AN ancient Greek poet, Pindar, when alluding to the importance of education, remarked that “nothing is more important or more difficult than to become a man”.
Education is no doubt the strongest pillar upon which a great nation and civilisation is built.
This is mainly due to the fact that it is the first step where the youngest generation of a nation is prepared before they move further up the social ladder.
Despite its fundamental and necessary role, debate is going on concerning the real purpose of education. Is education merely aimed at fulfilling the pragmatic, economic and political needs of a state, or must it accomplish a higher and nobler aim in line with the true nature of humans?
The sign of unsettled debate on the aim of education can be seen, for example, from the emergence of various kinds of schools and educational institutions employing different approaches towards different aims.
The problem can also be discerned from the numerous changes that take place in educational policies which usually come together with the change of government or ministers.
One of the shortcomings of modern education is that despite the ability of a nation to produce students with good intelligence, reason and cognition, they lack affective and moral character.
The rising number of white collar crimes, among others, indicates this imbalance.
In fact, continuous disparity between intelligence and character in education would lead to a more dangerous result.
Martin Luther King Jr once commented on the nature of American education: “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.
The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals.”
Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, a renowned contemporary Muslim thinker, underlines the fundamental aim of education in Islam in his Concept of Education in Islam, as that of to produce a good man.
This is in response to the modern secular approach of education which only gives prominence to the fulfilment of the aim of being a good citizen.
To al-Attas, being a good man is more universal and virtuous as well as being inclusive of other virtues, including being a good citizen.
Earlier, Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher in his book Education at the Crossroads, criticised the modern Western education which overly focused on the everchanging and pragmatic nature of human needs at the expense of the actualisation of his true nature.
Maritain made a strong point that “before being a child of the twentieth century, American-born or European-born child, a gifted or retarded child, this child is a child of man”.
“Man,” added Maritain, “is not merely an animal of nature like a skylark or a bear. He is also an animal of culture whose race can subsist only within the development of society and civilisation.”
The strong reminder by al-Attas and Maritain of the true aim of education echoes the views of prominent scholars within a long tradition of religious worldview which have proven to have established a great intellectual civilisation based on the holistic understanding of man and integrated nature of education.
This religious worldview underscores the fact that man is not merely a biological being. He is a dignified creation of God composed of two main aspects: the body and the soul. The soul being the permanent aspect of man is the king and administrator of the body.
Being spiritual in nature , the soul is the one which has acknowledged its own Creator before coming into being in this physical world.
It is this spiritual realm that is the locus of knowledge. Knowledge from this worldview is not only cognitive and logical in nature but is defined as “the arrival of the soul of the meaning of a thing or an object of knowledge”.
It is a divine gift.
This explains why in the Islamic tradition, education first and foremost presupposes a strong relationship between man and his Creator as the source of all knowledge.
This takes place through sincerity in seeking knowledge and continuous remembrance and prayer.
It also assumes a befitting preparation and discipline (adab) of both the body and soul in seeking and receiving the true meaning from God.
This is perhaps the dimension that is needed to complement the aim of education that will lead to the refinement of character which is missing in contemporary modern education.
DR MOHD FARID MOHD SHAHRAN
Director, Centre for the Study of Shari’ah, Law and Politics Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM)