Monday, 25 February 2008

The Hardest Choice is Usually the Right One

Brave New World (The Star)
24 January 2008

Education should not be about getting good pass rates; it is about challenging and stretching the minds of our young people."


Every day we make decisions. Most are pretty easy, for example, choosing what to have for lunch. Unless, of course, you are making an office group lunch decision. That would require professional negotiators.

Other decisions are harder though, especially those where the benefits won’t accrue for a long time and may in fact cause hardship for the decision maker in the short term. Two recent events got me to thinking along these lines.

First was the Bali Action Plan on Climate Change, and second the recent decision by the Ministry of Education to dumb down the literature component in the Form Five Bahasa Malaysia paper.

The recent UN climate change meeting in Bali produced an action plan which had serious implications for developing countries.

In a nutshell, international climate change laws require developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. Developing countries only have a general obligation to reduce their emissions.

In international law, general obligations usually mean you don’t have to do very much at all. However, the Bali Action Plan has proposed that developing countries take measurable action to do their bit in fighting global warming. These activities are also to be monitored.

Therefore, our efforts will now be assessed and scrutinised. Although this falls short of an actual target on greenhouse gas reduction, it does mean that it will be harder to get away with doing nothing at all.

Malaysia has agreed to this Action Plan, and now it is up to our Government to take the necessary measures to live up to it. Already, the Department of Environment has planned to establish a multi-departmental body to look into measures to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This is an important step. Climate change is happening, and the effects are being felt by us right now.

For example, climate change has not affected the average rainfall in our country, but it has affected the intensity of rainfall. That is to say, we get the same amount of rain but it tends to come in more concentrated downpours. The most obvious repercussion of this is flooding.

We thus have to make sure that the citizens of this nation do not suffer any more than we need to by taking into our planning considerations the various possible effects of climate change.

But according to the plan, we have to do more. We also have to seriously start reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions. These types of action will undoubtedly be unpopular among some quarters, but the Government must take the necessary steps regardless.

It must have the moral courage to do the right thing, even though any benefits that we may get from such action won’t be felt until the current crop of ministers are dead, or at least out of office.

Combating climate change is vital because the future of our children is at stake. Ensuring that our education system is as good as it can be is vital also for the same reason.

The decision by the Education Ministry to introduce “pop culture” books into the syllabus of Form Five Bahasa Malaysia, at the expense of books by our National Laureates (because they are supposedly too difficult), is doing a great disservice to our children.

The Malay language literati have been up in arms at this decision – and rightly so – because they find it an insult to our language and our literary giants.

I agree. And it also shows very poor decision-making. When faced with the problem of students being unable to comprehend “more difficult work”, the answer is not to make the work easier because that would be lowering educational standards.

Sure, you might get a better pass rate, but at what cost? Education should not be about getting good pass rates; it is about challenging and stretching the minds of our young people.

Without this mental challenge we will be producing a generation of ignoramuses and this cannot possibly be good for the country.

As harsh as this may sound, exams are created to separate those who are academically inclined and those who are not. Making sure everybody passes means that that distinction can’t be made, and this in the long run would mean the wrong people would be doing the wrong thing.

There is no shame in not getting the right kinds of grades in order to move on academically. Some of our kids are that way inclined, and some are not. For those who are not, opportunities must be given to them to find their own path.

I work at the end of the academic chain and, believe me, if a student comes in when he should not be there, he suffers, his fellow students suffer, the lecturers suffer, the institution suffers and, ultimately, the nation suffers.

It’s so easy to just say “Let’s make the literature component simple so it won’t be tough on the kids”. It’s hard to say “Let’s make sure our teaching is better and more innovative so that these kids can understand”.

It’s easy to say “Let’s just keep on doing what we are doing and develop our economy like there’s no tomorrow”. It’s hard to say “Let’s make sure we don’t develop at the expense of tomorrow”.

We are faced with decisions constantly. We have to make choices where the easy one may be awfully tempting. But often, it is the hardest choice which is the right one.

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