Tutorship: Reviving the Spirit of the Ancients

January 13, 2009

aristotle1It’s that time of the year again where tears of joy, thank you speeches and the glare of the media take centre stage. No, it’s not the Golden Globe awards ceremony but our national ritual of showering accolades on our top O Level students. Nothing like a meritocracy for the worshipping exam grades.


Singapore is one of the few nations that devotes so much talent, time and energy towards developing its education system. And with a small talent pool and limited resources, it is imperative that we have an education system that is geared towards the maximization of every child’s potential.


However, with so much emphasis on market skills and economic survival today, it is easy to forget that mass education is a relatively new invention. It is easy to forget that the impetus for the invention of mass education came from a specific period in European history.


Along with the steam engine and the telegraph, mass education was one of the many inventions of the Industrial Revolution. At a time of great technological advancement and mass production, many European nations saw the need for mass education. Their primary goal was to provide a well-trained, skilled labor force for white collar jobs.


Mass education also served an ideological purpose: to educate the future generation of voters. By putting children of different cultures, nationalities and religions into schools, helped to unite people into a common belief of nationalism. The way to achieve these goals was to provide mandatory state-financed schools for children ages 6-12. This gave poor children the opportunity to get a primary education and the training needed for a skilled labor force and new job opportunities.


In our effort to train students for the market and to nurture a communal identity, we have sacrificed two traditional ideas about education that I think we would do well to revive. These ideas are tutorship and mentorship.

To illustrate what I mean, let us look again at Europe. Before the Industrial Revolution, there were basically three ways to get an education.

The first was through religion. Many established schools of formal learning in Europe were founded by religious institutions, and usually only available to a small part of the population. Most schools during this era were founded upon religious principles with the sole purpose of training the clergy.

The second was to enter an early university like the University of Paris founded in 1150, which had a Christian basis, or a secular university like the University of Bologna founded in 1088. Nevertheless, the curriculum of the educational institutions of this period was frequently conducted in the clerical language of Latin.

The third was through tutorship. Here, wealthy families could afford to employ men of great learning to teach their children about science and the arts. It is this idea of personal tutorship that I would like to explore further in talk.

In Singapore when we talk about tutors or tuition we think of night classes, extra-home work, Mandarin tuition, Mandarin tutors from China, math tuition, tuition centres and so on. This obsession with tuition is, for better or worse, quite clearly part of our education culture in Singapore. In the past, tuition was only meant for academically weak students. Today, everyone, whether academically strong or not, has tuition. In fact, you would be the odd one out if you did not receive any after-school tuition.

However, when we speak of personal tuition before the age of mass education, we mean quite a different thing. A tutor before the age of mass education was more than someone who delivered lessons, knowledge and information.

The tutor was a mentor whose personal beliefs and values were profoundly influential on his student. Take the example of one of the most famous mentor-student relationships of all time – Aristotle and Alexander the Great.

Aristotle was appointed to be Alexander’s tutor when the latter was only 13. Aristotle’s intellectual and political influence on Alexander was to change the course of world history forever. Aristotle believed that all non-Greeks were “barbarian” and that slavery was a natural institution. He therefore encouraged Alexander to be a leader to Greeks and an enemy to barbarians, and to treat the former as friends and the latter as slaves. How different would world history have been if Alexander had a different tutor?

I bring up this example not to encourage Singaporean students to enslave the civilised world (just Southeast Asia would suffice), but to highlight two points. Firstly, tutorship is a deeply personal relationship between tutor and student; secondly, a tutor can shape the minds of tomorrow’s leaders.

I believe that, in the age of mass education, the idea of tutorship has disappeared, and is replaced by a professional, almost clinical transaction between teacher and student. Teachers offer the knowledge; students provide the good exam scores – everyone goes home happy. Teachers think up novel lesson plans and ways of delivering information; the students reward them by raising the school’s ranking – everyone goes home happy. Teachers drill students with assessments; students respond by exam regurgitation – everyone goes home happy.

We need to revive the concept of tutorship and mentorship. We need to realise that teachers are not mere professionals out there doing a professional job. This is why MOE does not make sense when it says it is enlarging its teacher recruitment drive and yet claim that teaching quality would not be affected.

Today, knowledge and information is everywhere. In the age of globalisation, access to information is no longer an issue. You can pull information from the air! The Internet, well–informed peers, constant travel, well-educated parents, access to literature, are just some of the many and diverse sources of information a young student today can turn to.

However, the crucial question is: can the student understand the vast mind-boggling body information out there? Does the student have the mentor to provide moral and ethical guidance to interpret this information?

Technology may have empowered our students with information, but we have yet to find a way to empower them with worldly experience. For no matter how intelligent or gifted the child, there is just no substitute for experience. Information without experience is like a child brandishing a flaming torch. The potential for damage is great.

This is where the tutor comes in. A tutor, in the spirit of the ancients, offers his experience and personal knowledge to students in order to guide them through the acquisition and use of information. A tutor should be an educator. A tutor should be a life guide for young minds. A tutor should be a nurturer who realises that an education should never be an obstacle to real learning.


One Response to “Tutorship: Reviving the Spirit of the Ancients”

  1. […] Paper Chase – Mr Wang Says So: How to Manufacture All-Rounded Students – groundnuts: Tutorship: Reviving the Spirit of the Ancients […]

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