03 March 2011

With a sigh ( Pt 5 – sec I ) – Awang Goneng’s Comments

In the New Sunday Times of 16th January WAN A HULAIMI, better known as Awang Goneng, wrote ‘What use the newest when the method is flawed?’ copied below:

What use the newest when the method is flawed?

FEYERABEND at Sussex University in 1974 was a physical wreck, but his intellectual vigour remained intact. He walked into the lecture theatre hobbling on a crutch, and wrote three questions on the black board: What's so great about knowledge? What's so great about science? What's so great about truth?
That was classic Feyerabend. Now, just under a month to the seventeenth anniversary of his death, he is still remembered as the man who looked at method and pelted it with fruit, some ironic, some rotten, some soaked in his reductio that reduced them all to absurdum.

In conversation with a friend last week I mentioned someone -- a Malaysian -- whose skills in English language teaching was undisputed but who still remained largely ignored. "He is getting on in years," I said. "Perhaps we should tap his knowledge."

"It'll probably shine a ray of light," I said. "Now that we're wandering in a maze."

We both acknowledged that the person we were talking about had made remarkable strides. "But he may be a bit behind in his method," the friend added. "Methodology", he whispered before we both fell silent, for that was the buzzword.

Feyerabend wasn't against knowledge, or science or truth, however elusive the word. He was a philosopher of science, but when he was ill he turned to the "alternative", and it worked. Is there just one science, one way, one route to human knowledge? Or, apropos my friend, one method?

Looking at the way things are going it is easy to see the bandwagon on the road. People are always excited with this or that, the latest and the one that draws the crowd. And even that will soon fall by the wayside when a knight donning a new shining methodology comes a-riding down the road. We often forget that the business of teaching is to teach. Look at all those gleaming computers now in schools, and the Wi-Fi criss-crossing invisibly overhead. In some schools in Britain the teachers get less funding if they resist; and yet there's the Rudolf Steiner schools that refuse to have any of those newfangled gadgets and they are none the worse for that. They are probably able to know as much about Socrates as their counterparts, even if they may be lagging behind in the Facebook.

To be fair to my friend, he wasn't hitching a ride on the bandwagon but was merely stating a fact, that people can be awed by methods at the expense of results, even if it is proven again and again that old methods do work. We can have a pluralism, Feyerabend seemed to believe, even in days when he himself was clinging on to method.

In education or medicine, the dominant science dictates. The tyranny of orthodox medicine -- known pejoratively to its opponents as allopathy -- means that alternative remedies with different paradigms are attacked. There is a general disdain of learning by rote, but learning by rote carries subtle effects that cannot be measured by immediate results in terms of how the mind is shaped, how language is unconsciously absorbed. There are advantages too of course from the questioning method and the analysis of truths, so Feyerabend I guess would have set them both to the work.

"(Science) is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits," he said in his book Against Method.

There is the danger of course in thinking that the scientific establishment, now or in the past, is neutral, and the danger of following blindly the mainstream of ideas because it is fashionable is all too obvious. Even Feyerabend's way that rejected method in favour of pluralism may be fraught, for he himself, when bemused by the criticisms of his disdain of method, said that people had failed to see the irony and the playfulness in his work. Still, it was a jolt, and a brutal reminder of how much we are taken in by the mainstream without even stopping to realise that sometimes the show, in Feyerabend's words, "has been rigged".

There are old ways and new methods. Each, as my friend the old English teacher would say, should be judged by results. For his part he has his lifetime's work to prove his worth, not bad for a man who was illiterate until he was about fifteen. He may be lagging behind as far as modern methodology is concerned, and this word came about when we were discussing English language teaching in Malaysia.

We are having problems now as we can all see and read. Our students are failing to articulate, our diplomats are at a loss for words and our teachers are using textbooks that are flawed. We are, forever, looking at what's new in the methodology, but what if the madness itself is in the method


Pakcik read the article with interest because in a professional way he touched on a subject which would not be possible for me to express as well. Had he written it in his popular blog ‘Kecek-Kecek’ I would have left my comments there and then. That not being the case I had what he had written copied for keep in my laptop, never expecting to have a chance to comment until I read the following comment he left on my last posting ( Is it the end of the tunnel ).

“Perhaps you should extend your horizon and take people outside your catchment area too if they want to come.

Children are loaded with extra-mural activities nowadays, from navel-gazing to marching around with fake arms (wooden guns I mean).. There are more children at school so there should be more demand for coaching.

And do I hear that some schools are suspicious of outsiders who are interested in teaching for nothing?

Hold on tight, use the free time to watch the coconut trees grow or paint dry or to listen to the kampung folk doing the ratib awor. Or you yourself can do the marhaban, after all, you have many cucus who need their heads shorn (cukur ppala).”

Here I thought I had an opening to say what I had had in mind. Readers who missed Wan A Hulaimi’s article may read what he wrote before I have my say, which I will do so in three sections, this being the first. Insya Allah the 2nd part will follow soon.

Berkhidmat kerana Tuhan untuk kemanusiaan.


Cat-from-Sydney said...

Dear Pakcik,
We have a saying that sum it in one sentence: There are many ways to skin a cat. Though why a cat needs to be involved is beyond me. One branch of science that employs this pluralism in reaching one conclusion is Mathematics, especially in Calculus. Don't know about the syllabus now, but this was taught during my Mama's time eons ago. purrrr.....meow!

Aishah said...

Dear Al-Manar,

Thank you for highlighting the column and the columnist. And the subject matter is more than relevant.

I am aware of the problems from my son's "complaints". Personally I think that there are multi-levels of the mass for any one method to cater. Learning is a personal experience and cannot be conformed to any one method, at any one time.

Al-Manar said...

I like that skinning the cat expressing, a very appropriate way of saying. There are cats everywhere, in the rain, playing with the mouse, on the hot brick, hot tin roof etc etc - even a burglar. But watch it when a black one crosses your path! - sorry no cat satay for you.

Al-Manar said...


Your son has problems to complain and so have many others at school today. The older generations had different kinds. I am glad you enjoy the column.

Al-Manar said...


I am sorry - I meant to say ... skinning the cat expression, not 'expressing'. It must be these cats getting on my nerve!