Irrelevant courses? Think again

AN English daily reported that the higher education minister had said that irrelevant courses in public universities would be replaced or combined, and that new courses that are in line with the needs of the industry will be offered. This is to ensure that our country will be well equipped to face the 4th industrial revolution.

A rational human being will accept the pronouncement as sound, assuming that the main task of a university is to provide skilled workers for the industry. Put in another way, knowledge is relevant only if it enhances the bottom line, and only if it is technical and practical. Other forms of knowledge are considered "useless".

While the Ministry of Higher Education is grappling with the need to rid public universities of "useless knowledge", let's ponder on Bertrand Russell's defence of "useless knowledge". The term "useless knowledge" has a negative connotation due to the fact that there is no such thing as "useless knowledge". A more appropriate term would be ethical and humanist knowledge, the type of knowledge that creates a holistic person and helps solve problems through new perspectives beyond the world of science and technology.

It is regrettable that the ministry fails to value knowledge as an end in itself and has embarked on a mindless categorisation of knowledge as either relevant or irrelevant.

It is therefore important for us to make clear what we mean by knowledge. Simply put, knowledge is the arrival of meaning from information that is true. What this essentially means is that having information alone does not necessarily bring about knowledge, the most crucial ingredient for something to be classified as knowledge is if it can give us meaning.

Bertrand Russell, for example, had acknowledged that scientific and technological knowledge had done a great service to humanity but he also pointed out that the same knowledge had also brought about a great deal of misery and destruction to mankind. Here one of Mahatma Gandhi's seven deadly sins, science without humanity is more relevant than ever. Not only that science without humanity will quickly degenerate into a mechanistic conception of life but knowledge that is too constricted will also prevent the fruition of a wholesome life.

This is exactly what the late Steve Jobs meant when he said that "it's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough – its technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing".

Life is only complete when one is exposed to knowledge in the broadest sense of the word. Poetry, literature, and music are often regarded as "useless knowledge" but the truth of the matter is that knowledge in these fields is what makes life worth living.

The ministry is attempting to match the education universities offer with the requirements of large local employers. The reasoning is simple: if the primary goal of higher education is employable graduates, higher education should adjust its curriculum to the requirements of the largest employers.

The corporations will tell the universities what kind of specialists they need, the universities will produce them, and the graduates will have an excellent chance to work for the companies. The state will collect and spend taxes, and the corporations will save on the costs of training new employees.

However, the interests of the big corporations are not identical to those of students and workers.

Corporations prefer to receive welfare from the public purse to save on their training expenses, they prefer highly specialised workers who can start work immediately and cannot change jobs easily.

Workers who are overspecialised cannot find alternative jobs easily and therefore occupy a weak negotiation position. If they lose their job when the company collapses, they have a limited set of skills to offer other employers. Any specific set of skills becomes obsolete sooner or later.

The civil servants who consult with the managers of large corporations do not consider small businesses, which actually create more jobs than big business, because their own career aspirations and prospects may include joining the vast bureaucracy of a large corporation, but not the founding of a small business. Ridding our public universities of irrelevant courses may be in line with the ministry's social engineering goals to increase the size of the middle class by inflating the ratio of vocational graduates to population.

This is being done by attempting to abolish the association of universities with high culture, contracting humanities and languages, expanding and encouraging engineering, radically dumbing down the level of education, limiting or eliminating research altogether, debasing education by reducing it to learning by rote with little or no space for creativity, eliminating academic self-governance and freedom.

This includes imposing appointed managers who do not have a substantial academic background in order to attain quantitative targets.

From the perspective of the ministry, knowledge is only relevant if it can produce something that is tangible and hence can be measured.

To its senior officers, college dropouts (Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Jack Kerouac, and Woddy Allen) like "useless knowledge" are lost investments simply because the ministry does not know how to measure the benefits.

Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is director of the centre. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com