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Students need freedom of expression to think critically


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It is reassuring that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has called on students to think critically in a larger social context where there has been a surge of extremism of sorts in the country.

The exhortation is also an admission that over the years, our education system as a whole has not adequately created an intellectual environment that is conducive for students to be curious and think critically.

Indeed, students should be encouraged to ask inconvenient questions debate, and challenge conventions, if need be, in the pursuit of knowledge, better understanding, mutual respect and justice.

School students should not be chastised or ostracised simply because they question, for instance, feudal practices, misogyny and racial discrimination in schools and in society at large.

For example, if a female student dares to complain about a male teacher making sexist jokes in class, she should not be subjected to public shaming. The teacher, if found guilty, should be the one to be dishonoured.

In the obsession to push students to gain good grades in public exams, school administrators and teachers must not lose sight of the noble meaning of education and the importance of social values.

Students must be imbued with values that will shape them as compassionate beings who uphold justice.

Secondary students should be exposed to larger concerns such as the environment and climate change so that they do not become selfish or narrow-minded.

Besides, it would be condescending to assume that students would be out of their depth in dealing with issues of local, national and global import.

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In universities, students must in the first place be treated as adults who are generally aware of their responsibilities and rights.

University management should cease treating students like schoolchildren by prescribing them, for example, forum topics and speakers, as well as uniform attire. The students should be given the freedom to decide these matters.

Wearing leather shoes and neckties – in hot weather, to boot – before going into an exam hall, as instructed by a certain public university, neither ensures good grades nor critical thinking. Surely educators are aware that form should not be prioritised over substance.

In contrast, students who were critical of the establishment and sported long hair – with a few looking almost like the ‘flower children’ of the 1960s and 1970s – were known later in life to have become useful citizens, making important contributions to society.

Equally important, some academics should provide a good example by not becoming a hindrance to freedom of expression and critical thinking. It has been alleged that certain academics who teach the so-called critical thinking courses in universities are themselves not capable of looking at things critically.

Given that the opposition is said to be serious about playing the role of a government-in-waiting, it would be interesting to know what its so-called portfolio committee on education has to say about critical thinking and freedom of expression among students as a check on extremism in society.

It is critical that students’ freedom of expression be championed and sustained irrespective of a change of government. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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