Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Malaysian Dad, American Dad

I must say that I have - yet again - enjoyed Petronas' Hari Raya drama-advert.

I do wonder sometimes what they would come up next. It seems to me, year after year, Petronas keep on churning out poignant drama-advert. Would it dry up soon? Certainly not Petronas' money - not any time soon, I hope not, with the crude oil price hovering near the US$100 mark. But it is the creative idea, and the presentation, that matter here and I hope it won't dry up anytime soon.

You see, my sis was wondering about bapak's reaction, when we - the elder siblings - questioned him about the 'new' car he brought home one day in the 60s. To be honest, I remember that day quite well. I remember dad taking us for a spin, with us questioning him about the newness of the car to him, when we were told by his friend who was there with us at that time that "we must be excited about the new car!"

I do not, however, remember his response. May be he just smiled away, may be he tried to explain it to us. I don't know. To me it doesn't matter now, and I am sure it didn't matter then.

We were then, I guess, his adorable little kids (hahaha...yeah yeah I know) and the apples of his eyes and nothing that we say or do then would make him feel down.

It takes a lot more than that to get him upset or make him feel down.

Just like the Burung Murai dad. His kid was perhaps bored; perhaps playing the fools, who knows? But he - the dad - would answer it lovingly and without a hint of boredom.

While I applaud Burung Murai dad for his calmness and self control in answering the son's continual bombardment of the same question, here is where I believe our belief and education methodology are below par compared to other cultures.

I remember reading a book on Dr Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winner for Physics. For the uninitiated, he assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and was in the panel who investigated in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. He is perhaps one of the most famous scientist and I believe one of the most brilliant.

But that's not the reason why I brought his name up. I read one of his book, the semi autobiographical "Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman - Adventures of a Curious Character" and was taken by his description on how his dad taught him true meaning of knowledge, and the way we should be seeking knowledge.

Apparently like most true blue Americans, Feynman Sr loved the outdoor and so he used to take Richard around in the countryside, especially for bird watching. Richard of course, like the burung Murai kid, would ask his dad about the various birds that they were watching.

Richard: "Burung apa tu, Abah?"
Malaysian dad: "Burung Murai tu 'nak."
Richard: "Burung apa?"
Malaysian dad: "Burung Murai tu 'nak."
Richard: "Burung apa?"
Malaysian dad: "Burung Murai tu 'nak."
.....and so on and so forth.

But Feynman Sr is not Malaysian. So unlike burung Murai dad and other Malaysian dads, Feynman Sr would not simply answer that question for Richard. Before you start pointing out how great our traditional Malay cultures and values vis-a-vis Feynman Sr's American Jewish education philosophy (if I may describe it that way), let me tell you that Feynman Sr would instead tell his son on the detail characteristic of each bird, their habitats, the eating habits, and various other information that would characterize each bird specie.

Here is how I envisage the conversation between Richard Feynman and his dad.

Richard: "Burung apa tu, Abah?"
American dad: "There are as many as 20 species of this bird."
Richard: "Burung apa?"
American dad: "Do you know that the heart of this bird is very similar to human's heart? It has four compartments."
Richard: "Burung apa?"
American dad: "The specie is bit shy but is very protective of its territory. Every season it will lay about 2-3 eggs ; its voice is very pleasing to the ears."

...then after the umpteenth times; after American dad had exhausted all his knowledge on the bird...

Richard: "Burung apa?"
American dad: It is the Murai, son. The main types are called burung murai batu, murai hitam, murai Kampung, Murai Everett etc. But funnily the Malays in Asia would call someone who talk too much as "mulut murai" or "Murai mouth."

Richard: "Terernya abah!"

Feynman Sr: "It is not difficult, dude. You can find all these in the Wikipedia!"

(Obviously the detail of the conversation is the figment of my imagination, but I guess the philosophy is not. And from the above conversation, it is more logical for Richard to be asking the same question over and over again!)

In his book, Dr Feynman describes in reasonable detail how his dad would describe each specie to him.

"This is how I learned," concluded Dr Feynman in his book," not by knowing the names of the birds, but their characteristics!"

We tend to teach our kids the opposite way. This is a cat; that is burung Murai; or Itu gajah, but we could not tell our children what constitute a cat, a burung Murai or an elephant. In the end, our kids knew the name of bird, but nothing else. We should not only be able to tell our kids the different car model, but how it works - the engine, the gearbox etc, and the different characteristics between each model. It should be easy nowadays.

Advancement in science is not made on knowing the name of the specie, but its characteristics.

Feynman went on to become one of the greatest mind in physics; his sister is also a professional physicist. His dad (parents) must have done something right; something we ought to emulate.

And that's how, I believe, America become a great superpower, while we are still a third world country; and that's why, in an earlier entry, I thought so highly of the American Education philosophy. We are still a long way to go to achieve what they had achieved. Not until we change our attitude towards education.

Every single one of us.

Read about Dr Richard Feynman here. If you have the opportunity to read his book, do so by all means. I do wish I had 'known' him much earlier. He is an amazing character; Dr Feynman is. I am all in awe of him.

His philosphy is that if you can't explain, to a general audience/laymen or freshmen, the complex theory of physics, then it is not fully understood yet. So I believe his books and lectures are all readable by us. Much like what Stephen Hawking had done - another brilliant physicist & mathematician.

This is one scientist who would dare pointing out to Niels Bohr his flawed thinking!

The book should give some hints how his dad Melville developed his curiosity.

FRom Wikipedia: The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, Melville, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking.

Again here: His habit of direct characterization would sometimes disconcert more conventional thinkers; for example, one of his questions when learning feline anatomy was: "Do you have a map of the cat?" (referring to an anatomical chart).

BTW his exploits during the press conference of the Challenger accident task force was legendary. You should read about this.

I also love this quote attributed to Dr Feynman. He is witty - a trait he got from his mum, yet insightful, but certainly not blasphemous:

"God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time--life and death -- stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out." — Feynman Online Quotes

Tags: education Edit Tags
Tuesday November 6, 2007 - 09:46pm (SGT) Edit Delete