Category Archives: Musings

On education

Just completed the movie “An Education” starring Carrey Mulligan and Peter Skarsgaard. The world works in a funny way when movies – which seem simple enough – are the most though-provoking things around. Having read about the movie, and heard rave reviews about it from friends, at a girls’ night in, we just couldn’t pass it up.

So the movie embodies naïveté, first love, growing up and learning from your mistakes. But the movie is not new. It’s from 2009, so I’d expect that the storyline is familiar to most. It follow much of the classic Hollywood examples. Yet what caught my eye was a scene in which the protagonist – Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan – challenges her parents and teachers about ‘education’. In her childish ways, she asks why formal education is even necessary for women and why that education no longer mattered if one had someone else to rely on (i.e. a husband) – this is set in the 1960s. This I found to be the best under-appreciated scene in the movie.

She was childish, true; she was insolent, true. But as someone who has gone through the motions of higher education, I think her questions are pertinent. As a woman living in the 60s, her questions seem insolent – why would a woman not want to succeed through a university education? But alas, I find it ironic that in the 21st century, that question is forgotten. Ask many a student on the street, ‘Why are you going to university?’ and you’d be hard pressed to find a satisfactory answer. In our quest to increase educational levels, we have forgotten why we are here. And I find this loss of purpose a great disturbance to the future.

We no longer go to university because it was ‘exceedingly rare’. We no longer go to university (in the classical sense of the word – see note) because it is the only way to have a job (for women). We no longer go to university because we want to travel, see the world, explore. Many of us go to university because it was the right thing to do, without so much as a bat of the eyelid. Does university offer us a new future for the world? It certainly offers us the tools to change our world, but does that knowledge still contain value?

I’ve found that many of us go to university without a purpose, without a passion and sometimes with a purpose or passion that is not ours. As someone who did not really consider the ramifications of a university education, I am guilty of such a lack of purpose. We spent an important part of our lives dreaming a dream not our own. So as much as I am – NOW – an advocate of university (and post-graduate) education, I find that we need to do so with a purpose that is wholly our own. In the words of my professor, ‘It is your passion in life that will lead you through all sorts of shit.’

And this is especially true – even now – for women. Call me bizarre, but I do believe that women especially need to understand why they are pursuing higher education. Primarily because social pressures exist everywhere to deter us off course. The pressure to form a family, have children, stay at home, take care of our parents. I do not pretend that these social pressures exist. To think that they do not is to fail to see the reality of social mores. Childcare is not a crime, no, but does it have to be the woman that takes time off to do it? Housework is important, yes (and quite necessary for survival, I have learnt), but is it necessary for the woman to do it all? If women do not understand why they are in university, and why it is important that they are in university, pursuing what they want, I don’t quite trust society to give them a break. Every summer that I return home, a familiar beat is drummed: Women who are not married/dating by the age of 30 need to be pressured to do so.

And this regardless of the level of university education they receive or even how intelligent they are. Are they not capable of surviving a life without a male companion? Are they lesser beings?

So for me Jenny’s fight rings true. I do not work so hard, for so long, just to be married off. I am here and working harder than ever before because it is a difficult world to succeed in, and I want to stand on my own two feet. Alone with friends and maybe some pots and pans, if necessary. It is movies like this and ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘ that make me think and re-think my educational purpose.

Ask me in 10 years if I changed my mind.

But till then.


*Note: When used in this context, I take university to mean the institution that offers higher education in the form of disciplines, Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, Natural and Physical Sciences. Different technological and vocational hybrid institutions are challenging this model, but for the most part universities have remained quite classical in their classification of knowledge. i.e. Anthropology is a social science while Chemical Engineering is a Natural/Physical science.


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Bibliophilic lives

The life of a university student very often revolves around the concept of knowledge. We are here, we sacrifice sleep, we sacrifice a social life, all in the name of the pursuit of knowledge.

But what is this pursuit of knowledge? Is it finite? Why do we run towards it? Why are institutions and billions of dollars committed to this pursuit? Different scholars would give different answers. I believe in the idea of the empowerment of knowledge in a creating a world that continues to provide wonder to the future.

But this is sometimes how I (and many of my peers) feel in the midst of this pursuit:

There is too much to learn. Too much to remember. Too many expectations of our education. We are of privilege, and made to feel the pressures that accompany it. The many subjects that we understand need to be useful, need to be applied to the world. You can be self-driven in your pursuit but you cannot be selfish in your knowledge.

