Usman Awang

ONE of the films that left an indelible impression on me when I was growing up was Dead Poets Society (1989, directed by Peter Weir).

Set during the 1950s in the United States, the story revolves around an English literature teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry and somewhat unorthodox teaching method.

I remember one of the significant lines that the teacher delivered to his students in one particular scene: “We do not read and write poetry because it is cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty… these are what we stay alive for.”

Among other concepts, the teacher attempts to convey to his students the message of the importance of the arts and humanities in maintaining a sense of equilibrium in life.

The significance of the above quote is that it reflects the contemporary Malaysian education scene that has marginalised the arts and humanities.

The country’s schools and higher education institutions seem to have sidelined arts and humanities courses and programmes due to the perceived lack of economic or marketable value. This omission is compounded by our society’s obsessive preoccupation with technology that has, to a certain extent, eroded our sense of humanity.

When discussing their children’s future career opportunities, a majority of parents and teachers downplay the significance of the arts and humanities, preferring to emphasise the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Somewhat regrettably, in Ma-laysia, the arts and humanities rarely attract the best and brightest of young minds, mainly because such courses are tailored to accommodate those who perform poorly in academia.

The humanities’ objective is to trace the world via exploration and explanation of the human experience. History, for example, deals with attempts to interpret past events and incidents by tracing the causes and effects of human actions. When taught in school, history’s focus is invariably on the regurgitation of facts and figures detailing the past. One could argue that history would be better understood either as a form of narrative (storytelling) or a mode of thought that mirrors the past, present and future.

Literature, too, is fundamental to the humanities. Literary texts invariably reflect human lives, cultures and civilisations. Students’ ability to read, understand, examine, analyse and interpret specific literary texts will enable them to grapple with more esoteric notions and questions about life.

It is this type of knowledge that makes one “human”. It shapes our thoughts, opinions and world views, and refines our budi, sense and sensibility.

Emphasis on literature and other forms of humanities will help to develop interest in and a culture of reading among Malay-sians, stimulating a culture of knowledge. In turn, this “knowledge” culture has the potential to cultivate and reinforce one’s critical and analytical thinking skills, particularly when assessing specific issues or phenomena.

This will perhaps overcome the lack of reading, writing, thinking and discussion skills evident among Malaysian students today, a perceived discrepancy that casts doubt on the ways in which they absorb knowledge. Knowledge of the humanities will equip us to become more critical of received opinion or commonly-held belief.

An example of a culture of knowledge is the ancient Greek thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Aristotle’s acclaimed theory of “poetics” remains influential even in the new millennium. It has been utilised to introduce concepts such as logic, epistemology and rhetoric.

In effect, its practice has witnessed the structuring of ideas through debate and rational systems of thought and argument. This system of thinking, argument and the art of rhetoric has long underpinned the research methods pursued in the spheres of arts and the humanities.

During the golden age of Islam (the era of the Abbasiyyah Empire), ancient Greek works were translated into Arabic by Muslim scholars who trained at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Iraq. The work of these scholars enabled the West to gain access to Greek philosophical works. Their translations constituted a major contribution to Islamic civilisation.

Traditional Persian artistry, especially in architecture and literature, made an immense contribution to world civilisation. The Persian literary world could claim several noted poets and thinkers — Omar Khayyam, Jalaluddin Rumi, Saadi Shirazi and Hafiz Shirazi, among others. Their poetic works influenced, inspired and shaped other artistic genres, including music, the visual arts, fine arts, drama (theatre) and cinema (film). The late film director Abbas Kiarostami, for example, drew upon works of prominent Persian poets from Khayyam to Forough Farrokhzad. In addition, he used cinema to pose questions vis-à-vis metaphysical reality.

Those who pursue the arts and humanities must ensure that their minds, hearts and souls imbibe the knowledge they gain, and that it becomes part of their lives. From Rumi, Rabindranath Tagore, Yasujiro Ozu, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Usman Awang, we can learn “big questions” — that deep understanding extends beyond knowing.

We must accept that there is more to music than MTV, reality shows and karaoke. We must nurture our awareness that films are much more than a manifestation of cheap laughs and thrills. And, most important of all, we must recognise that the arts and humanities will facilitate not only a world in black and white, but also in variegated shades of grey.

Norman Yusoff

Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation University Teknologi Mara Cawangan Selangor Kampus Puncak Perdana, Shah Alam

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