Archive for March, 2012

A different class of classes

March 19, 2012

Again the curtain falls on another series of Singaporean university open houses, and we can begin to welcome the latest in a long line of university application exercises. From what I saw of NUS at their open house yesterday, it seems the school is getting swankier than ever; the complaints about elitism and class divides are getting louder in volume too, I presume.

UTown has been up and running for a goodly period; long enough for people to settle in and replace the unoccupied ghost town feel with some life, but not long enough to lose its lustre to the inevitable collection of grime and dated-ness that is the preordained fate of all but the most spectacular buildings. Right next door there is frenetic work on the Yale-NUS campus; the site is seething to erect more shiny new edifices for the latest NUS prestige project. Meanwhile, the (unnamed) people I went to open house with who are set to matriculate at NTU in 2013 are bemoaning their fate, mostly because NTU increasingly seems “inferior”. And people probably don’t feel any better when  reactions from NUS undergrad tour guides range from “WHAT who’s going to NTU and why?!” and “APPLY TO NUS IT’S GREAT”.

Notice that “inferior” is in quotes above; wholesale judgement of the inferiority or superiority of an institution compared to another is so absurd that is ought to be a non-issue when we touch on the topic of higher education, or education as a whole. Yet, it persists in Singapore. There exists a class hierarchy in our nominally meritocratic and “good-across-the-board” school system that we cannot shake, no matter how much better educated our children, youth, and people are. Ironic, that the first-class education we provide fails at getting people to take off their blinkers, make reasoned and critical comparisons and judgements, put aside a class mentality and ladder-climbing drive, or stop taking masochistic pleasure in feeling aggrieved. Instead, what we have is an ingrained tendency to arrange educational choices in a rigid hierarchy of “better” and “worse”, a desperate need to reach for the top of that (absurd) ladder, and, when feeling particularly hard done by, a penchant to spout accusations of elitism. But then, why should we be surprised that the system appears to be elitist, when we have chosen a life of absolutes, of black and whites, of “this” being definitively better than “that”?

Our malaise is a hangover from all the ranking we do at earlier stages in the educational journey of our children, including but not limited to streaming, loads of standardised right out of kindergarten, school rankings, and the ever-important national examinations to select the few that qualify for admission in those “better schools”. And don’t think for a moment that it simply reflects the desire of parents to give their children education of the highest quality; it is as much about status as it is about quality of education. Parents that cared only about the quality of their child’s education and intellectual development could better spend the hours volunteering at a brand-name primary school reading with their child instead.

We have mistaken popularity, status, and exclusivity for quality. In our collective minds’ eye we envision a pyramid of educational virtue, the ultra-difficult to enter foreign universities at the pinnacle, followed by the less selective ones, and then the popular courses at local universities with far more applicants than places, below which are the less popular courses, and so on. It paints a picture of applicants who, by and large, do not know what they want to learn out of a university education, nor what the universities can give them. The applicants apply for whatever seems popular, because, “hey, if lots of people want in, it’s got to be good right? And if I get a place, I can feel superior to everyone else who didn’t.”

Well, it seems I’ve gone on moaning about education in Singapore yet again; it seems there is no shortage of ways in which it falls short (please, pardon the pun). Apart from exhorting students (and myself) to not let schooling interfere with education, what is to be done about our endlessly kiasu Singapore?