“You take the blue pill -- the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill -- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." – Morpheus
Although fictional, the Matrix world as in the blockbuster movie ‘The Matrix’ by the Wachowski Brothers is very relevant in the context of our society today. Undergraduates, especially the ones from local universities are akin to those stuck in the Matrix. Fed with the belief that they will make it in life, armed only with a scroll, they succumb to complacency. Their minds start to rot, intellectual growth is suppressed, and the end result; they hit rock bottom in the ‘real’ world. Groping in the dark, they try to find a way out, but to no avail. Thereafter, enlightenment ensues, a harsh realization, that the scroll in their hands is merely that, a scroll.
Since pre-school, our parents and teachers have constantly imparted upon us, that success in life can only be achieved through education. This is true to a certain extent, but apparently, as we grew older, something got lost in translation along the way. Education is no longer interpreted in the normal sense of the word, but solely equated with academic achievement. Our undergraduates are products of a system that hails the number of As and a CGPA of 4.0 as the only testament of success, indicating a bright future ahead. Rote learning seems to be the order of the day, while the holistic approach is now almost obsolete.
Such ‘values’ to life in university defeats the whole purpose of a tertiary education. Undergraduates strive to get CGPAs of 4.0, and are further exhorted to do so, especially when an ex-Minister proclaimed that it is their duty to get 4.0 in university. As preposterous as this may sound, it is very real. A right-minded person would shun such statements, but for some, it’s almost like a matter of filial piety. Time spent mugging and memorizing might get you good results, but it does not prepare you for the ‘real’ world, where problem solving skills and the ability to think outside the box is valued instead of the text book stuff.
Students spend so much time studying, they forget about everything else, except where to find that particular book in the library. Ask them if they know anything at all on current issues, and they respond with a blank look, expecting you to fill them in. The other problem with our undergraduates is that, they seem to idolize pop culture a tad too much. Try organizing a public lecture by Warren Buffet and a concert by some Akademi Fantasia singers on the same day. It is not that hard to predict which event will have a bigger crowd, unfortunately.
Then, there is the other group of students, i.e. those who believe that life in university is a bed of roses. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Problem is, some tend to stretch it a little too much, so much so that they don’t even know what they are doing. They believe that just as in the university, everything will be taken care of when they are out there in the ‘real’ world, i.e. that their precious scrolls will take them places. No effort whatsoever is made to improve themselves and participating in ridiculous activities is deemed to be the ultimate indicator of what is to expect in the ‘real’ world. For instance, a senior while ordering around a junior to do this or that project will justify it by saying “This is to prepare you for working life, especially when facing employers”. And the poor subordinate believing it, bids the senior’s wishes. We should never send across such wrong messages. Kow tow is not fun, and will never be. Period. Furthermore, why should we continue the negative and perpetuate such myth? Whatever happened to entrepreneurship?
Another issue which bugs a portion of undergraduates today is the inability to converse and write in English. Needless to say, in the era of globalization, the importance of English cannot be over emphasized. One might have plenty of mind boggling ideas, but without the ability to articulate them, such ideas cannot be conveyed to others. While such facts are known to every student, they prefer to converse in their mother tongues. Getting out of the comfort zone is often the toughest nut to crack.
On the other hand, the introduction of a compulsory soft skills course serves only to magnify the deficiencies of our education system. Students have forgotten how to interact, how to communicate, and how to ace that interview, to the extent that such drastic measure has to be taken. While this solves the problem on the surface, it effectively sweeps the bigger chunk of it under the carpet. Undergraduates cannot be expected to learn the art of eloquence and to gain self confidence overnight. It takes more than a course to create the wholesome undergraduate.
More importantly, undergraduates must be provided with room and space for holistic growth. Intellectual discussions, debates and forums on any topic at all should be encouraged and the underlying fear that students will rebel, retaliate or even form extremist groups, I would like to state, is unfounded. As adults, they should be respected as such, which means also to be given inter alia, the right to freedom of expression. What is right or wrong is not the point. The focal point is, undergraduates must be allowed to think, to express themselves, and to dissent if they want to. Keep pushing them around, and what do you get? A bunch of pushovers in society.
The bottom line is this. Whether or not an undergraduate will ever be ready to face the ‘real’ world is essentially a matter of choice. Choose to maintain your status quo, you continue in your temporary bubble in Neverland, waiting for the ‘real’ world to come crashing through. Choose to free your mind from the fetters of tradition for tradition’s sake, and to move out of your comfort zone, you embark on a journey with nothing guaranteed, except unfamiliarity. The latter sounds like a better deal, at least to me.
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