By Benedict Chong
“When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.” – John Taylor Gatto
A recent statement by DPM Teo Chee Hean that college degrees are not necessary for success and career opportunities led to much derision due to perceived policy flip-flop. The State had always highlighted the signalling effect higher formal education entailed and backed it up by pouring huge amounts of State resources into the public schooling program.
But while formal education is a valuable barometer of an individual’s capabilities, it is not the only determinant. State policies are largely responsible for influencing the larger population into over-emphasising examination grades at great expense.
Horace Mann, an American education reformer, once described education as the great social equaliser. Education is said to enhance the mobility of individuals on the income scale. In Singapore, meritocracy is correctly the preferred policy by the State in distinguishing talent.
However, the problem arises when talent is narrowly defined. For example, is an athlete any less talented than an academic? A compulsory schooling system which inducts every citizen into inflexible curricula can hardly result in the cultivation of individually unique talents and creativity.
Difference between education and schooling
However, that is not to say that education is unimportant.
There is a stark contrast between formal and informal education. Formal education is pursued in conventional learning institutions. On the other hand, informal education can be achieved in varied ways including but not limited to self-erudition, experimenting and apprenticeships.
Even so, there is a yet more important difference between formal education and formal schooling, the latter of which is practiced in Singapore. For simplification’s sake, we can say that schooling is a subset of education.
By mandating schooling in state institutions, inequality is exacerbated when students less academically inclined are forced into a rigid system detrimental to their personal development. These students are unlikely to reach peak productivity in society simply because their core talents were not properly developed through an individually determined course of education.
Education is the core mechanism underpinning the accumulation of human capital. And that is precisely why the State should not mandate public schooling for a process of self-identity to develop and thrive amongst individual students. Forcing every child into State schools with rigid structures will only favour those fortunate enough to be academically inclined at that time.
To make the move from schooling to education – i.e. moving from a one-size-fits-all education system to a multi-faceted, developmental-centric education approach – two things must be done. The first is to de-construct our rigid education sector in favour of a model that better serves the interests and needs of consumers. The second reaches out beyond the classroom, to develop an education approach that is supported by a vibrant job market and innovative society.
Liberate the education sector
The education sector must be liberated. Allowing learning institutions to operate in Singapore without the hassle of excessive documentations and regulations would be a good start. The compulsory education act should also be repealed to allow for individual choice. And given a choice, most parents would choose to send their children to school anyway, with a few possibly opting to home-school their kids.
In the primary and secondary education sector, national schools should be privatised. These schools will then compete for students by differentiating their curriculums while calibrating their teaching methods to suit the consumer and not the reverse, which is the case now.
In the tertiary education sector, the free market would give also existing public universities more competition. The dismantling of the blatant monopolies they hold over college education in Singapore will also deter incessant hikes in tuition fees. Likewise, increased supplies of college positions would result in an increased diversity of courses at more affordable prices – even without State ‘subsidies’.
Thinking students, creative nation
Invariably, a more competitive and effective education sector will lead to a corresponding demand on the economy to cater to a growing pool of multi-faceted talents. A free, vibrant and diverse formal education sector would cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit that State intervention can never achieve. A liberalised education must also be matched by a liberalised economy.
State institutions such as SPRING Singapore are inherently bureaucratic and not attuned to economic shifts. The State’s various initiative to encourage entrepreneurship has produced token entrepreneurs at best, and stifled creativity at worse. Just ask anyone who has applied for a government grant. Singapore’s most well-know entrepreneur, Sim Wong Hoo, is better known for his adventurous ventures into foreign markets than any incentive from government agencies.
While the State recognises the lack of entrepreneurship in the economy, the implementation of policies providing financial support to start-ups is counterproductive. It would be much better for a liberalised education sector to develop and encourage their own ventures, or let the industry sort itself out.
Censorship stifles discernment, thinking
The exposure to new and novel ideas is a central pillar of (informal) education. Without the proliferation of new ideas to sustain progress, society as a whole will stagnate and ultimately regress. But these ideas can only materialise when people are allowed to express themselves freely without fear, even if such ideas are detrimental to the powers of the State.
Singapore has continued to ban many forms and pieces of artistic creation and information sharing, such as through the Broadcasting Act and Newspapers and Printing Presses Act. The latest victim was “To Singapore, with Love”, banned by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on the dubious grounds of “national security”.
This underlines the steadfast reluctance of the incumbent government to tolerate views contrary to its own. Such paternalistic policies give zero credit to the discernment capabilities of every Singaporean.
Exposing individuals to a diversity of views and ideas educates them on the more pertinent issues of human affairs and morality. It facilitates differentiation and thought experiments designed to bring the best out of an enlightened and educated society. It encourages individual vigilance against threats and violence. Most importantly, it debunks the either-or fallacy between security and liberty.
Singaporeans may be generally well–schooled in the fields of mathematics and sciences. But numbers, formulas and anatomies do not matter when our liberties are repeatedly contravened as we remain ignorant or worse, willing allow ourselves to be subjugated.
It is the education of individuals on their basic human rights and how easily it is lost that will ultimately matter in a world led by ‘big brother’ governments. After all, our applications of mathematics and sciences may very well be restrained by an authoritarian government in the name of an arbitrary greater good.