Nurture knowledge and open minds

THE suggestion to open our campuses to the public is timely and laudable. Although the examples cited are from the North, the fact is that virtually all universities have always been open to the community since time immemorial. The first university in the West has been so since the 11th century.

But that is not to say other centres of learning are any different. Nalanda "university" in 5th century India was a fine example because it was considered part of the community as an institution that served the people. So is the University of Qawariyyin in Fez, Morocco, established in 859, and recognised by Unesco as the first functioning institution of learning in the world.

The reason is similar growing out of a madrasah and later a mosque with an equivalent name to that of a university in the modern sense. Again it reflects well the original purpose and tradition of knowledge before the elitist idea of an ivory tower came into being to supplant it.

More importantly, however, is to move away from the "physical" structural argument into an intellectual one. That is a university must be equally open-minded in the search for knowledge and truth. In other words, no knowledge or idea is considered irrelevant. It all depends on how they are "used" or "applied" – a pertinent concept to keep in mind because there are many "gatekeepers" who unilaterally impose on what kind of knowledge is allowed in our universities.

Foremost is the "market" that seems to define what is acceptable or more specifically "marketable" in serving its narrow interest and distorted claims to "knowledge".

Hence many important fields of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences are not "supported" in our institutions of learning. Philosophy and literature for example are "non-existent" as independent major disciplines offered to students.

More glaringly, STEM has been our preoccupation instead of STEAM or STREAM where subject matter related to religion, ethics, arts and management are as important to articulate science and technology as a comprehensive transdisciplinary knowledge-based subject.

Otherwise science and technology are no more than utilitarian subjects to solve mechanical problems devoid of human touch. For that matter why only engineering and maths, when the role of life sciences and biological-based subjects are creating new explosive inroads into the world of biomimicry. Like it or not, these are all reflective of the selective "closed mindedness" to true knowledge-seeking behaviour even as we pay lip service in promoting borderless education and learning.

As we talk about media freedom we are short on academic freedom. We still ban books because the authorities find it unpalatable. We are still not discussing the authority of ideas but held back by ideas of authorities with their anti-intellectual slant. Hence the promise to repeal Universities and University Colleges Act, which was hurriedly amended and implemented in 1974, must come within the 100-day deadline.

In short, while we applaud the suggestion to remove all physical barriers into the campuses, it must be seen simultaneously as a suggestion to remove all forms of mental-intellectual barriers to the acquisition of knowledge in the real sense of the word as universally practised. As we advance into a truly democratic New Malaysia we must not fail to celebrate and nurture knowledge democracy at the same time through our education so as to further sustain the country's sovereign future. If not opening up the campus can be ironic where people move in and out for purposes other than to devour knowledge. Worse if the opening of gates is seen by some as an opportunity to intrude, transgress and trespass with a mindset that remains archaically closed.