November 6, 2017
American Liberal Education: Lessons for Malaysia
by Dr. M. Bakri Musa
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
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  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.
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.
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.