We’re Kinda Focusing on the Wrong Things Here, Teach

I admire a great many people, especially those who have spent their lifetimes contributing to the various fields of study that we have now taken for granted. For untold years in their lifetimes, thinkers the likes of Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and endless more have devoted their scant, precious time on this earth seeking to understand and explain to us laymen, the mysteries that haunt many of our minds; often for the betterment of society as a whole. While these names will forever be recorded in history, and will likely never be forgotten by the scholars who seek to follow in their footsteps, we must not forget the unifying objective of the greats: to leave a legacy not simply by their names alone, but through the fruits of their labor.

There exists quite an odd trend in Indonesian academics, specifically in the levels below college. My people seem to place a great deal of importance on the specifics of intellectual giants, perhaps more so than what is necessary. While I have no qualms for learning the backgrounds of certain individuals, I do find it somewhat unnecessary to seek out every single detail of their lives, and also on the tales of those who have unfortunately left much less impactful creations. Why? Certainly not because I aim to disrespect the works of my betters, rather my annoyance at this trend of worshipping individuals detract from all the more important things. I shall have to explain my words further.

Let us for a second imagine that we are standing on the shoes of a scientist. One who is brighter than most, and is noble in his intentions. Would such a person seek personal glory by endeavoring to plaster his name on all the textbooks within his reach? Or would he much prefer to have his theorems be the objects that people remember him by, regardless of whether or not his name is ever mentioned in the annals of academic literature? Should this hypothetical man truly be devoted to advancing whatever field he is in, then he would choose the latter. For what does it mean to want to have our names be more recognizable than our life-works? Basically that we have never truly dedicated ourselves for the benefits of others, but for the fulfillment of our egos.

It is never wrong to wish for recognition when we truly deserve it, yet it is another matter entirely when such a side-objective takes precedent over anything else. I believe—although this may sound far too idealistic and an overreaching of authority—that the great scholars of old cared less about their names and life stories, than they did for their works. Einstein and Marx, for instance, were loners. The former a man who could not be disturbed when entranced by the mystique of physics. The latter a solitary yet astute drunkard who wished for nothing other than to find a way to introduce equality and justice for the proletariat. These two men did not sound like fame-chasers, but individuals who sought to fulfill the lofty goals they’ve set for themselves, regardless of recognition by the public, their contemporaries, the government, et cetera.

Thus, what would they say if they found out that in the present people are more likely to know their monikers and not the true worth of their labors? The everyday student would like remember Einstein by his E=MC2 without a clue as to what its significance actually is, while Marx is remembered more often as the father of Communism—in the most negative sense of the term—not a person who hoped for nothing more than fairness in an unfair world. These invaluable theories and perspective are glossed over more often than not thanks to the obsession of knowing all there is to know about a person, unless one devotes his time to read the texts composed by these extraordinary luminaries. And not divert the focus to the personal tales of either Einstein or Marx. Since, after all, we learn much more from consuming suchlike academic literature than poring over biographies.

The Indonesian academic system places unnecessary emphasis on the histories of select individuals. While this type of viewpoint is quite useful when studying history as it allows us to catch a glimpse of what makes a person who he or she is, plus why said individual undertook certain actions, it is nothing more than a diversion when what should be the primary topic of concern are abstract theories—they require far greater scrutiny than making assumptions of a person’s life. Perhaps the obsession of individuality stems from the idea that all men and women are unique, and that therefore without them we could never attain the knowledge they have accumulated and shared. While the picture of irreplaceable rarity is a beautiful one, it is likely that weve are not at all unique snowflakes.

What I mean by of our lack of uniqueness is not at all derogatory. Rather it is a praise for us all as a species. There is a certain phenomena in the academic world, wherein one person might stumble upon a nearly identical theory, invention, etc. as that of another. This phenomenon is known as ‘simultaneous invention’, in the technical parlance. For instance, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is nowadays famous (or infamous, as some would say) only because he outraced Alfred Russell Wallace. Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla and Thomas A. Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, are all members of the simultaneous invention club. Hence, we must ask ourselves, is individuality—the upbringings, life experience, and so on—all that important when it comes to science? Probably not.

I could never say that my admiration for the scientists, inventors, philosophers I’ve mentioned above are lessened just because they are not unique. Their contributions still stand the test of time. Their works will forever live on in my generation and the next, perhaps modified every once in a while in accordance with new discoveries. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that one person, in a world of billions, is the only one capable of concocting indispensable theories. It would seem, as the simultaneous invention concept imply, that we are creatures of circumstance and that therefore whatever we produce are contextual as well. This is why one should not place far too grand a focus on the specifics of another’s life.

For the sake of eliminating egotism from academia, and the idea that each and everyone of us are capable of bearing the weight of the world on our shoulders, I ask teachers to focus less on the lives intellectual heroes. Grant them what they rightfully deserve: the propagation of their ideas, so that they may live on not by name alone, but by what is very likely the very things they love most. That is, the endless contributions that continue to influence our lives—whether we realize it or not—decades and even centuries after they have been given to our ancestors. Otherwise, they might as well be just another man with a catchy name, but nothing else worthy of  attention.

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