29 January 2016

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, we should not be surprised at the consequences.

I HAD another of those moments when my mouth simply gaped recently. A friend told me the text that was used in his daughter’s school for her SPM English Literature paper was the Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.

I was shocked. For one thing, the Brothers Grimm were German, not English. For another, Rumpelstiltskin is a story for little children, not 17-year-olds and definitely not worthy of an exam.

In comparison, the equivalent British school exams in English Literature look at authors like Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Eliot and, of course, William Shakespeare. How does anyone study English Literature without studying Shakespeare who was so influential in the English language? Do our students even know of the many common phrases we use daily which originated from Shakespeare?

Some might say that English Literature is not important to us since English is not our native language. But a look through the Bahasa Malaysia literature texts doesn’t impress either. I haven’t done Malay Literature since my own school days so I might not know who are the great Malay writers these days. But surely it cannot be someone who writes about the adventures of a girl during her school holidays?

Our school literature syllabus seems to suggest that our students cannot handle any form of sophisticated writing at all. I looked through an exam tips website on Rumpelstiltskin and the values our students are supposed to derive from the story are absurdly childish – don’t boast, don’t tell lies, don’t be greedy. There is no nuance or ambiguity to any of it. Students are simply told what to think about these stories with no room for opinions of their own.

Is this the state of our education today, one that treats our children as infants throughout their school life? How are they meant to handle the complex world we live in?

I was in London not so long ago when I went to view an exhibition of the works of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist known for having been kept in solitary confinement for eight months and then banned from travelling because of his critical views on what was happening in China. His works are beautiful, thought-provoking and often moving. There were reconstructed trees, marble grass and straightened steel rods made from wreckage of buildings destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The stories behind these works tell about censorship, groupthink and cover-ups of the true costs of natural and manmade disasters.

People form long queues to view this exhibition. But what I really found astounding were the groups of schoolchildren being taken around the exhibition by their teachers. Surely this was too sophisticated for them? But apparently it was not.

Children can surely learn about art and beauty from a young age, as well as what messages artists want to convey through their work. What child doesn’t understand unfairness, or not being able to give an opinion? Which child would not be moved by the long lists of names of the schoolchildren lost in the earthquake, killed by the shoddy workmanship of their schools?

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, why should we be surprised at the consequences? We see adults with embarrassingly shallow capacity for analysing the information they get, who are easily provoked to react to gossip and false stories, who constantly harp on the least important points of any piece of news and who refuse to read anything in-depth because it contains too many long words and therefore is too difficult. And who will vilify anyone with more knowledge and maturity than them and call them names as a way of distracting from their own ignorance?

The infantilising of our people doesn’t only occur in schools but all the way to the top where we’re often expected to accept the most ludicrous explanations for all sorts of things, from missing funds to polluted waters to what constitutes terrorism. To be sure, there are many of us who do not accept these explanations but the very audacity of the people offering them is what is insulting and unacceptable. (Maybe when we get rid of them some day, we can just say it’s because they smell bad and they cannot complain about that.)

I listened to Turkish author Mustafa Akyol recently who said that the intelligent response to Islamophobia is not to ban people or books but rather by countering it intellectually. While I agree with that idea, it does presume that Muslims in our country have the intellectual capacity to do that.

But how do people still reading Rumpelstiltskin at age 17 counter the views of much more intellectually sophisticated people like Richard Dawkins and the like?

15 January 2016

Common sense has slowly been taking a back seat over the last few years, as people get hysterical over the most ridiculous things.

FOR a country that loves having laws to govern everyone’s beha­viour, we are very peculiar about ensuring that people follow them.

For some people, we bring the full force of the law to not only pu­nish them but to also set as an “example” to others.

For others, we sometimes wilfully ignore the law and let them do what they want.

Then there are the people who ignore court orders because they say it conflicts with some other law. Why they don’t get charged with contempt of court, I don’t know, but I don’t have to be a lawyer to think this is weird.

Then there are people who stretch laws to mean and do other things.

Like assuming that fathers are the only parents of a child and therefore what they say goes. (To the students to whom I was explaining what gender discrimination means today, there’s your example.)

Additionally there are people who make things up because it’s a law that only exists in their head.

A Muslim parent whose child goes to a Chinese school talked about how it was not enough for the religious studies teacher that there is halal food available in the canteen, but that the Muslim kids had to sit apart from their non-Muslim friends as well.

Does she think that non-halal food can be breathed in?

Some people will undoubtedly say that children have a habit of sharing food and utensils so some may inadvertently eat some non-halal food.

But of course sharing even all-halal food isn’t very hygienic either and is something parents should teach their children not to do.

Thinking about this story, I rea­lise how common sense has slowly been taking a back seat over the last few years.

Some people can really get hysterical over the most ridiculous things.

The unnecessary hoo-ha over the eventually false story of pig DNA in chocolate comes to mind.

Then of course there is the obsession with the cross appearing everywhere.

Apparently if you live in a house where there is something that looks like a crucifix on the roof, you will change your faith as easily as you change your underwear.

It never ceases to amuse me how, while Muslims find it so difficult to convert anyone else, all it takes to convert a Muslim to some other religion is the sight of a crucifix, a statue, hearing a song, drinking some water and even, as I was once privileged to be told, looking into the eyes of the Pope.

Our faith is a delicate thing, which we hang on to by the thinnest wisp of a thread, vulnerable to whatever “infidel” breeze might blow our way.

As it happens, I spent 12 years in a Convent school where there were crucifixes everywhere inclu­ding a giant one on the roof of the school.

Not a single one of the Muslim girls who studied there has left the faith. But maybe our generation are stronger than the people today.

I don’t understand why we are not ashamed to admit our faith is weak, and that we should constantly protect it.

Other people don’t seem to have the same problem.

I talk to young foreigners about the practice of Islam in Malaysia very often and, as far as I know, none have converted yet.

I may have dispelled some stereotypes about Muslims however, particularly the one about us having no sense of humour.

Logic is not our strong point either.

I saw a video where a uniformed man was briefing some academics on how to spot terrorists.

He talked about their distorted beliefs about religion and their lite­ral reading of the Quran.

I thought he was doing a fair job until he decided to give some examples of people to be wary of.

All of a sudden, he cited some of the most progressive people in the country as those most dangerous.

The sheer illogicality was breathtaking. I think even the terrorists would be puzzled, because the very people he mentioned in the same breath as terrorist ideology are not exactly popular with the angry, head-chopping, bearded crowd either.

The people wreaking havoc in Syria these days don’t believe much in women’s rights, for example.

So does it make sense to label women’s rights advocates as terrorists?

But maybe the illogicality and nonsense are deliberate. Our people tend to look up to those in authority so perhaps when they say that black is now actually white, and good is now bad, we will simply believe it.

That approach assumes that our people are all mildly intelligent, of course, and have shaky values to begin with. But it seems to work.

Maybe ultimately that’s the only thing about how we are governed that makes sense.