EVERY year, the director-general of education will announce the results of our standardised examinations and present the number of high performers, as well as pronounce if the results are better or worse off than the previous year.
While parents and teachers of high performers are rejoicing, nobody cares to ask what happens to students who did not fare well. This happens every year without people noticing that there is something wrong with this ritual.
What usually happens is that non-performers will be blamed for their own failures.
Education is absurd when it consists mainly of words and meanings that are not connected to actions in specific contexts; when it is built on a single, universal, undifferentiated path for progress; when the only reason teachers and students do what they do is because instructions come from authority; when students spend most of the 12 years looking at words, and then get evaluated and measured along an arbitrary, vertical line.
When students fail to live up to the standards set by the national exams, society will then blame them for their fate.
Imposing this judgment based on one curriculum on all students, one source of knowledge, one way of learning, and one way of evaluation, is surely idiotic.
While we honour those who excel in their examinations, we have failed to ponder on what it actually means to do well in standardised tests and what they actually measure.
They basically measure people’s ability to manipulate words, symbols and technical jargon.
Knowledge as action, rooted in a particular context, is ignored, belittled and suppressed.
Put in another way, tests do not necessarily have a positive correlation with knowledge.
Professor Syed Naquib Alatas defines knowledge as the arrival of meaning from information that is true. It just goes to show that codified knowledge is one of the many ways of knowing.
We are now in one of three ways — by experiencing situations, witnessing others’ experiences or by report.
Each way is subject to error. Of the three ways, direct experience is usually the most trustworthy but even this is less than perfect.
We do not just receive experiences and store them, hermetically sealed in our minds. We compare them with previous experiences; classify, interpret and evaluate them, and make assumptions about them.
All these processes may occur quite unconsciously, without our being aware of them. And any flaw in them makes our experiences seen different from the reality we encounter.
It is possible to observe accurately, but we often fall short of doing so. We usually see the world through glasses coloured by our experiences and beliefs.
If we believe that an ethnic group is more athletic than others, we are likely to see that particular group outperforming others.
What standardised tests fail to acknowledge is that knowledge is an aspect of culture.
It is the creative relationship of human beings and their communities with the world around them. And, therefore, it is as diverse as cultures are.
The expansion of the colonial enterprise had brought with it a monoculture in how to assess knowledge, that is through standardised tests.
The Western colonialists gave it alone the status of science — everything else was turned into superstition, everything else was robbed of its status of knowing.
So, we have a rule right now of a mechanistic world view when the world is not a machine.
It is, therefore, totally unreliable. And, this unreliability is being proven within the best of science.
Work in quantum theory shows how crude the assumptions of a mechanistic reductionist scientific philosophy are.
Quantum theory shows that the world is non-separable, and more importantly, the world is indeterminate — everything is in potential, waiting to be born.
It is now finding resonance with ancient knowledge systems that our societies have had. But not only is the mechanistic reductionism of the West a betrayal of knowledge, it violates the laws of nature.
Earth is a living, self-organised system. Imposing on it an idea that nature is dead and is just dead matter and raw material and, therefore, you can dam up her rivers, chop down its forests, poison streams, release GMO (genetically-modified organisms) into the environment, make for not just ecological devastation, but also makes for irresponsibility — irresponsibility for the consequences of actions that come from a narrow, blinkered view of the world.
As we realise more and more that human beings are having a major destructive impact on the planet, whether in species extinction or through climate change, the old reductionist mindset, the arrogance and hubris of a colonising knowledge wants to create solutions through more violence to the earth — artificial volcanoes for global cooling to counter global warming without thinking about the fact that without the sun, we have no photosynthesis nor food.
When one kind of knowledge system is promoted via one standard curriculum for all, schools become places of ignorance.
It is time to open up our schools to the richness and diversity of different knowledge systems.
We owe it to the future as the current exam-orientated education is based on reductionist, mechanistic knowledge.
It is in a pluralistic knowledge system that we can really appreciate the richness of our biodiversity and a multidimensional world view.
Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is director of the Center for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.