JULY 2 — “Those who live in a civilization but have forgotten or do not know what it actually took to build that civilization will not long be able to maintain it.” ~James M. Kushiner
We read with interest the article entitled “Whither English, whither the nation” written by Thomas Fann and published on June 21, 2012 in The Malaysian Insider.
In essence, the author calls for the raising of the standards of English in our country, specifically the way English is taught in our schools, colleges and universities. This is not a revelation by any stretch of the imagination, as there is really no reason to lower any kind of standard, and therefore should be rightly considered as a tautology.
The real issue worthy of contestation is the hidden assumption by the author that it is only through the raising of the level of English that our nation can “develop”. There is nothing wrong in raising the standard of English; in fact, we should raise the standards of all languages, but to suppose that English is both the pre-requisite and indicator for the progress of the nation is a rather misguided notion.
The rise of the English language
Any learned person knows that Middle English, the English that we can actually recognize, came into existence after the Norman conquest of England and Wales following the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The Normans, settled Viking people in East France, spoke a language that is closely related to French, and therefore falls under the so-called Romance language group, which is a descendant of Latin. Their interaction with the Anglo-Saxons, who spoke a Low German dialect, gave birth to Middle English, and it is from this that we inherit our English from.
The development of English thenceforth in the British Isles was quite “liberal” in the taking of new words and forms for various reasons and therefore, it has always been relatively flexible and “open”. (It is worth drawing attention to the fact that the Arabic language does not have a governing body as well i.e. it does not have an equivalent Institut Francais, although the highest form of Arabic language is the Holy Qur’an, which serves as a permanent and ultimate standard in terms of form, essence and construction).
The supremacy of the English language is achieved and cemented in its current form with the rise of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of the United States following the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, accelerated with the advent of the mass media and mass communication, in the form of the television and the Internet that the use of English truly became pervasive in everyday life, whether in the West or in the East. This rapid development and recent proliferation of the English language constitute a period of less than a hundred years.
Development and the English language
It is, therefore, premature to only look at current conditions and assume that it is only through English that our nation can reach stellar heights. In fact, both history and contemporary events suggest that any nation severed off from its root — be it cultural, historical or linguistic — simply do not take on the forms of progress which people assume it would; and that those nations who have held strongly to their culture and their heritage, of which language can be seen to be a constituent of, is more likely to develop in their own terms and at a pace appropriate to its needs and capabilities.
The obvious example of this is China and Japan, and there is no need to elucidate their rise to prominence in recent history. The more interesting case is actually Malaysia itself. Interestingly, the generation that presided over the “Asian Tiger” years — between the 1960s and 1990s, which is a period marked by rapid industrialization and high rates of economic growth experienced by four countries: Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan — were in fact people who underwent an education system which favoured the mother tongue, with the use of English as the medium of instruction mainly in higher education.
In fact, this is the suggestion of the report by 2006 Unesco on the subject of mother tongue education, whereby they proposed that the move from the mother tongue to any foreign language should only be undertaken in stages.
Of course the case can be made that the mother tongue can be changed to English, and this has certainly been the case for many people in the world, but insofar as development in Malaysia is concerned, the vast majority of people’s mother tongue is not English.
Therefore in purely educational terms, it makes much more sense to teach children in their native languages and introduce a foreign language in stages, as per the suggestion of Unesco.
This entire issue on English development actually side-tracks the actual purpose of education — that is to say, to educate our children. Of course one needs English to a certain extent, but not everyone requires a good command of English to make a living, and this point is actually highlighted by the 2006 Unesco report.
What should be done is not to revamp the education system so that it favours English, rather, to revamp our education system so that the real meaning and purpose of education is achieved. Therefore, the call to raise the standard of English in education is meaningless if it is not done in view of the ultimate purpose of education, because the fact is that all standards should be raised for any kind of progress to happen.
The purpose of education
Benjamin Disraeli, a former British prime minister, once said, “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.”
That one should not permit the substance and the form of our national education system to be tinkered with to suit the whims and fancies of the tiny minority at the grave expense of the more significant majority is an obvious rule.
Indeed, it is precisely because the education system is such an important determining factor of a country’s fate that any decision to introduce change into the system must be exercised in conformity with a permanent and objective goal, the essence of which has been clearly and forcefully spelt out in the National Education Philosophy, which states:
“Education in Malaysia is an on-going effort towards the development of the potential of individuals in a comprehensive and integrated manner to create a person who is balanced and harmonious intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically based on faith and devotion to God. This is to create Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable, honourable, responsible and is able contribute to the betterment of society and the nation.”
