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reactionary revolution

June 20, 2005

So that day a friend asks me, over ice-cream, how to solve a math problem which looks a bit like someone vomited an algebra textbook on bit of tissue paper (well, he did write it on a serviette). Turns out that this guy‘s sister recently attended a introductory camp/intellectual gulag with some newfangled monstrosity of an integrated programme with some newfangled monstrosity of an institution*: no, not the casino, that’s an integrated resort. The IP refers to students skipping the O-levels and going straight to some higher qualification, like the A-levels (wow, what a big change!), preferred by the school’s premier institution, the Raffles Academy (hey, I don’t come up with the names), or the International Baccalaureat (with the acccent aigu over the ‘e’), preferred by some other schools, for example, the Anglo-Chinese family (I have no idea what funky name they’ve come up with for themselves).

Which is all very fine and dandy. This will free up more time for the students to pursue their own interests, be it sports, drama, art, music, dance, etc, since now there will be less exams (I mean, the O-levels really are quite tough for 16 year old kids). Furthermore, new subjects such as philosophy, logic, art history, languages, etc are being introduced into the syllabus, to give students a broader-based education. Not only that, teaching will be reduced to a minimum, with teachers increasingly looked upon as ‘facilitators of learning’: they ‘teach less’ so students can ‘learn more’.

Well, they could have fooled me. Except that, well, like everything else in Singapore (banning gay functions, the war on AIDS, allowing casinos oh the horror), this is essentially a reactionary revolution. And sit tight to the edge of your seats because nothing is going to change. Nothing at all.

Already in my alternate career as a tuition teacher I am receiving many requests for tutoring students in subjects such as philosophy, logic, problem solving, and, most egregiously, Creative Thinking. I propernounise this term because I have no idea what their idea of ‘Creative Thinking’ is supposed to mean, and it’s sort of become a useless brandname like ‘Romancing Singapore’ or ‘Be Prepared’ or ‘The SAF Seven Core Values’. I mean, seriously. Who the hell really wants to teach something like Creative Thinking? Isn’t creativity meant to be learnt elsewhere, outside the classroom? Which school in its right mind wants to introduce something as brainless as a class for creativity? If there ever was a prize for the least creative, most thinking-within-the-box idea ever innovated, it’d be this.

And what is up with teaching philosophy, etc? Most obviously, the proper, qualified facilitators-of-learning are not the ones hired to facilitate the learning of these funky subjects. Literature teachers are summoned to design a syllabus for philosophy, which as a result seems awfully skewed to the existentialist topics of modern literature, notably French Literature. Camus and Sartre are given more importance than Descartes. Epistemology is glossed over, Kant is barely mentioned. We may see a bit of the Greeks but really not enough thought is given to their thought. As for logic, who else but math teachers? Yes, logic may have a lot to do with math, but they aren’t the same and certainly most math teachers will have no conception of formal logic (prove means prove, lah). And I can bet you that none of them have ever read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Which brings me to my second point: why bother teaching these notoriously difficult subjects to 12 year-olds verging on 13 when these disciplines really aren’t the point. These topics are tough, and typically beyond the range of a young adolescent: at best one is able to give the students a vague impression of or an introduction to the issues involved. I am willing to wager that they are even beyond the abilities of a nonspecialised, smallminded pedagog in his/her late thirties who has received little formal training in the field. Which means that they shouldn’t really be taught as an examinable subject. Why bother to do it when no one is really going to do very well in it, and when no one can tell when anyone has done very well or not?

It’s tough to teach these exciting subjects to sundried teens for whom knowledge is a body of work waiting to be imbibed by the eyes. Few nowadays have a passion for learning, a natural curiosity when it comes to matters of the unknown. Few nowadays have the breadth of mind and of spirit to accept disagreement and controversy and be comfortable with these facets of academia. Few bother to venture beyond the artificial construct known as the Syllabus, spelt out in stark words on the first page of every textbook.

Can we blame the students? I don’t. It’s really not their fault when everything really is working against them. It’s hard to be creative when you have to be taught creativity. It’s hard to participate in genuine discussion when debate and free speech and being opinionated are seen as dangerous and decadent Western ideals that must be shunned. It’s hard to be passionate about knowledge when it remains now and forever grades at an examination. It’s hard to create a respect for truth and knowledge and learning when in the first place the economy is prized above all else. It’s hard to bother with the unquantifiable when in essence all that Singaporeans are concerned with is the quantifiable.

And that’s why ultimately any revolution ends up in reaction. When new policies like the independence given to schools emerge, teachers don’t want to know what they can teach and students don’t want to know what they can learn. Instead, teachers want to know what they must test and students want to know how they can score. And in this way continued success of bureaucracy and the system is ensured. Our children still have no childhood, and age prematurely into the exact adults who have surgically removed their childhoods.

*in no other country in the world will a a place of learning and teaching, an institute, be confused with a place where madmen are incarcerated and observed, an institution. One need only look to the name of its foremost school (and my dear alma mater, whatever), Raffles Institution, and a the name of a mental hospital, the Institute of Mental Health. I suspect that this is merely because ‘institution’ has a ‘tuition’ in it. I also suspect that this is why the leaders of this country are really insane: they have come from an institution. Just kidding don’t sue me for defamation! Love and hugs all round to this country’s wellrespected politicians.

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