Trivium : An Alternative Syllabus for Primary Education
We celebrated Teachers’ Day a few weeks ago. Talk of education always brings to my mind a speech given by Dorothy L.Sayers at Oxford in 1947, which was later printed in essay form bearing the title The Lost Tools of Learning. Although Sayers was not an educationist but rather a novelist, her profound critique of the modern education system has initiated a classical education movement in the United States and Europe.
I first came across her ideas several years ago, and those ideas have stayed in my mind. And I find them to be relevant more so now as our government is planning to review or revamp our education system and curriculum. It is indeed timely for the government to introduce a new education system that is able to really educate and equip the people with all the tools necessary to face the complex pressures of modern society. This is the crux of Sayer’s critique of the modern education system: the inability to produce educated people equipped with the necessary tools of modern life.
Our national education system has failed, the public has said. They are clamouring for a better education system to replace the present one. Our system is accused of being exam-oriented and produces trained “parrots”. Why?
One of the reasons is that our system today is burdening students with too many subjects. True, they have ‘mastered’ those subjects and have passed all the exams at the end of the day; but in general, we have failed miserably with regard to teaching them the basics of how to think. Since there are too many subjects, teachers also are not able to concentrate on developing personalities and individual character. Their focus is on completing the entire syllabus of every subject, otherwise the students may not be able to answer questions in the coming term examinations. No time is spared for inter-personal discussions, counselling or informal advise-giving sessions between teachers and students. What matters is that the syllabus needs to be completely covered by all means before the end of term. That is the priority of every teacher nowadays.
The situation in our country is worsened by the attidudes of some of our ministers or politicians who want to have his/her say with regard to our education system. It is as though every minister deems he/she has the right to have his/her say in deciding what subjects should or should not be taught in our schools, without being duly qualified. When we feel that the trend is towards Information Technology (IT), we want subjects on IT to be taught in schools. Later, when we dispatched our angkasawan to the moon, we want Astronomy to be part of our curriculum. When we feel entrepreneurship is important, we want it to be part of the subjects taught in schools. Recently, we seems to feel that national unity and patriotism is at stake, therefore we demand for those to be included in the national curriculum. It goes on endlessly. We have actually lost sight of what education is all about and what its true objective entails.
Education is not about teaching particular ‘subjects’. Neither it is about the number of subjects taught in schools. It is about nurturing a human being to be a ‘good man’. Modern students today are certainly taught more subjects, but that does not mean they are actually ‘good’ or know more nor does it mean they are better equipped than those before them. Compared to students of the Athenean Middle Ages who only studied three subjects at the trivium and four subjects at the quadrivium for example, modern students today should perform better with regard to their intellectual growth. But this is not the case. Many a time an interview panel is frustrated with the performance of our graduates in spite of their having spent approximately four years at the tertiary level and more than a decade at the primary and secondary education levels. They certainly ‘studied’ hundreds of subjects and yet, they do not know the basics, have no confidence in speaking, no critical and logical thought when arguing, have no common sense, rational thought and so on. Why? Because they have never been taught how to think, how to use reason or how to argue during their entire ‘formal’ education. The only reason perhaps why they have succeeded thus far, is purely because they were good at memorizing data, not that their intellect has been developed.
The findings of child development psychiatrists and research workers have emphasised the deep impressions made on children by their early experiences and the lasting effects of such impressions. Comenius, in The School of Infancy, Montessori, in his The Secret of Childhood, and countless others have stressed the importance of right education at an early age. In Islam, emphasis is given even when the parent is still searching for his spouse, seeking only for one with upright religious bearing since their children will soon be affected by the parents character.
At their early stage, children should be taught the proper use of the tools of learning before they began to apply them to “subjects” which should only be taught at a later stage. At the foundational stage, they should only be taught three things, the trivium: Grammar, Logic (Dialectic), and Rhetoric. This is quite similar to the traditional Islamic primary education where children at an early age should be taught, among other things: the Qur’an, language, literature (adab), ethics (akhlaq) and logic (mantiq). Only at the secondary or university levels, perhaps whatever subjects suit the national interest and the contemporary age may be introduced.
In general, children in Malaysia are reluctant to go to school, unlike children in the developed countries who exhibit eagerness and enthusiasm. Their counterparts in Europe find school very interesting and their teachers to be very loving and friendly. Unlike in Malaysia, even before going to school, we have a hard time with our children. Our children feel stress, imagining only a very few number of teachers at school to exhibit fondness and kindness. The rest are assumed to be fierce because of how their demeanor is, like “teacher-cum-police” officers. They also envision being bombarded with too much information which they are required to know, not to mention the writing. But their ability to reflect, think and ponder is not being groomed and developed. They are required to memorise data where all the answers are given.
In any case, our education policy makers should sit down seriously with educationists and ‘the experts’ to find a better education policy for Malaysians. It is for the sake of our future generations. We have heard enough of the same old moans whenever review of our education system is mentioned over the past many years, but nothing substantial has been done thus far. Even the outstanding issue concerning heavy school bags has not been effectively resolved until now. Hopefully the ‘people’s Prime Minister’ will look into this matter more urgently.