The phrase “contribute to the betterment of society and the nation” would necessarily imply the kinds of progress and development that the author intends to convey. But the nature and direction of such progress and development must be subjected to critical scrutiny, especially it conjures up different expectations for different groups and peoples, i.e. some may favour the elevation of untrammelled economic progress as the singular goal and indicator of success for the national education system, whether others may posit social mobility as the primary ideal of a national education system in which case the pursuit of social justice will take precedence over and above unrestrained economic growth.
Indeed, notions of progress and development when applied to education are only meaningful if one makes explicit the basic principles and sound criteria against which any change may be evaluated; if the change introduced constitutes a movement towards the permanent and objective goal set for the national education system, then such change can be said to constitute progress and development.
Great mischief and confusion may be let loose upon the discussion for the improvement of our national education system if the various parties and groups seeking to provide their respective proposals do not make explicit their answers to such fundamental questions as:
What is the meaning of education?
What is the purpose of education?
To what ultimate end does education serve: the individual, the society or the state?
What is worth knowing?
What constitutes a whole and good person?
To what extent should religion serve as a guiding principle in the national education system?
At the very minimum, those desiring to voice opinions and, thus, determine the course of the national education system ought to have a clear and intellectually-defensible grasp of the following key terms: knowledge, man, language, happiness and God.
For instance, if by happiness one means the ability to obtain a well-paid and prominent job, then it is not surprising if those who hold on to such a view demands that the national education system be radically reconfigured in order to prepare the citizens of the country with the knowledge and skills so that they may secure such jobs as soon as they finished their education.
The whole resources of the state will then be devoted to the production of trained workers for the corporate world or the global job market, which will necessarily entail that the priority of the subjects taught in the education system be judged according to its ability to raise the market value of the student in the eyes of prospective employers.
Subjects deemed useless by the job market (such as history, literature and philosophy, and the teaching of the mother tongue) will be marginalised if not altogether ignored at the expense of more “useful” subjects (such as those belonging to science, engineering and modern languages), thus obliterating any sense of a hierarchical distinction between each and every subject.
Of course, the re-alignment and subsequent submission of the priorities of the national education system in order to suit the demands of the global economy is not something to be entirely abhorred, given the practical needs of the individual and the state.
But a wholesale and uncritical acceptance of market forces into the national education system, the manifestation of which can be seen through the spectre of universities administered more along the lines of multinational corporations than of an institution which promotes and protects free intellectual inquiry and in the gradual shift in the role of students from learners to customers and of schools, colleges and universities from citadels of higher learning to mere “content and service providers”, is neither wise nor practical.
It is unwise because the happiness of a person does not only involve in him or her being merely adequately trained to perform his function at the workplace for he or she is not merely a cog in the vast corporate machine.
Therefore, to interpret the meaning of the development of a person to his or her fullest potential as stated in the National Education Philosophy as exclusively being the person’s economic or commercial potential — man as homo economicus — represents a truncated view of what it means to be a human being.
Education and economic competitiveness
It is surely one of the enduring paradoxes of the modern age that as God gradually disappears from our hearts and minds, man — in all his glories and frailties — is steadily deified and as technology takes on more and more of the personality of a human character, man takes on a more mechanised view of the world around him and in the process, himself behaves more and more like a mechanical device.
An education system that indulges — implicitly or otherwise — such a view of man does not count as education nor does it produce what can be properly called man. Such an impoverished view of education and man goes against the very essence of the National Education Philosophy and its infiltration into our national education system must not be permitted to proceed unchallenged by our intellectuals and educators, conscious and sincere parents and politicians.
Furthermore, the encroachment of free market considerations and corporate sensibilities into the education system is impractical on the grounds that the sustainability of the economic growth and material prosperity of a country ultimately depends on the continual intellectual flourishing and creative flowering in basic subjects, be it in the sciences or humanities.
After all, the manufacturing of various technical innovations — which is the hallmark of a modern society and a developed nation — is nothing but the ingenious applications of the results of fundamental research by scholars, scientists and engineers, which naturally requires generous and enlightened support — both financial and political — but perhaps most importantly requires what the famed Spanish philosopher and thinker, Jose Ortega y Gasset called the “enthusiasm for the principles of general culture” by which he meant politics, arts, social standards and morality, the cultivation of which supports and sustains civilizations and its material fruits. He strongly rebukes those who “seriously thought that as long as there are dollars there will be science” and mocks those who behave “as if there were not numberless ingredients, of most disparate nature, to be brought together and shaken up in order to obtain the cocktail of physico-chemical science.”
