Developing Thinking Minds
In my previous article in 29th of May issue of the Star, I mentioned that education is not concerned with the number of subjects taught in schools, but rather the process of nurturing a student to be a ‘good person’. A good person in the sense of one whose faculties have been developed during the educational process. A student who is capable of rationalizing things happening before him by using all the ‘tools of learning’ – the phrase popularly used by Dorothy Sayers- acquired by the student throughout his educational process. His rational, logical and analytical mind has been developed and nurtured to the fullest extent. While for a Muslim student, his spirituality should also be taken care of where his purpose of existence is made known to him, and the mission he has to fulfill in this world as the trustee and servant of God. He should know how to discern what is ‘good from what is ‘bad’ and so on.
Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, we have to look at the West as our benchmark particularly when it comes to educational standards. We refer to the Times Higher Education when talking about the World University Rankings. We view Nobel Prize awards as the highest award in scholastic achievement, apart from the so-called “Peace” award which is more of a political acclamation. After all, the educational system we have today was inherited from the British albeit with several major modifications since Independence.
We know today that Western educationists are themselves critical of their system. Nevertheless, their system – albeit with some weaknesses – has proven to be successful to a certain degree in comparison with us today. As a matter of fact, most of the Nobel Laureates in scholastic achievement are from the West. Some like Professor Abdus Salam [Physics 1979], Naguib Mahfouz [Literature 1988] and Ahmed Zewail [Chemistry 1999], to name but a few are perhaps the exceptions, although they too were educated in the West at some point. Even if one does not go by the standard of the Nobel Prize winners, at least we should be able to expect at least a few local scholars to have achieved international recognition out of a population of nearly thirty million. But this has never happened. Perhaps the reason is partly, attributed to our system that does not promote developing the faculties of thinking, as we have mentioned before; instead, developing the ability to ‘memorize’ data appears to be the rule.
In the Muslim world, the decline of the Muslim civilization long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire was said to be due to the “closing of the gates of ijtihad” and the emergence of taqlid (blind imitation). This contention has been argued extensively by many scholars with regard to its validity, pros and cons. Whatever the case may be, the point here is that we, the Muslims, are seen in reality too be feeble minded, and not dynamic enough throughout the past many centuries, which eventually led to the decline of the Islamic civilization.
Over the past two weeks, I attended two programmes hosted by two prominent Harvard University professors, Howard Gardner and D. Quinn Mills. Both presented talks on the mind, themed Changing the Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. In spite of all the progress and achievements made by their country, both scholars still felt that their people had not used their mind to the fullest. Mills, for example, argued the importance of case-study based teaching in order to stimulate discussion and creativity among students. He led a five-day seminar entitled Teaching and Case Study Method which was organized by INTAN.
What I would like to share here is that the spirit what the two scholars had mentioned over the last two weeks here in Malaysia, is already mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and in the Prophetic traditions. Sadly, our so called scholars have yet to ‘package’ them and ‘market’ them in a more academic and attractive form. Terms like ‘tafakkur’, ta’aqqul’, tadabbur and the like, all relate in one way or another to the ‘mind’, namely to contemplate, to ponder, to think and so on.
The importance of reason and thinking in Islam is of paramount importance such that Islam does not condone blind imitation especially in matters of faith. Unlike other religions or philosophies cultures, there is not a single aspect of Islam which is ‘mysterious’, that is ambiguous, that ought to be accepted without having sound rational arguments. I still remember how one of my teachers used to say, the “Islam is not a religion for fools” when describing the importance of thinking and the rational faculties of man.
Coming back to the programmes mentioned just now, although I learned something from the two programmes, yet I do not see much profound thought or discovery worth admiring. The Five Minds for the Future by Gardner for example has even been criticized by Gardner’s own colleague, Mills, even before the Seminar concluded. He was of the view that one of Gardner’s “five minds”, namely, the Ethical Mind, is purely based on a secular-humanistic approach. It is impractical, Mill argued. I thought Mills had made a point; how could one have an ethical mind without having religion. How is there an ethical standard of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without knowing what good or bad is, which is from religion? Gardner who admires the Darwinian theory of evolution ignored the spiritual perspective of mankind choosing instead to use the term ‘existential’ intelligence.
Again, as we have mentioned earlier, in spite of all the flaws in Western thought, one good thing is that it encourages discussion, the sharing of ideas, reason, rational arguments, and debate. For the West, there are no right or wrong answers. The difference is in terms of interpretation and perspectives. Great scientists, according to them, made many mistakes but they did not repeat those same mistakes. By making mistakes, and correcting them, new mistakes were made which the later learned from. It would appear that we are afraid to make mistake because we appear to be unprepared to accept and learn from the consequences of those mistakes.
Our local students, from their first day in school, are afraid to speak up for fear of making mistakes. They are timid and introverted. How therefore, can we expect them to be creative and innovative when arrive at the universities? If this is how we teach our students, then we are not properly guiding them and we are not really educating them. We are merely imparting information and data for them to memorize, without developing their ability to digest, reflect, think and transform that information into knowledge. This is not education. To quote Albert Einstein, “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.