At the end of the day, is it so important that we give our lives to the Tree of Knowledge?

I’d say yes, but I also think that not enough thought has been given to why we undertake this journey.

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Flight to London is ready for boarding

A happy grandmother and her cake

Looking through my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday pictures, makes me think about a little dilemma I have every couple of months or so.

Being a student overseas, I travel – A lot (well, at least I’d like to think I do). 5 months at school, and holidays elsewhere (as we are kicked out of dorms). Factor in flights to and from home/summer jobs, with layovers in different places (depending on which airline provides the cheapest flights) – this is especially true when you’re working on development. It can be London one time, Nairobi once and Doha another. So as any intrepid traveler can tell you, it is expected to bring back souvenirs for relatives and friends. This is where it gets complicated. What can I buy for my 80 year old grandmother? My 19 year old brother? Will it fit in my bags? And the biggest question of all: Can my tiny self actually carry all of this? But when I started asking my grandmother the questions, I got some very interesting replies.

When I asked her, months ago, “Do you want me to buy anything for you?” The answer is almost always a, ‘No.’ But then she doesn’t tell you anything else. And I will think, ‘does she actually want anything?’ I’m returning from exotic places, doesn’t she want to see something new?

But as I spend my time abroad, I discuss this with my friends. And we realised, when you’re home, what your family truly wants is present in the way they treat you: They’d prefer it if you stayed at home with them, ate meals with them, ran errands with them, and they shower you with your favourite foods.

So what exactly is it they want?

They don’t want gifts, wines from France, or even lamps from Dubai. All they want is for you to be there with them, spending the short time you have with them. They want you. Your love and in turn they give you theirs unconditionally, if only for four weeks in a year. And then they give you up to the world – again – because they want you to make a life for yourself, and make them proud.

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Can the liberal arts save your life? Part I

Under normal circumstances, perhaps not, but if you think hard enough (or extrapolate enough, with the inclusion of multiple assumptions), anything is possible. However, I am not here to discuss that, but this.

In this New Yorker article, Louis Menand discusses American higher education as an institution, it’s modern history, the different processes and where it is now. The central thesis was the value of American higher education. This could be summed up with the difference between liberal arts colleges and large universities. Students from the different institutions think differently and have different priorities.

It was his central thesis that caught me eye. Being enrolled in a liberal arts college myself, it was easy to get lost in the learning, the reading and the understanding that all that I was learning was valuable*. However, being a product of my culture (and this would require a discussion about Malaysian culture and education to understand), I have had the opportunity to encounter students who do not think that way. For them, all that matters is that – Menand’s words – higher education provides a ride to success in life. Such an argument is not easy to rebuke, especially if one quotes the need for engineers, doctors, farmers and other specialists to keep our world running (i.e. Nuclear engineers needed to work nuclear reactors – pre-Fukushima scare). Compare this to the general liberal arts education: Students are enrolled with the condition that they ‘broaden’ their horizons by taking classes in different fields, at different levels. This is based on the understanding that such an education produces a more rounded human being, that will be able to deal with life’s challenges. It’s based – loosely** – upon the principle of the Renaissance Man.

The difference in emphasis often presents itself in the type of student the institution attracts. Liberal arts colleges have more reading/writing focused students and in Menand’s opinion, more academically motivated students. These students have career ideas and motivations, but their primary educational focus is based upon ideas. Universities attract students who are more focused upon careers and industries, thus they are based primarily upon the application of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Discussions about the effect of both education systems have gone on for years, with no end in sight. It’s a bit like watching a really long sumo match.

Being a liberal arts student, I will admit that I have many interests. They range from 18th Century French Literature to Soil Chemistry. Thus I am thankful for my education thus far. However, I am also expecting to be a specialist in Agroecology (or Agricultural Science/Agronomy whatever it is people want to call it). To that end, it is more useful for me to be enrolled in a large universities with scientists and engineers.

So what exactly is the value of higher education? Is it supposed to prepare you for all the perils of life? Or is it supposed to provide you with a steady income and a good pension? Should education be based upon learning ideas and expanding the mind? Or should it be about understanding the mechanisms of the world and being able to deal with them effectively? What are the mechanisms that allow us to value the different educational pathways? Why does society value ideas? So many questions!

So can the liberal arts save your life?

Next post!

*This has often been debated amongst different circles of academia and policy makers. Defining what constitutes information worth learning has been an arduous process (to include or not to include The Great Gatsby, that is the question).