English and science and technology education
Today, one of those “not numberless ingredients” must surely include the mastery of the English language; it has been argued by certain interest groups in this country that since English is overwhelmingly the main medium of communication in the field of science and technology, and in order to better prepare our citizens to enter, compete and contribute in this field, the teaching of Science and Mathematics in our educational institutions must therefore be conducted in English.
This has led to a view — half superficial, half conceited, but totally incorrect — that the progress in the field of science and technology, nay progress in and of itself, can only be achieved by a developing country like ours through the adoption of the English language as a medium of instruction at all levels of education and have recently manifest itself through the subdued calls for the re-introduction of English schools.
Whilst not denying the benefits of multilingualism, of the importance of being able to speak “at least three languages — Bahasa Melayu, English, Mandarin or Tamil” and of the practical necessity to master English so that we can be “plugged in” into the global economy, we wish to point out that the government has long recognized the importance of mastering the English language for utilitarian ends such as to prepare oneself for the working world or for tertiary education and that such priorities have been duly acknowledged and reflected in the policy of national education prior to the introduction of the hare-brained PPSMI policy through the acceptance of English as the second language in the country and the teaching of English as proper subjects in schools, colleges and universities, not merely as a tool for communication but also a way of appreciating and benefiting from the positive aspects of Western culture and civilization through the study of English literature.
In light of this fact, the formulation and implementation of the PPSMI policy represents not so much an improvement in the standards of the teaching of English, but instead marks a narrowing or restricting of the value of the English language from a vehicle through which one may understand Western civilization into a mere stratagem for personal career advancement.
Instead of being able to appreciate multi-variegated instances in which English is employed — in literature, history, philosophy, ethics, religion, science — the student’s gaze is unfairly fed with the view that the worth of the English language lies only in the transmission of scientific and technical knowledge and not of culture and values.
In other words, those who purport to support the PPSMI policy, in their misguided fascination with science and technology and their unthinking admiration of popular culture, have undersold the value of the English language to the Malaysian public, reducing it as the lowest common denominator in the field of science and technology.
In doing so, they have deprived the public of a true estimate of the English language besides casting doubts on the capabilities of the national language — Bahasa Melayu — and the other mother tongue, i.e. Mandarin and Tamil, as a medium for intellectual discourse and cultural understanding.
Therefore, to claim that the teaching of the English language has been woefully neglected since Independence to the point of insinuating as if there is a concerted effort by the government (a conspiracy perhaps!) to undermine the value of the English language in our education system, and then to employ this fanciful piece of fiction to argue for the elevation of the English language to be at par with Bahasa Melayu and at the expense of the other mother tongues, is misleading at best, wicked at worst.
Interestingly Singapore which imposed the English language as its main medium of instruction in its education system as early as the 1970s currently faces the curiously-phrased problem of “economic unilingualism”, i.e. one is economically competent but limited in one’s usage of language to English alone. One effectively becomes a good worker but an insular citizen.
To adopt a state of blissful indifference towards the non-material foundations upon which our material well-being is built upon may be a recipe for short-term economic prosperity but a sure road to civilizational decay.
From the exposition above, it should be clear that any consideration on the teaching of languages should be subsumed under the discussion of the purpose, then the philosophy, of education in Malaysia. The call for the raising of standards of English education is no great revelation, as the opposite is an absurdity and therefore it is almost an analytic truth, to borrow Kant’s terminology; that is to say, they are true by definition.
The real danger is in assuming that the consideration of English is foremost in the development of nations, of which there is actually very little direct evidence in contemporary history, as this subverts real discussions on education.
It would be much more productive, therefore, to look and contribute to current discussions on education spearheaded by local institutions such as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, UKM and ASASI or reputable international organizations such as Unesco, the World Bank and OECD rather than spewing tautologies on how much we need English in order to become a progressive nation.
In 1925, H.L Mencken wrote in his book, Prejudices, “The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of clichés.”
We should therefore avoid such obvious tautologies in thinking of important issues such as education for stale clichés and rhetoric can never be a substitute for clearly-reasoned truth.
* Imran Mustafa and Wan Mohd Aimran Wan Mohd Kamil are both Research Fellows at Himpunan Keilmuan Muslim (HAKIM).
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.