Friday, June 5

Love and empathy in modern education


IN today’s column, I wish to deliberate on the importance of the aspects of love and empathy not only in religious education but in also our general school and university subjects. Before continuing my discourse, I wish to place a situational context of the above mentioned concern.

The issue of race relation and religious understanding were discussed at a meeting with youths in a Department of Unity event. From the meeting, it was reported that the president of Majlis Belia Malaysia, a Malay, proposed that the subject of religious studies be introduced in order to create much needed awareness between the different cultures concerning the diverse faiths in this country.

This news was then followed by the statement of Dr Maszlee Malik, the Minister of Education, saying that he does not see the relevance of introducing a new subject and that the current religious education should concentrate on producing aspects of love and empathy that would resolve much of our race and religious conflict.

After this statement, there was another report stating a Malay academic from a public university saying that more than just love and empathy are needed to address the issue of race and religious relation. The academic suggested more activities like visiting houses of worship and other learning activities outside the classroom as well as more teachers of diverse backgrounds to be employed.

In all of these discussions, the issue of love and empathy were completely side-lined and the Minister of Education’s important summary statement of the problem was put in the negative light of ‘refusing to introduce the subject of religious education’. Jakim then added its two sen worth of agreeing with the Minister on the point that the introduction of a subject on comparative religion would confuse students.

Personally, I do believe that all the statements by the three Malay personalities are relevant and important. I do think it is too early to introduce the subject of comparative religion to the young minds but I do agree that an awareness of other faiths is important at the primary and secondary school levels.

I remember reading about Siddartha Gautama Buddha, Lao Tse, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ in my Tawarikh or History class in Primary 6. I remember memorising their biographies and scoring well in the exam. Nowadays, only Islam appears more important than other faiths not only in the long hours of Islam as a subject but also in the history curriculum as well. I think that the information about the principles of belief of other religions can be incorporated in the subjects of History and Geography. I think it would be difficult to study History without the aspect of religion as part of the social and political construct of any people or country. On the same token, the subject of culture and religious values should be part and parcel of the geographical information of an area or a country being studied. Nowadays we seem to be only concerned about export and import items and economies, devoid of the lifestyle of the people that produce those economies.

Now, on the matter of love and empathy mentioned by Maszlee, I feel that the minister has summed up the real issue and answer to the teaching of Islam and Moral subjects. Not only that, I wish to ask Malaysians how is it that our teaching of the young for 17 years is only to equip them with the knowledge and skills to make a living but not living meaningfully with love and empathy as two core elements in the construction of the human and the citizen persona?

In all of my spiritual readings beyond just the understanding of rituals and religious forms, all the sages and teachers teach that love and empathy are two key elements in a spiritual enlightenment. Firstly, the basic idea of love is to care for someone outside of our own selfish self, outside of our own family self, and outside of our own race-self or nationalistic-self. It is the consideration of the other that sets apart an ordinary person following blindly the rituals of a religion-identity construct than a person in a spiritual state of being in harmony with all.

Love of others is a human dimension non-existent in the animal kingdom and becomes the only essential difference between the two species. Animals care for their young but not others. An animal will protect its own flock or herd as a defensive mechanism but will not do so for other animals different than its own. Insects protect their queen out of an instinct of loyalty or forced control but will not do so for other insects. Only the human being of one race can have love of others outside its own culture and lifestyle.

Empathy is the aspect of humanity that can put a person almost in a condition of feeling what another person might feel in situational, cultural, and political circumstances. A Malay, for instance, may empathise with a non-Malay whose son or daughter received 8As but was not accepted in a public university because of the abuse or the regulation controlling the quota system. If the Malay could not care less about the other and only his or her own kind, then the religious teachings had only reinforced the race-religion-identity construct and not a spiritual one.

As a minister in charge of education, Maszlee has correctly and succinctly demonstrated his total grasp on the issue of religious teaching and had zeroed in on the idea that the subject should emphasise and focus more on producing these two attributes. It is now the responsibility of the educators, teachers, administrators, and so-called academia in this country to operationalise this vision statement. The school can have all the teaching, activities, and textbooks they want but if these produce young adults who do not possess love of the other and empathy for others, then that subject is a failure, no matter how many students score an A.

On the same note, I have also wondered why our education places so much importance on subjects that would make students make a living but totally side line the question of what is a meaningful life all about. As such, a Primary 1 pupil would 17 years later graduate from a university with a degree and simply go through the motions like a programmed ant or bee towards a career and making a living.

Many do not know what living is and are trapped in a rat race of more material wealth and comparing of lifestyles with the other. It is quite a laughable thing when we look at the problem of race and religious conflicts with people strapping bombs and having guns to kill others for not being of the same mind and beliefs, while at the same time we seem to be talking about more science, mathematics, technology, and other subjects unrelated to the subject matter of love and empathy. We are here because of what we thought was more important and because of what we never thought was supposed to be important.

There is no way out of our race and religious conflict. Some civil society personalities have called for religion to be taken out of the school system and its subject matter should not be discussed in any subject at all. Personally, I have absolutely no issue with the general principle of this suggestion but I do not see it being achievable in the next two lifetimes or centuries for this country. Taking the subject out will leave the subject in the hands of religious scholars of which the state or the country would have no control of. Thus, I am for rethinking the teaching of the subject of Islam and Moral Studies to focus more on activities and learning to produce the important attributes of love and empathy.

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