A recent post by Danielle Han on a very pertinent issue:
“A friend was applying for an American university and asked me to help him with his personal statement. The following ensued:
“The question says to write on an issue of local, personal, national, or international concern and its importance to me. Any ideas?”
He produced a notebook and on each page was a mind-map on trending topics. International terrorism, the rise of China, climate change were in the mix. It looked like a standard list of pretty much what is happening in the world. All that we had learnt in school.
“I can probably relate the rise of China to Singapore since Singapore has to cope with a more assertive China in the region. And probably talk about terrorism since Singapore being an international hub is vulnerable…”
I felt vaguely uncomfortable listening to him. Something was amiss.
“But how are these issues important to you? I mean, yea, these issues are important. But why and how are they important to you on a personal basis? How is it important to you as a human being, as a person? ”
At these words, we both stopped stunned, as both of us slowly understood what I spurted out. After that meditative silence, my friend spoke.
“I have a feeling that education has taught me all about this world, but nothing about myself.”
And I felt immense, immense sadness.
For my friend was no simpleton. He was, objectively speaking, one of the most accomplished of my age in Singapore, perhaps easily in the top 1 percent in my batch. His paper record is impeccable – Straight As with a Higher 3 paper distinction, leadership in the student council, team captain and national champion in his sport, and an assortment of various awards and book prizes. Now a scholarship holder and an officer-to-be in the army… He was by no means one of those whose success is limited to the academic; his paper credentials suggest a more than holistic education.
But now, he has just confessed that education has not… even made him a person. He was akin to some inchoate concept of a man, some aggrandization of trophies, some hollowed husk of purposelessness.
I slumped in my chair, for I had never heard such a damning statement on our education system.”
— from Norvin Chan’s The Secret Political Blog
What do you guys think?
I see this happening a lot. For loads of people my age, in university, studying, say, sociology, it is a thing separate from themselves as people (which is of course highly ironic). It’s a subject to be mastered, facts to be memorised, things to be learned on an abstract and disembodied level. There is certainly some passing interest, some genuine enjoyment, but there is this strange sense of disconnect, as if studying the sociology of food is about being able to repeat facts about body image and our social delinking from the origin of food without really thinking about how we ourselves are implicated in this whole process. There is a lack of — reflection, perhaps (and now I risk coming across as a little snooty), or a certain kind of lack of self-awareness? I had a friend who, while studying for GP, memorised reams and reams of statistics to be crammed edgewise into an essay during the “A” Levels, which to me was a little baffling. I’m not saying that the act of memorising facts is a bad thing, but shouldn’t writing a GP paper be based somewhat on interest, on a personal connection with the otherwise abstract worldly issues we are writing about?
I am interested in how our education system conditions us into thinking that this is the only way to study, that this is ‘education’, a task to be accomplished like learning to fix a car or how to swim. Evidently this is not true for everybody and everyone reacts to education, is shaped by, or shapes their view of education, differently. I have many friends who feel strongly about what they study and who do not separate school from self like most Singaporean students do. And yet I also have an acquaintance who chose to major in literature simply because she scored the highest grade for its exposure module in comparison to political science and sociology. (This of course pissed me off on a very personal level, because I remain torn about my decision not to pursue lit [although day by day I am certain that I’ve done the right thing] as my first major and am weirdly envious of those who have chosen to study it, but it also just utterly confused me, because literature is something you pursue because you are passionate about it, because it is something wildly personal, and not because you can get the best on-paper grades for it.)
So why do we separate ourselves so completely from our education? Why is the failure to do so chastised as being “impractical” and “having your head in the clouds”? Is this a Singaporean thing? Is this true for other people in other countries? Is this emblematic of a lack of self-reflection (to put it kind of wankily) or of social censure of self-reflection (which is really creepy when you think about it)? What is it that makes us leery of information, education, and current issues in relation to ourselves — that makes us dismiss all these things in the (this familiar, familiar Singaporean watchword) name of “practicality”? Why am I told again and again — by the people around me, by the culture I am raised in, and by my government — that my lofty ideals (which I know are very naive and which I have only a very tenuous grasp on) are not “practical”, that they are not part of “real life”???? How is what we study not part of real life? Are we for example not faced with damaging media images of women or part of food webs or do not grapple with colonial images of “little brown brothers”? Are we not part of a political system and do we not wonder philosophically how we know the things we know or do we not read books or question what it means to be Singaporean in this day and age? Why are these things so often confined to the classroom?
