

There was one critic worthy of special mention because of the wide reception of his views especially in the Muslim world, the acclaimed sociologist Professor Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas. He accused the Western system of education of perpetrating “intellectual imperialism,” imposing its views on students and scholars from the developing world. They, in turn, are guilty of having a “captive mind,” which he defined as an “uncritical and imitative mind dominated by an external source, whose thinking is deflected from an independent perspective.” That external source is of course Western scholarship

I commend Dr. Syed Hussein’s take on the social sciences but when he tried to extend his observation to the natural sciences, he was on “thin ice,” to use an English metaphor. To him, my using that metaphor reflects this Western intellectual imperialism. Otherwise, he would presumably argue, I would use a different metaphor, like stepping on a banana peel. That would be more in tune with our tropical environment, quite apart from being more readily understood by those from the tropics.

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The University of Malaya, Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia circa 1960s

 

That aside, Dr. Syed Hussein’s observation carries considerable truth. In the early years of the University of Malaya, its leaders and policymakers were more obsessed with replicating a jungle version of Oxford and Cambridge than making a university of Malaya, meaning one that would serve the specific needs of the local society.

Far too often what goes on at local campuses bears little relevance to the surrounding reality. Malaysia desperately needs English teachers, yet not one local university has a Department of English. Likewise, rubber and tin are our two major resources, yet there is very little research into either commodity done on Malaysian campuses. The same goes for endemic local parasitic diseases like dengue.

Dr. Syed Hussein was correct in citing the lack of creativity of students from developing countries who have had the benefit of superior education at Western universities.

I once asked a Malaysian professor why he had not contributed any original published work since getting his doctorate from an Ivy League university. When he noted that I was not impressed with his ready excuse of heavy administrative burdens, he tried others, such as inadequate support facilities like libraries. He obviously had not heard of the Internet. Indeed, many journals and research institutions now give free membership (and thus access to publications and research findings) if you identify yourself as a scholar or faculty from the developing world.

I agree with Dr. Syed Hussein when he chastised Third World graduates and scholars who have had the benefit of superior education afforded at leading Western universities for exhibiting “captive minds” and not demonstrating creativity when solving local problems. I disagree with him however, when he faulted those institutions and their faculties.

Many of the innovations and creative thinking in the developing world today are the products of minds nurtured at leading Western universities. The good Dr. Syed Hussein was Exhibit One, as he had a Phd from the University of Amsterdam. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syed_Hussein_Alatas ).Those “captive minds” that Dr. Syed Hussein condemned are more likely to be the products of Third World universities including such leading ones as Al Azhar. I cannot think of any innovation, Islamic or otherwise, that emanates from that institution.

Western secular, humanistic liberal education may have many faults but it is still superior to what is being offered elsewhere. That is a good enough reason for Malaysia to embrace it.

 

Listen to Noam Chomsky


October 25, 2017

Listen to Noam Chomsky–The Public Intellectual of My Generation

Noam Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.[82] However, it was not until 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on United States foreign policy.[83] In February he published a widely read essay in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals“, in which he criticized the country’s involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard’s Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.[84] He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent.[85] His other political books of the time included At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books.[86] Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement,[87] he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals.[88] Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it,[89] he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.[90]

Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon.[91] During this time, Chomsky, along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald, also founded the anti-war collective RESIST.[92] Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests,[93] he gave many lectures to student activist groups; furthermore, he and his colleague Louis Kampf began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.[94] During this period, MIT’s various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam and, as Chomsky says, “a good deal of [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus”.[95] As Chomsky elaborates, “[MIT was] about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab … the Research Laboratory for Electronics.”[96] By 1969, student activists were actively campaigning “to stop the war research” at MIT.[97] Chomsky was sympathetic to the students but he also thought it best to keep such research on campus and he proposed that it should be restricted to what he called “systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character”.[98] During this period, MIT had six of its anti-war student activists sentenced to prison terms. Chomsky says MIT’s students suffered things that “should not have happened”, though he has also described MIT as “the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than at any other … [with] quite a good record on civil liberties”.[99] In 1970 he visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology; on this trip he also toured Laos to visit the refugee camps created by the war, and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.[100]

President Richard Nixon placed Chomsky on his ‘Enemies List’. As a result of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was ultimately arrested on multiple occasions, and U.S. President Richard Nixon included him on the master version of his Enemies List.[101] He was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience, and his wife began studying for her own Ph.D. in linguistics in order to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or loss of employment.[102] However, MIT – despite being under some pressure to do so – refused to fire him due to his influential standing in the field of linguistics.[103] His work in this area continued to gain international recognition; in 1967 he received honorary doctorates from both the University of London and the University of Chicago .[104] In 1970, Loyola University and Swarthmore College also awarded him honorary D.H.L.’s, as did Bard College in 1971, Delhi University in 1972, and the University of Massachusetts in 1973.[105]

In 1971 Chomsky gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at the University of Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year. He also delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University.[106] In 1971 he partook in a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power.[107] Although largely agreeing with Foucault’s ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes[108] and lambasting France as having “a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture”.[109] Chomsky also continued to publish prolifically in linguistics, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972),[103] an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972),[110] and Reflections on Language (1975).[110] In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.[106]

 

 

 

Listen to a liberal Muslim–Ani Zonneveld


October 21, 20l7

Listen to Ani Zonneveld–She puts Malaysian Mullahs to shame

Image result for tariq ramadan citations

 

Ani was born a Malaysian. Her Dad was an Ambassador  who I knew well as he has served under  our First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and like me, he was from Kedah Darul Aman. Thanks to America. Ani is a liberated Muslim with  a mind of her own and loads of talent. Ani, I salute you.–Din Merican

China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia


October 18, 2017

China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

Universities will be closely scrutinised, professors will be evaluated and the Party will punish those lacking ideological firmness. Such is the program released by Xi Jinping’s government to coincide with the Communist Party congress, where Xi is seeking to reinforce his authority as a world leader.

