Are digital disruptions laying the foundations for holistic education in the 21st century?

With disruptions in major industries changing the structure of daily economic life, all of us should sense very clearly by now that the education industry — if you will allow me to call it an industry — is a ripe fruit that is about to fall in the digital storm that has been blowing around the world since the turn of this century.

Education is indeed an industry, not only because it provides jobs, involves an enormous infrastructure of production and consumption of input and output, but also because the industrial society that gave birth to it has, over time, connoted very strongly for us what knowledge is, and what the point of it is. Being an industry, it mass produces and it is the long-term effects of mass education that we should consider if we are to take full advantage of the disruptions.

The Industrial Revolution once created the same sort of anxiety that many of us feel today, namely, will machines not take away jobs and leave most of us with nothing to do?

As it turned out, behavioural training and universal literacy for the masses helped to regiment the uprooted rural populace for factory work and 9-to-5 life patterns, and with the parallel creation of mass consumption, the crisis of unemployment was largely averted.

(One should also argue that the costly wars that accompanied these 19th and 20th-century disruptions helped solve the problem through mass extermination of humans and large-scale destruction of property.)

At the turn of the 21st century, computers came of age, and electronics seductively forebode that everything on sale would soon be an interactive smart-alecky device. The efficiency promised by globally interconnected computers is beyond anything we could have imagined in 2000.

The iPhone is only about a dozen years old; Facebook is 15 years old; Google is 21 years old; and Amazon began 25 years ago. WhatsApp is 10 years old; Airbnb is 11 years old; and Uber is 10 years old. GrabCar, originating in Malaysia, is only seven years old.

This means that most jobs will be better handled by machines than by people. You will need people to develop, create and run smart machines, no doubt, but what is the rest of the population to do? How will they earn a living?

Flattening the earth

In recent times, we have all become increasingly conscious of ranking systems — in society as a whole and definitely in the education context. Universities are ranked, the educational systems of countries are ranked, our geniuses are ranked — imagine that. But more significant than all that is that our children are endlessly being ranked, from the time they are aged four, or three or even two. And this never ends. We adults continue to rank each other, alienating ourselves from one another in the process, allowing our values to be considered quantifiable and our world to be flattened.

Mass education is a modern phenomenon, and we should, therefore, try to be more cognisant of the long-term cognitive, sociological and psychological effects of the mechanisms developed to facilitate it, and to think more of it as a contingency plan that has been carried on for too long.

The crisis of disruption today, it seems to me, is a time of great opportunity in the cultural development of the human race as a whole. Some have called our times an Age of Convergence. There is truth in that, but the continual convergence of the world has been a very painful one.

The advent of trans-ocean travel at the end of the 15th century was like the folding of a paper so that its ends met, or like a magnet curved until its opposite poles touched. This led to the destruction of peoples and civilisations and the global movement of goods and labour — and guns and diseases. The world lived through the conquests and the wars of the colonial age. We then learnt to fly, and our conflicts became world wars. Remember that the atom bombs were dropped from the air by planes that had flown over the Pacific Ocean for six hours, from the island of Tinian in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to Japan.

Today, digital technologies teleport our minds into cyberspace and dissolve distances in our daily dealings with the world. The digital revolution is, in short, globalisation par excellence.

How have these stages of convergence influenced education as a concept? In what ways have we allowed these to limit the development of the minds of our children? What are schools? What are universities? Indeed, what is the actual point of literacy?

At the ideal end of the spectrum, the answer is simple. Knowledge is a collective good and literacy is not only the gateway into the global library of collective human knowledge but also the necessary stimulus for the individual mind to access, absorb and analyse old collective knowledge and create new insights about the world. But as we move beyond the individual to consider the needs of the state, of society and of employers, education also moves away from the development of the mind to the functional reasons for education.

I shall delve into the question about the point of literacy by using Malaysia’s historical conditions as an illustrative case study.

Modernity is about urbanity. So the manner in which urbanity came to Malaysia is important to consider when we consider modern education. From the very start, the Malaysian economy was tied to the growing global economy. Running far-flung ports in an expanding trading network reaching into China, the British in Malaya developed management methods that reflected the diversity of the peoples brought into play to meet their needs. Literacy was therefore configured by such needs, functional within the British global economy of production and consumption, and the religious ambitions of the Europeans in general. To be sure, Chinese schools, Tamil schools and Muslim madrasahs appeared as well, but the point of the mass education of their children was highly functional within the colonial economy as well.

Putting post-industrial and post-colonial education to rest

And then came independence, and mass education took on other aspects and aims. The situation facing the education industry in Malaysia today is that we are pincered in thinking and structure on two fronts — by post-industrial dynamics and the post-colonial (or nationalistic) agenda.

What we tend to look at is the former — post-industrial dynamics. This is partly because these dynamics apply generally to most countries throughout the world, and partly because they best explain the problems facing the developed countries. Developing countries have it worse in the 21st century. They must also face the long-term effects of the early nation-building period when policymaking was subordinate to the larger and exaggerated goal of creating a political entity with common goals, common behaviour and common loyalties.

The building of countries since World War II balanced between building a strong state to take on the world, building a strong national economy to catch up with the developed nations and building a people recognisable as citizens of the emergent country. Malaysia, cursed by being rich in resources, took its time in the national-economy building category; and its government allowed for its dependence on identity politics to undermine the state apparatus. Literacy was geared towards identity maintenance more than educational development.

This is the post-colonial (or nationalistic) agenda that the education industry in Malaysia has to deal with today, alongside the general need to respond to post-industrial dynamics.

How is the state to manage mass education when the means available to parents for educating their children today are so plentiful and varied? Will it simply impose mass education on those it can impose mass education upon and leave the rest to their own devices? In a way, that is what it has been doing, but that works only as long as the majority can be captured within the mass education apparatus. What happens when such is not the case?

The opportunity open to us today is that we can leave this game of mind capture behind and, instead, reform education by shifting from the ambition of educating the masses to facilitating education for individuals by making full use of the multiple and decentralised means the digital revolution increasingly provides us.

The question I am asking is, is it not time that we leave the desperation of the Industrial Age behind and finally educate our children without ranking them and, instead, develop them as members of the human species with a natural place in Nature and in the world?

It seems obvious to me that interest in the humanities is increasing and the dissipation of knowledge into disciplines under humanities, social sciences and natural sciences is now an unnecessary hindrance. Learning to think is a better definition of education than learning to know.

Universal literacy should not simply be about learning to read and write, but about allowing the genius that we must believe lies in each child to develop freely. Mass education belongs to the 20th century. The 21st century should see education as individual liberation, and each person working in the education industry should therefore see themselves as mind-facilitators rather than discipliners.

Freeing education from the fetters of the Industrial Age is the biggest reform that awaits us in the digital age.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His latest book is Month by Month: A Collection of Editorials. This article is based on a keynote speech given on Nov 27, 2019, at the International Seminar on Education and Student Empowerment (ISESE 2019), organised by the Centre for Internship Training, Universiti Malaya, and the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Soka University, Japan.


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