I know that most of you have decided to study things that are off the beaten track in Singapore. Many of you are lit majors or political science majors or something along those lines, and I know that all of you have chosen these areas of study out of interest, out of an intimate belief that what you are educated by is inextricably interweaved with the persons that you are, and that if you were faced with the question that was posed above, you would be able to answer without isolating your self from it. Why are you this way? And because you all exist, is it really, incontrovertibly true that our education system has failed? And again, because you all exist, are you (in varying degrees) exceptions to the rule? And, again, why are you this way? Aaaand I am feeling uncomfortably judgmental here of people who do separate themselves from their education and feeling my class privilege that allows me to ask these questions and to receive this education, but I admit that I am young and stupid and overthinky and I’m going to say these things anyway.
For me, NUS — university education — is one of my favourite things. I love it. I can bleat on and on about how much I have learned and how much I have consequently grown as an individual because of it. I love everything I read, everything I hear and watch and study; I love going to lectures, I love writing papers, I love reading these novels that I would never otherwise pick up, and listening to ideas that will forever shape my perspective of the world. In one year I have learned about political imagery in architecture and the politics of climate change and methods of social research and Christian revivalism in Singapore and post-colonialism in Merle Hodge’s “Crick Crack, Monkey” and the history of food gathering and production in human society. I have debated on sustainability and the failure of massive nature conservancies and heatedly argued about the racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” despite the distancing frame narrative and jumped up and down in my seat in unbridled rage arguing about the implicit sexism of the language used in men’s magazines. I marvel all the time at all these super amazing things that I’ve been part of and feel happy and grateful that I’ve been able to learn so much from my teachers and my books and my peers. But that’s just me, and I think that my reaction is a product of a thousand things – a loving and encouraging family, open-minded and interested friends, my early use of the Internet (which I feel is pivotal), my enjoyment of books – my class, my race, my ethnicity, my specific educational background (where I skimmed just under the ‘elite’ schools while studying at Anderson Sec and St. Andrew’s, but still remain very much highly educated), my socioeconomic position which insulates me from many things – my general (personality?) enjoyment of academia, my linguistic privilege, and so on.
And so I wonder specifically why so many people complain about how boring and crappy and etc our university education system is when I find it stimulating and challenging and helpful. What specifically allowed me to fall off the radar to a certain extent (although I still remain firmly and safely on the beaten, well-trodden path to class and economic stability because of my [incidental to my enjoyment of school] good academic grades)? Obviously a lot of it’s got to do with the state, doesn’t it? Policies that inculcate this attitude towards education, playing on notions of upward social mobility and class anxiety? How class starts to perpetuate itself at the age of ten, when students are streamed, then again at the age of 12 at PSLE, and then if you get into Raffles or St. Nick’s or Hwachong you’re pretty much set, aren’t you — and how I’ve managed to sort of fall away from this ideology because I have the class and economic privilege to not worry about needing to succeed academically, and because I am privileged enough to be fairly smart so I never had to worry about “making it”? And why do many of my peers approach education the way they do – with an almost rabid singleminded focus on grades, on pleasing the lecturer, on academic paper success rather than holistic academic education, on its sheer functionality?
Ultimately (sorry for the terrible organisation of this post – I kind of wrote myself into this conclusion and understanding), I think I’ve had the luck and the privilege of not needing to adhere to the idea of education as a literal tool to economic stability and future success because I already fit the ideal that the Singaporean state demands of us, by which I mean I am (upper) middle class, Chinese, English-speaking, and perform well academically. So I have the privilege to say fuck you to the idea of education as separate from the self and have the luxury to study all kinds of abstract social theory and high-flown literary concepts and so on. So this, I think, is why I can look at education the way I do. What about you guys?
When I read and hear things like this, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Did I consciously choose to pursue something fluffy like Media instead of Law (when everyone, including myself, expected me in Law School)? Yes. And I never regretted it. But did I enjoy my education in NTU? No, not a bit. It was unchallenging. And I don’t mean everyone-else-sucks-so-I-am-better unchallenging (ugh please I left NTU with a fairly shitty GPA), but I found the only way I had to cope and keep up with the others often left me unable to engage my course material, i.e. memorising and memorising and regurgitating was the only way I seemed to scrape by. I felt like I was in JC all over again, but even in JC I had mugged with a certain kind of enthusiasm…maybe even willingness. I felt, in short, like I was trapped in a cycle of mindless mugging.
