The culture of one-dimensionality does not stop at our schools but carries on as we grow older; to the extent that people judge others based on superficial and narrow measures of success.
WHAT can we say about our education system? Good, bad, or something in between?
To be fair, changes are now being made to improve our schools although the outcomes remain to be seen.
Some strategies are in place but their proper implementations are always the tricky part. What we’re seeing now are patches of changes here and there, not yet fully comprehensive, holistic or far-reaching.
It’s unclear yet how the products of our new education system are going to turn out.
But we know too well what the old system was about, and how badly it has unconsciously seeped into our collective mindset long after we left schools. The same mistakes shouldn’t be repeated for our new generation.
Let’s reminisce on what it meant for us to be “educated”. If there’s nothing else that we can agree on our school days, there was definitely one thing we can’t forget – class ranking!
From the first day we set foot into Year One, the only game in town was to get the Number One ranking in class.
What mattered should have been the learning, the critical thinking skills, the personal development, the social interaction, the capacity for creativity.
What mattered should have been the growth of emotional strengths and virtues: curiosity, confidence, courage, diligence, kindness, honesty, empathy, compassion, tolerance, ethics, etc.
Instead, the one thing that everybody — our parents, teachers, friends, uncles and aunties — really cared about was that coveted Number One seat.
Number One got you this toy and that prize, Number Two got you some too but a bit less. But sorry-lah if you were Number Four. Three was the limit, somehow, an unwritten rule shared by everybody.
How much narrower could we be to define success? Indeed, we had been groomed to be one-dimensional since early on.
How it was
We went on our entire primary and secondary education, routinely memorising this and that without the true meaning of learning, for that precious seat of “success”.
The path of education was too crystal clear and indisputable, albeit narrow. Everything had been instructed from the top.
It was an indoctrination into a culture of spoon-feeding and total dependency.
Nobody asked anything that really mattered about school except that one question: “So, how many ‘As did you get?”
We never got a chance to stop, sit and ponder big questions because we were too busy memorising things to score in exams, things that we would surely forget once we get out of school.
Einstein said “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Yet we at schools continued to focus on what would be forgotten, not on what would remain.
No wonder our kids on average came out of school not having enough confidence to critically formulate, articulate and communicate their thoughts on things that matter.
No wonder their intelligence on average was just slightly better than those educated in Botswana, slightly lesser than those from Mauritius and far below the intelligence of Singaporean kids.
As recently as 2012, the quality of our education was rated as “poor” whilst that of our southern neighbour was “great” as measured by international standards. That is where we should be to achieve Vision 2020.
Truly, we were never given a chance to realise our true purpose of learning and our true potential. It was all about that blind pursuit of success from a narrow perspective.
Those in the top few percent had clear prospects for further studies and a brighter future.
The rest could immediately sense the cut off from the much coveted professions that parents dreamt for their kids. The bleakness of their entire future was served cold by the scroll of their results.
Oh yes, we forgot: success could actually be foretold quite early during childhood, judging from the numbers you got in class.
So there was only one way out of that bleakness: to just chase success for the sake of success, without a noble and pure rationale behind it.
Families bore the intense pressure of competition too, and chose to send their kids from a young age through intense private tuition costing hundreds of ringgit.
This whole game didn’t seem fair especially to those without the means to compete on the same ground.
Sadly, the culture of one-dimensionality did not stop at our schools. We carry the same mindset as we grow older.
People judge others based on superficial and narrow measures of success: what cars they drive, how their homes look like, where they go for holidays, even to minor details as what fine dining sets they have. Can we be any shallower?
The strong minded ones toughen themselves to disregard these shameless inquisitions and sick social mores, but we pity those that go all out to define their lives to impress others: a hypocritical state of existence.
We realise this insensibility. But it has gained momentum for too long and our culture is not yet critical enough to put a stand against this mindset.
Worse, we allow our society to be unnecessarily stratified. Social hierarchy is devised to separate the “successful” ones from the laymen and the privileged from the commoners.
Such practice does recognise those with value, honour and sincerity. However, it signals that self worth depends on ranking in the social strata, it devalues the social functions and contributions of ordinary citizens, and it breeds unhealthy obsession towards material gain and higher social status.
When great countries were founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” (Thomas Jefferson), we are still trailing decades behind if we value a person based on how long the title preceding his or her name is.
To be progressive as a culture, we definitely must consider a rethinking of our mindset.
To do this, we must start with a rethinking of our education.