**I have heard several arguments against the idea that the liberal arts education was based upon the Renaissance Man. Although I think in principle it is, since there was dissent, it was better to err on the side of diversity of opinions rather than homogeneity.

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Blood from a pen, ink from a sword

Two things have just occurred to me: First,  that effective communication can only be attained through continuous practice. Verbal communication can only become truly effective when you are out often, speaking and interacting with different people. That’s where you hone your skills. I will testify to that, because for 5 days a year, I participate in Model United Nations (for the uninitiated, it’s this), where I am wrenched from my introverted, individualistic bubble that is college and dumped into the cosmopolitan, communications-based Times Square. Oh the horror. But after those five days, the words flow so freely, from cookies to nuclear war. How did that happen? Practice. MUN forces 1,500 college students together for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. You HAVE to talk. And although not everything that was said was profound, the process does have its merits.

I believe (deconstructionist edit: does one’s beliefs hold merit? Why do I believe this?) that written communication can utilise the same means for the same ends. The fact that I am enrolled in a writing-intensive college program notwithstanding (I did not choose it for the writing program), effective written  communication can be achieved by writing often, in different settings. This is sans formal education in writing – that can be found at colleges where professors and writing tutors actively edit paper and written work. To that end, can effective written communication be achieved through informal prose (i.e. HERE), or can it also be achieved through poetry and lyric writing? My initial bias would be, no. Poetry seems (to me), a world apart from prose both in the development of its style and form. I’m planning to put this to the test. Having never kept a journal or any constant medium to write on – and having forgotten what I learnt in terms of writing from my old blog – this will be the new test. Can writing about current issues – and food – on a regular basis improve and develop my writing style? We shall see.

To that end, perhaps I will be clear that I very often second guess my opinions, beliefs and thoughts. There is always some form of deconstruction or second-level doubt that goes on in my head and sometimes spills over as I write (God forbid I go into Cartesian hyperbolic doubt). As such, there will be many edits (or side notes) that accompany these posts.

Second (ah hah, I almost forgot about this), that the above realisation – when made – was profound to me, but the more I thought about it (regardless of logical sequence), the more I thought about the lack of impact that such a statement, “effective communication can only be attained through continuous practice” has. Was it not obvious that practice makes perfect? (at least that’s the convention) But this statement can then lead to a discussion on the mechanisms and pathways of learning and how exactly good writing is developed. We’ll have to call in the psychologists and biologists for this! Alas they are too far away and I do not have them on speed-dial (it’s also summer, so I don’t know any of them who would care to entertain my questions).

So would it be silly to qualify or make such an obvious statement? If one answers  ‘Yes’, then we head towards the philosophical question of, ‘Who has the privilege of making that qualification?’ Technocrats, Philosophers, Politicians? Or no one at all? Of the former kind, who of them is qualified to do so? Of the latter, if no one makes such a statement… how does it ever disseminate? If one answers ‘No’, then in a hyperbolic sense, anyone would be able to lay such claims and be proclaimed a genuis. Alas that is not true. Recognition for ‘profound’ statements have to be accompanied by the existing recognition of the individual, the weight placed upon such statements by society and the intent behind such a statement. At this juncture I must consult philosophers and statisticians, on the existence of thought and probability that profound thought exists. Ah but I know none! =)

But perhaps there is value in a lay-person making such statements. I do believe that it reflects some ounce of free thought. For if the thoughts of the lowly masses were unimportant and unrecognised, then it begs the question about the truth of democracy. If we are free persons, then we should also be free to think and exclaim those thoughts – at least to ourselves. The freedom of thought is one of the most contentious elements of democracy, that supercedes freedom of religion and speech, because both of those arise from thought (but we leave that for another day). Thus, as stupid as it may seem, I see merit in exclaiming and examining the obvious (the latter which is crucial).

As you can probably tell by now, I do not pretend to be completely thorough or logical in my analysis. Logic comes less than naturally to me, especially in my train of thought. I also do not pretend to be always correct in seeing philosophical inquiries in the most mundane of things. So, if you want to provoke a constructive challenge, be my guest.

P.s. Sometimes I wonder, ‘What would happen if I went through every podcast and recording I have on my iTunes U account? Hmmm…’ I suspect my brain would blow up.

P.p.s. I also have the nasty habit of trying not to persuade people of ideas and the sort. But since persuasion is the most powerful psychological tool that exists, why deprive myself of it!

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