By Ooi Kee Beng
Editorial, Penang Monthly March 2016.
Since our cover story for the month is about the future of education in Malaysia, I would like to take up the issue of exposure as a necessary element in the intellectual development of an individual. And this applies to all ages.
What does it mean to have exposure? Well, in general it relates firstly to the unveiling or disclosure of something; secondly, it connotes publicity, display or public coverage of something; and thirdly – and this is the meaning we are interested in here – it has to do with coming into contact with some external thing, being introduced to something, becoming acquainted with something and experiencing something.
But perhaps most important is the notion that lies somewhere in between these related meanings, and that is “revelation” – epiphany, the “Aha!” experience. This cannot be planned. Instead it is most likely to happen through inspiration coming from unexpected sources. That is the nature of the phenomenon.
Education, as most people would agree, is about developing the quality of the mind, not simply the feeding and storing of information and facts. Seeking and perceiving connectedness in the world is indeed an inherent element in the human mind. Given the situation today where academic disciplines with their specialised jargon partition knowledge and experiences, and religious language, class and racial biases discourage curiosity in the world at large, the need to offer young minds as much stimulation and inspiration as possible is a desperate one.
The human mind, in trying to maintain and nurture its natural inquisitiveness, intuitively seeks out new areas to explore. It is this intuition that should be encouraged, be it in the young or the old. This exposure to unfamiliar things is naturally “overexposure”, for it cannot be planned too rigidly. One can never know where inspiration will come from.
Let’s start with the schooling of the young. The legacy we have is for schools to prepare kids for examinations, and we then hope that the examinations properly measure their usefulness to the labour market with the skills attained. The pressure of such tests forces the young to become good at excelling in them. This nurtures whole professions of examination constructors, mediocre teachers and examination-passing tutors.
Exposure becomes an unaffordable luxury for the young.
So much time and resources are sucked up by this paper chase that we sentence our young to endure that the inquisitiveness of the mind is dulled, perhaps for life; and those who excel in examinations learn to be arrogant about their limited grasp of the world. No wonder late bloomers and outliers tend to be the major innovators in the world, in all fields.
We grown-ups are simply aged versions of this philosophy of education. Generally, we remain as we were schooled.
Being exposed is also to be vulnerable, no doubt. More so being overexposed. But without that, our minds cannot possibly develop nor can our inquisitiveness be sustained. By venturing into new epistemological territories, we can make intellectual breakthroughs a lifelong habit – a norm more than a rarity.