Pruning and Trimming Singapore Students

December 31, 2008

burgon_and__ball_pruning_knife_cutting_flower“Education is all about tending and gardening, and the principal is the chief gardener”

 

Ng Eng Hen, Minister of Education (Straits Times, 31 Dec 08)

 

The above analogy sums up what is wrong with our education system. Decried for its cookie-cutter system, its commitment to rote learning, its inability to tolerate creativity, its rigid views on academic training and ideological perspectives, the Singapore education system is one of the few sacred cows left standing. It’s more than just standing. It’s prancing around happily in the pasture spitting curd at anyone who wanders near.

 

The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently launched a massive recruitment drive to, according to the Straits Times, “take advantage of the economic downturn”. Given the trend of retrenched workers looking to teaching as temporary employment, its hard to reconcile Ng Eng Hen’s assurance that the quality of teachers will not fall. But that’s another story.

 

I’m more interested in what the above analogy says about the education philosophy at MOE. Ng invokes the image of a garden and a gardener. This imagery is unfortunate because the relationship between garden and gardener is about one conforming to the ideas of another. The gardener begins with a vision of what a garden should be, and then goes about realizing it. He does this by, firstly, clearing the land. He weeds out the plants that do not fit into his idea of what a garden should be. He then decides what plants and flowers to grow. He trims and prunes the plants that have grown too tall or wide for his liking. He is constantly landscaping his garden to ensure that it conforms to his will.

 

As a country obsessed with nation-building and the great Singapore story, local education is invariably intertwined with national education. From the sheer competence of the PAP, the evil of the communists, the stupidity of the Barisan Socialists, we are taught one specific narrative of our history. From authoritarian classrooms to being told what subjects to study (and what to drop), we are taught the value of strict hierarchy and maintaining the status quo. The principal and teachers, like the chief gardener and his little garden helpers, are charged with pruning, wedding and trimming generations of Singapore students to fit the state’s idea of citizens.

 

Now all this would not be all that bad if not for the fact that Singaporeans are also told to be creative, innovative and Renaissance-like. The world is ever-changing and to stay on top, we have to be entrepreneurial and risk-friendly; or so we are told. Its like a cruel prank. The chief gardener trims and prunes us to prize-winning perfection throughout our educational years, and when we enter the job market, we’re told to forget whatever we learnt. Stop being yourselves, in other words.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan is a hot reading for many of our civil servants. Catchphrases like “improbability”, “high impact”, and “randomness” have entered the speeches of our ministers and civil servants.  In a nutshell, we’re exhorted to be ready for the unpredictable or to expect the unexpected, and other inane messages. But Taleb’s message is a little more fundamental, and frightening, than that. It’s about spotting a black swan (the unpredicted), the evidence of which renders all your existing knowledge useless. The discovery of the black swan in Australia rendered knowledge about swans, most of which were gleaned from Europe, irrelevant. That is the message.

 

And if The Black Swan is the current bible civil servants sleep next to, then why are we still looking at our students like gardens waiting to be conformed to the will of the chief gardener?

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8 Responses to “Pruning and Trimming Singapore Students”

  1. deminc Says:

    the gardener is so rich he can always buy some wild dolphins to add into his garden when he feels like it wat. His garden is for respectability. Black swans can be imported after quarantine period to ensure they won’t spread viral ideas.

  2. twasher Says:

    Another important aspect of the analogy is the lack of robustness inherent in a tended garden. The health of such a garden is heavily dependent on the gardener’s competence: the fertilizers he uses, how much he waters it, pesticides, etc. Contrast that with the lot of a self-sustaining forest, which needs nothing but the sun and the climate it’s adapted to to maintain a healthy existence. An old forest has an ecosystem that, thanks to millions of years of evolution, creates its own nutrients and sustains a wide diversity of wildlife — at least before some intelligent bipeds come along with their fires and chainsaws and guns. The wildlife and the resources that keep them going are self-generated. Because of the inventiveness of natural selection, the forest is far more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems of survival and reproduction than the garden is. The gardener is liable to treat any ‘new’ strategies on the part of his plants with suspicion, whereas in the forest, whatever comes up with the best way to propagate its genes will thrive — the best strategies win, because that’s how nature works. The forest has a relatively robust strategy — evolution by natural selection — for surviving in a range of environments, while the garden has to hope that its gardener can predict impending changes in the climate well and react to them well.

  3. groundnotes Says:

    twasher,
    good points, thanks! you’ve fleshed out the inadequacies of the analogy pretty well.


  4. […] Paperchase – groundnotes: Pruning and Trimming Singapore Students […]


  5. […] As a country obsessed with nation-building and the great Singapore story, local education is invariably intertwined with national education. From the sheer competence of the PAP, the evil of the communists, the stupidity of the Barisan Socialists, we are taught one specific narrative of our history. From authoritarian classrooms to being told what subjects to study (and what to drop), we are taught the value of strict hierarchy and maintaining the status quo. groundnotes […]

  6. CelluloidReality Says:

    Give me a primary rainforest with pockets of shelters and manicured gardens, than a whole landscaped park; anyday

  7. sushibar Says:

    a good read for the new year. thanks.

  8. Mohd Hisham Says:

    Definitely a good read. 🙂


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