So back to the question…is there something wrong with me? I’ve always wanted to be like Kristi and Kellynn and the people she hangs out with, or like Clara and her way with words, or Alan and his tablet, or Liz Law and news. They all seem to just…get it. They all seem to have some kind of ability to grasp things so easily such that they can immerse themselves in modules of their interest. They all seem to exude some kind of genuine love for the things they do and study. Like they ooze poetry and sociology and literature. Why don’t and can’t I have that? I seem to have done everything right. I mean I’ve literally gone by the textbook of success – I was in an all girls elite school since P1, I’ve won model pupil awards, money from MOE, I love to read and write on my own accord…where did education fail me? I don’t know…
All I know is that I have been fighting a losing battle since Secondary School. Deep down inside I knew I wasn’t as academically inclined as I was told I was by virtue of my Secondary School and CCA (debates…a shameless, hopeless attempt to make myself look smarter), but I stayed put and continued fighting anyway, and left SCGS without a happy memory. I mugged through JC, and then I mugged (to tears) through my first year of university until I had enough.
The way I see it, people like Kellynn and Kristi and Clara and Alan all have something about them that will enable them to have a comfortable life even if they flunk out of school. They have practical views on life and survival in this country, hypothetically will still be amazing people if they fail splendidly, but, seriously, will come out of uni even more amazing than they already are. There’s that little spark about these people, and many more I’ve not mentioned, and a level of intelligence or talent that I, and Jerico, and many, many other students lack.
Which is why Jerico and I both realised, at the end of the day, that even though we love so many things that are available to study in our local unis, we’re still going to have to slog it out to “make it”. Make what, I don’t know that either. But being so…average, we feel like we’ve no choice but to just get that piece of paper whether we love or hate the process of not.
I’m lucky because I had the chance to start anew in Aussie, where being away from all this gives me the chance to do things differently. I was telling Kristi that I finally feel like I’m being challenged academically in a positive way, like I have time to soak in how amazing and intriguing my readings are. Maybe it’s because I take less classes. Which brings me back to the point about how average I am compared to all the students my age I look up to. Unfortunately, I can’t cope with the number of classes local uni requires us to take. I can’t sit back and love every topic I read and breathe life into every word in my essay. I wanted to, I really, really wanted to. I really thought uni would liberate me from the mugging shit I endured for so long. But I ended up having to do things the typical way to scrape by that is mug. And I believe many others are stuck here, longing not for a quality lecturers or readings or modules, but an education system that encourages and allows them to soak up all the amazing things available in our universities.
So I have gone around in circles and whined pitifully about how sad my academic life is (hur hur), but that’s exactly what I think our education system needs. It needs life. It needs…it needs to remember that studying is not learning and learning doesn’t only mean studying. It needs a fucking attitude overhaul. It all sounds so simple isn’t it? Maybe I’m wording it wrong. I can’t think straight…I have discussed our education system with Jerico so many times but I always ended up feeling so unsatisfied.
What an uncoherently put together blog post but I could go on and on and on…nevermind it’s 3.17 am. I handed in a big assignment a few hours ago so fuck it.
I just thought I’d weigh in on the issue too.
I can’t agree more with Danielle. I don’t know her personally, though we (and Kellynn) spent two years in the same junior college and are both Arts students, but I do feel like she’s one of those – apart from Gerlynn – who understands what I’m going through. Gerlynn and I have discussed how disillusioned university has made us. At first, it was just me. I felt like a fish out of water. I was floundering, wondering what the hell I was doing in university. I didn’t want to seem like a whiny brat, granted the opportunity to higher-level education, but complaining about it like an ingrate. But when she entered university a year later, Gerlynn seemed to understand me perfectly and echoes my views on university. We’ve taken to discuss what being in university actually does for us. For her, it seems university is pure agony and she’s forced to press her back against the grindstone while towing it up the hill. For me, I feel like I’m standing in the midst of all these lab rats skittering on their little treadmills, focused on the single-minded intention to collect their honours degree and later, their masters, and maybe even their doctorates. As soon as I stepped foot into campus, I realised I’m not going to be as rabid and dogged as my peers in their quest to collect their certificates (and then some). I’m not going to be visiting the library to borrow books on issues relevant to the modules I’m taking and reading them for leisure and then raising some questions I have with the lecturer or engage the lecturer in impassioned discussions and the like.
