Malaysia Dateline

Students and the spirit of enlightenment

How does one consider oneself as student? Is being students a status for those who enroll into educational institution, without regarding those who study on their own capacity?

If that is the case, the Renaissance’s great painter and sculptor, Michelangelo’s quote is not and never relevant. On his deathbed, he said “Ancora Imparo” which bears the meaning “I am still learning”.

Clearly, at his dying moment at the age of 89, he was not a student in any educational institution, yet he still considers himself a student. I was brought to a conclusion that the status of being student is not exclusive, but includes anyone who is still willing to learn, even outside of institutions, at one’s own capacity.

These students, then, are the agents of enlightenment for our societies. Their thirst for knowledge brings about development and advancement to our society, such had been done by thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Indeed, there is nothing more perfect than these words to summarize the Age of Enlightenment: Sapere Aude! Sapere Aude is Latin for “Dare to know”, inscribed by Immanuel Kant in his 1784 essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

This idea of daring oneself to know or to think for oneself is the spirit that every student should have. As said before, a student is a student because of his willingness to learn. The quest for knowledge is the manifestation of students’ boldness to get themselves out of the abyss of ignorance.

Kant might intend his essay for the general public during his era, but it provides ground and spirit that students at any era to take lessons from.

The essay really makes me think – think about how it really correlates to my life as a student and the lessons I got from it is what I am going to articulate in this piece. We as students, what do we really want in our quest for knowledge? Is it only about fulfilling the demand in the markets?

If that so, why bother taking extra measure of always answering the question “WHY”? Why not just focus on skills if it is all about jobs? Indeed, our destination is rather more significant; it is our own enlightenment and others’. Even then, even with so much knowledge, students could still be immature – immaturity that students impose on themselves.

Kant stated the reason why the nonage is self-imposed is not because of the lack in understanding or intellect, rather it is their own refusal to use their own reasons and are in endless dependence on others for guidance.

As student myself, I have empathy regarding this issue. It would be normal if students were afraid to advance into unknown territory without orchestration from others, specifically from teachers or lecturers. Kant furthered the argument that the immaturity (or Unmündigkeit in the original German text) are born from laziness and cowardice.

Laziness and cowardice are our comfort-zone; we do not have to risk ourselves for anything and just wait for instructions from above (Kant mentioned this “guardians”). Easier and safer, right?

The safe zone will cultivate fear within the students themselves. Students who are not used to think for themselves, will somehow easy to be manipulated by the Guardians.

Imaginary case, what if the Guardians have wicked minds, and then taught students those atrocious thoughts? Even if it was imaginary, we could deduce that the students who are either lazy or afraid, will submit their will to the awful thoughts. If that so, what is the use of the knowledge they acquired, if it was not to help them make their own mind in this situation?

Being student then is about learning but not accepting blindly. Remember, the motto of Enlightenment is “Dare to know”. Kant included the word “dare” because he knew that the journey for enlightenment either for oneself or public, would eventually come to face hindrances internally and externally. Never imposed on ourselves this immaturity by being too lazy to think and too coward to even do so.

Kant understood that the first step for independent thoughts is the scariest, more so if students were either never allowed or have never done so. Students who dare to do so is making “uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch”, as he puts it. But if students did not choose this path now, then when?

The more the time taken by the students staying in the self-imposed nonage zone, the more they will be accustomed and grow to like it. The first step is most frightening, but things will get better and easier afterwards.

Another enemy for students to cast off the yoke of Unmündigkeit are dogmas. Although in the essay Kant specified it in the religious arena, yet the problem of dogmas generally affects students. Dogmas are “the fetters of an everlasting nonage”.

People generally, and students specifically, have grown accustomed towards dogmas. We rarely question it because we see that people before and around us have no problems with it and just follow along but there is where the problem lies. Being customary of anything and we stop thinking about it as if there is something comforting in not questioning things people blindly follow.

As the society’s agents of enlightenment, students should never accept things at ease. That is the point of being student; we dare to ask and know things people had stopped asking about. It is then understandable why Kant said that dogmas could create perpetual immaturity – we do not use our reasons on it and it is not because we lack understanding of it.

Dogmas are things we never complained about suggesting we truly understand it to a point where questions are not needed anymore. If that was the case, then it is unclouded that we are lazy or afraid to do it. The frightening part is intelligible; if others had no problems with it, why should us?

To go against the majority is to be different and alone. But that is the responsibility as students, to dare ourselves and enlighten the society. If we were to follow blindly as others just because we are lackadaisical, we are not just choosing the path of everlasting infantilism but we are denying the world of true knowledge.

Even if students could think for themselves to escape from the clutching grip of dogmas, it would be of no use if the knowledge are not spread to the society. I often say that no matter how vast one’s knowledge is, or if one has read all the books in the library; if these doings are for just one own self, it would be no different than self-pleasure.

Following the spirit of the thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment, students should try to educate the society with the knowledge they had, even with the students’ own community. We live in the age of specialization, where we are dependent on others for things or knowledge outside our expertise.

A medical student might be the maestro in the field of human anatomy, yet he might be trapped in the false knowledge in the economic field of study. The responsibility then lies on the shoulder of the economy students, who himself is wrong in the science of politics.

This case is just inside the community where knowledge is something to conquer. What about the general society? Who are going to guide them if it were not the students who acquire the gold of the mind? We as students, we learn for the benefits of ourselves and also others.

This piece is nothing more than a reminder for my own self. Students should never learn just to become a commodity in the market. The knowledge we have, that we are still acquiring, are communal wealth.

But first, we need to free ourselves from the chain of self-inflicted nonage – free ourselves from depending on others to think for us. Be dare to do it for ourselves and students would feel how liberating it is. Never absorb anything easily even when others are doing so.

Question it, even if we are going to follow it afterwards because at least we are not following it blindly anymore. Never forget to spread our knowledge; make threads on Twitter, update statuses on Facebook, organize book discussions.

Do as much as possible for the promulgation of ideas and knowledge. By then we, the agents of enlightenment, could proudly say to others that “We are the students”
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The writer is Co-Founder & Head Operation of VIRTUE IIUM.