Tuesday 8 May 2012


Education should not be seen merely as a passport to success. It is also about self-actualisation, building character, being well rounded and much more.

Mention the word “education” and different ones have their own perspectives. Ask the politician or entrepreneur, and immediately he’ll tell you that education is the key to nation transformation. Advanced knowledge through education will help Malaysia become a high-income nation, thus freeing itself from the clutches of the middle-income trap. To create value-added products and services, we need human capital — a highly trained, innovative and knowledgeable workforce.

Ask parents and students and often the answer is: Education is about getting a string of A’s. After all, grades do cause the doors of the best universities to swing wide open and scholarships to fall on one’s lap. No wonder scoring A’s has become a national obsession.
But beyond what education can do for the nation (economic advancement) and the individual (success and upward mobility), is there something more to education? Let’s consider a more holistic view of education.


To Abraham Maslow, one of the purposes of education is to help a man attain self-actualisation: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” Besides helping us to eke out a living, education must also help us uncover our latent qualities.

After all, the word “education” is derived from the Latin word educare meaning to “draw out from within.” So the goal of education is to inspire students so that their hidden talents can be brought out and to teach them the skills, provide them the tools and a supportive environment for this to happen. In short, it is to empower them to excel.

Beyond A’s

A’s are often equated with academic excellence. But education is not just about scoring A’s. Some top scorers cannot make informed decisions, think critically or creatively, while others are unable to tackle real-life problems, relate to others or even string a proper sentence together. Could this be the result of conditioning by an examination-oriented culture that encourages cramming and rote-learning?
Today our country has more than 70,000 unemployed graduates. And employers lament that they cannot be absorbed because they lack soft skills such as the ability to communicate and work as a team, positive attitude and work ethics. (Grades are not at the top of the list of criteria employers are looking for).
Best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, believes that success is not just related to cognitive ability but non-cognitive (social and emotional) factors. That is why EQ is as important as IQ.
Mark Twain penned: “You can’t let school interfere with your education”. Often, schools don’t engage the young enough. Students don’t feel they’re active participants in the world.
Do our schools adequately prepare the young for the world out there? How well prepared are they to join the nation’s workforce? Can they hit the road running?


Pioneers in education such as Maria Montessori, among others, strongly believed that education should cultivate — besides the intellectual aspect — the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the developing child.
Jesus’ early development was one that was well-rounded and balanced. He increased in “wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2:52). As a boy, He demonstrated extraordinary maturity, evidenced in the way he discussed with the teachers in the temple. But this intellectual prowess did not make him proud or disobedient to his earthly parents. He must have learnt carpentry through apprenticeship in order to eke out a living, so he must have been skilful with his hands.
A broad-based education enables each individual to find identity and purpose in life by connecting to the community, environment, God and spiritual values. For example, Montessori believes that a child, by exploring his environment, becomes enchanted with it and develops a love for learning (cosmic education). Learning need not be achieved merely through instructional packages as in a traditional academic curriculum. If it takes a village to raise a child, we can imagine it’ll take more than a school to educate a child.
A learner-centered approach takes into account the different psychological needs and intellectual abilities of the child. If the young are constantly judged and even ridiculed — as if they’re parading before American Idol judges — it snuffs out their spontaneity, love for learning and spirit of endeavour. By accepting children for their differences, refusing to label them as “mentally challenged”, teachers can bring out the uniqueness in them. For example, those less academically-inclined may benefit from vocational training.


If education is about acquiring knowledge and wisdom, we would have expected exemplary character to spring up naturally in the so-called “educated”. However, this is not necessarily the case. Some fall into pride, while others cannot control their impulses and desires.
A Malaysian-born, Australian-trained neurosurgeon (described as "gentle as a lamb" by his medical school peers) left a young prostitute dead in his bed while he continued on a cocaine and sex binge in a Sydney hotel room. Dr Nair, 42, awaiting trial on a drugs charge knows what is right and wrong. But he cannot trust himself to be on his own. He said he would not reoffend if he would be allowed to live with his mother. Imagine 20 years of education and training all flushed down the drain.

Arguably the wisest man in the Bible, King Solomon seemingly had everything going for him. However, wise as he was, he was unable to quench his insatiable lust. To put it bluntly, what was sitting on his upper torso could not control that naughty member attached to his lower torso. He had a thousand wives and concubines. And his foreign wives led him astray spiritually.

A sound education is important. But what we gain through education — knowledge and wisdom — may not necessarily change our character. Without God and left to our own devices, we are prone to sin (Jeremiah 9:23a, 17:9).

Stuff all the knowledge and wisdom you want into a man by giving him the best education. But this fact remains — man is a sinner by nature. Only God can change him.

Meaning in life

Education can transform a man into a dignified, learned and well-respected member of society. But can education give him adequate answers to these troubling questions: Who am I? Am I created by God? Or am I a product of accident or evolution? Why am I here? Is there a purpose in life? Where will I be when I leave this earth? These metaphysical questions continue to confound philosophers and scholars through the ages.

One of them was 17th century French mathematician, physicist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Being a scientist, he studied objectively the concepts of vacuum, invented the syringe and created the hydraulic press. Yet he recognised this truth: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

Unlike many other philosophers, Pascal believed that “we know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.” Man cannot know God through the rational process — no matter how great his intellect. Faith, the means by which man comes to know God, is not against reason; it transcends reason. Reason can only help to build faith but it (reason) can never ultimately bring a person to know God.

Here was a genius who happily discovered that God can be known — through faith —and that knowing Him is not incompatible with science or reason.
Like other fellow scientists, Pascal looked for the absolute truth in science. But he eventually found it elsewhere. These words testify of his conviction up till the time he lay on his death bed:
“Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy and peace.
God in Jesus Christ.
The world forgotten, and everything, except God.
Let me not be cut off from Him forever!”
In the final analysis, what’s the point being so highly educated, if we’re unsure where we (our souls) are heading when we leave this earth? On this issue, Pascal wrote: “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent about it.”
For believers whose faith is anchored in Christ, their final hours on earth will be filled with rejoicing: “O Death, where is thy sting?” They can certainly identify with Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize winner in Literature, who wrote: “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, Aug 2011, issue 43.4.

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