Later, I realised it’s because unlike my peers, I don’t see a goal ahead of me. I don’t know what I want to be, or the sort of options open to me, an English linguistics major who just wants to write fiction all day and get paid for my efforts. My goals, it seems, are too lofty, beyond what university can provide. Because who gives a flying crap about creative writing in Singapore? In Singapore, it’s all about the sciences – biochemistry, engineering, etc – law, medicine, dentistry, new media. These are the courses that reap tangible rewards. These are the modules that provide quantifiable self-worth in terms of grades and achievements. Linguistics? Everyone immediately assumes you’re going to be a teacher after you graduate. I know SO many irate Arts majors who’ve had enough of people asking them if they plan to teach – and I’m one of them. Is there nothing else we Arts majors can do other than teach? And why is that so? Why is that the prevailing assumption? Is it the environment that has cultivated this mindset, or this mindset that has shaped the environment, the one that emphasises on practicality and functionality? Which brings me back to the question I often crack my head over while on the long bus ride to school: what am I doing in university? Am I here to get a certificate that would boost my chances of working in a cushy office and earn a steady paycheck? Do I even want that sort of job? I’ve mentioned before that I’m really not keen about office jobs. Punching in at nine o’clock every morning, sit at your desk, avoid office gossip, be careful not to tread on toes, bow to your superiors, go for stipulated lunch breaks, return to desk, work, punch out at six o’clock. Wash, rinse, repeat. Does education really liberate us? Being trapped in a desk-bound job, tiptoeing about corporate hierarchies so that I can scale the corporate ladder and break the proverbial glass ceiling, score that big promotion and that big fat paycheck that will entitle us to a cushier life that entails even greater wants and needs, which demands us to slog harder for the next promotion so we can score an even bigger paycheck…. Seems like we’re more trapped than we were before.
Or, am I in university because I want to? Because I want to learn and be exposed to ideas and knowledge that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise? But what if my level of enthusiasm isn’t as high as my peers? Granted, some of them exert the effort in their studies because they want their rocketing CAPs and not because they really enjoy the course. But what if my passion for English isn’t as high as theirs? What if the effort I put in only marks me as an average student? As it is, my CAP is completely, morbidly, depressingly average. Maybe even lower than average, I don’t know. It’s a B. I enjoy my linguistics modules (most of them, at least), and I put in the effort. Clearly, it’s not enough.
While it is true that my university experience thus far has shaped up to be, for the most part, satisfying. I’m lucky that my father is supportive of me studying the course I’m interested in and passionate (well, that remains debatable, but let’s see this in relative terms to put things into perspective, okay?) about. I know he wishes for me to study more practical things like business administration and economics and the like, and he often comments on how I chose the easiest things to study (in a jocular manner, that is, but I can detect the grain of honesty in those comments). But he let me study English, anyhow. For that, I’m grateful. But then I can’t help but wonder, while I’m enjoying myself studying the things I want to study now, what am I going to be after I graduate?
Like Danielle said, some people like Kellynn just seem to have it. They’re smart, coherent, sensible, sharp-witted and are keen observers of the society we live in. Because of that, they can do well in their course without breaking a sweat. While the rest of us are left wondering what it is we’re lacking.
And it was only recently that I had that eureka moment. That I realised I had no idea what I was going be, what I could be, what I wanted to be. While my peers are full of aspirations and hope and faith in their futures after graduation, I’m still slippery-footed and hesitant and left trailing in their wake as they charge ahead for their degrees.
It’s just the second week of the second semester of my second year in NUS. I mustn’t be consumed by disillusionment yet. Not now. I shall, like I do for everything else unpleasant, pretend it does not exist. I shall train myself to believe I am studying for a purpose, I’m studying because I want to learn, not because I can shape myself into what my society deems a useful member. Higher learning is here for a reason, and I need to hold on to my stand – however unsteady it may be – for a little while longer.