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Dr Bill Chou Kwok-ping, a political scientist who was last month elected vice-president of Macau’s biggest pro-democracy group is the second Macau academic to lose his job after intervening in political debates in as many months, stirring concerns about academic freedom in the former Portuguese colony.

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Efforts to control universities and disregard academic freedom are also taking place abroad. In early September, Reuters and The Guardian exposed efforts by Chinese authorities to partially restrict access to the American Political Science Review from within China. The Review, one of the most reputable journals in its field, is published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press (CUP). Ultimately the publishing house resisted the Chinese pressure, but the news has sparked upset, coming just a few weeks after another controversy that shook the foundations of academia.

The “China Quarterly” affair

In August, China scholars from around the world learnt that Beijing had demanded that Cambridge University Press withdraw 315 articles and book reviews from China Quarterly, produced by University of London’s respected School of Oriental and African Studies and published by CUP.

These articles dealt with topics considered sensitive by the Chinese government: the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Mao Zedong and China’s Cultural Revolution; ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang; Taiwan; and anything relating to democratic reform.

CUP complied, pulling the offending articles from their Chinese site, explaining that it would rather withdraw a small number of articles of interest to a handful of academics, in order to ensure the continued availability in China of its numerous other academic and educational publications.

Image result for China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

 

Led by China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle, academics and NGOs expressed outrage that CUP would favour its own commercial interests above academic freedom, and threatened to boycott the publishing house.

Faced with protests, the Chinese government defended its actions in an editorial published in the August 20 edition of the Global Times, stating that, while it respects academic freedom in the UK, China has the right to decide what can be published within its borders.

Three days after the censorship came to lighy, CUP had a sudden change of heart, and made the 315 articles available again.

Around the same time, the US-based Association of Asian Studies (AAS) revealed it had received a similar demand but did not comply.

Ideological battle

The controversy highlights the oppressive nature of the government of the People’s Republic. Despite the undeniable international character of Chinese universities, higher education and research must tow the party line.

Deng Xiaoping’s late-1970s policies of economic reform and opening-up enabled the country to become a laboratory of ideas in the last quarter of the 20th century. But for the past decade or so, China appears to be engaged in an ideological battle against the West.

Following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy, behind the US, which was itself weakened by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the resulting severe recession.

Yet China quickly found itself facing dissatisfaction from those steamrollered by a policy of growth at all costs, in spite of the country’s economic and diplomatic successes. Many Chinese intellectuals began to think the lot of their fellow citizens should be improved with a final – political – reform.

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Led by writer, Nobel laureate and university professor Liu Xiaobo, one of the key activists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, hundreds of intellectuals signed the Charter 08, a manifesto in favour of democratising the regime. For this Liu was sentenced in 2009 to an 11-year prison term. He was released in July 2017 and died a few days later.

Document #9, the “anti-subversion kit”

Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012-2013 signalled a new era in the curtailing of freedom of thought. Fearing any threat to the purity of their ideology, Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders released a handbook listing the subversive ideas to be eradicated, the infamous Document #9.

The following topics are now banned from public discussion: western constitutional democracy, the universal nature of human rights, the empowerment of civil society, multiple interpretations of history, and anything questioning the validity of Chinese economic reforms and socialism.

Image result for  China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

While post-Mao China was not free of taboos, they were usually limited to the “three Ts”: Taiwan, Tiananmen and Tibet. Several things have changed since 2012. Firstly, the publication of Document #9 expanded the scope of unacceptable ideas: any subject, without exception, could now be censored.

Secondly, Chinese universities are now the reluctant front-line soldiers in this ideological battle: in 2015, the Minister for Education urged universities to ban the use of textbooks promoting Western values. Lastly, any contravening of the new norm is now subject to severe repression, and the CPC has no qualms about openly resorting to totalitarian tactics.

A violent crackdown

On top of routine intimidation, 248 human rights advocates were rounded up in a brutal mass arrest in July 2015. In the resulting atmosphere of fear, liberal intellectuals no longer think it wise to answer questions from foreign journalists; they practice broad self-censorship and, when possible, wind up living in exile abroad. For those who remain, harassment is commonplace.

These attacks against fundamental rights and specifically academic freedom are now extending beyond mainland China, starting with the special administrative regions. In 2014, several Macau professors were abruptly dismissed; in Hong Kong, the 2015 disappearances of five book-sellers and publishers is still unresolved. These cases reveal the widening cracks in the “one country, two systems” model. Yet Beijing’s influence does not stop there.

n the summer of 2014, the European Association for Chinese Studies had several pages of its program ripped out by the Confucius Institute the day before its biannual conference in Portugal.

The institute apparently objected to advertising from Taiwanese sponsors. That same year, the American Association of University Professors initiated calls for the closure of Confucius Institutes, claiming they undermine freedom of speech on US university campuses.

Last month Australia acknowledged Chinese government interference in its universities. Beijing has been carrying out unprecedented influence and control operations targeting Chinese students as well as Chinese and non-Chinese professors. In response, the Group of Eight (Go8), a coalition of the top eight universities in Australia, has called for a coordinated and measured response.

In 2016, more than a quarter of the 550,000 overseas students enrolled in Australian universities came from China. They represent a significant financial boon for Australian universities, who don’t want to offend the Chinese government. The question is, can the core values of academic institutions be preserved without incurring the wrath of Party leaders?

This article was originally published in French