I was caught in a dilemma: to bawl or to guffaw when I was told that some students here refused to attend a talk about Palestine and its history last week because if they were to learn about the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza, it might affect their employability.
That’s a tragicomedy.
Since I have a real concern for the intellectual state of my country, I want to believe that I am in the position to write this letter because I assume those who thought so are around your age.
Therefore, if any of you happen to read this, I want to start by asking you:
What’s your definition of success?
Redefine it if you, too, think the end of an undergraduate life is all about getting a job in an air-conditioned room that provides the pinnacle of comfort with a handsome income at the end of the month.
Because I feel annoyed to think how many educated people end up being so selfish.
Because I am ashamed to think how easy educated people capitulate to badges and names.
Because I feel angry to think how easily educated people surrender to large societies and dead institution.
Because I am in pain to think of the educated people’s mouths slobbered while hailing the Mammon.
Because I am ashamed to think how many educated people’s appetites would be satisfied at the expense of others.
Because I feel sick thinking who else among these educated people would continue the vicious cycle of:
If you are educated, regardless whether you regard yourself as intelligent or not: in any way, never ever choose indifference.
Being in a university is the best time and opportunity to train oneself for a life beyond the mundane tasks of eating, sleeping and defecating.
Don’t just simply exist. Start living your life. Play your role.
Echoing Jean Piaget, “the principle goal of education… should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discover, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”
No matter what you are studying now.
If you are now trained to be a teacher, make sure you don’t simply teach and wear different new silk baju kurung everyday – train yourself to be an awakener.
If you are reading law, make sure you are not going to be another Karpal Singh – train yourself to be better than him.
If you are a future engineer – train yourself to read history.
If you are a doctor-to-be – train yourself not to allow the very walls of the hospital to suck the life out of you.
If you are going to complete your BA in Islamic Revealed Knowledge, train yourself to be friends with those outside your circle, with those who wear kopiah once a year and with those who have yet to don not only tudung labuh, but tudung, with those who have different faiths.
Each of you, is important.
Don’t trade your values for money.
Don’t be afraid of your fears. They are not there to scare you.
They are there to tell you that something is worth it.
Education is a relief, a route to self-respect.
Respect yourself enough by not denying the right of others.
Respect yourself enough by not nodding to the insult of others.
If you are educated and if you think you are not intelligent, where you are right now, by right should be the best place to train yourself.
You are trained to be an educated person, self-train yourself to be one of those functioning intellectuals, because we are already swamped by non-functioning ones.
Be physically committed to the intellectual pursuit.
And be emotionally committed to the intellectual pursuit.
Don’t miss any intellectual discussion; there is always at least a need for it.
Invest some time to read on serious subjects.
Train yourself to be capable of forming an opinion beyond what is obvious to most people.
And one day if you call yourself a specialist, make sure your knowledge of subjects outside your field is not comparable to that of the layman.
And one day, whoever you choose to be trained as, always remember that you are all intellectuals. Label it any way – a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a linguist, an ustaz, a journalist, a dancer, a social worker, a lawyer, a pomen or a politician – being an intellectual is what you should do for your living.
According to Edward Said: “the role of the intellectual is not to consolidate authority, but to understand, interpret and question it… Indeed, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating…”
And, that nothing in his view is more reprehensible than:
“…those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate, your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship”
So, insist on yourself, never insult your degree for some sacks of flour.
Train yourself now. Prepare yourself.
Because soon, you will have what Nelson Mandela said was the most powerful weapon to change the world: education.
Knowledge will bring you to the opportunity to make a difference.
You can make a difference.
Trust me, you can, and you should, and if you are brave enough to start, you will. – May 12, 2014.
Dear Prof Dr Syed Hussein Alatas, thanking you would be an understatement of my gratitude; your words spoke to me every night last week. And each night was a very emotional moment. Still – thank you, even when I know it is not enough. Al-fatihah.
* Nadilla Jamil reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.