Education is for Humans, not Rats

(This article by local blogger Mr Benjamin Cheah first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 29 October 2014.)

Singaporean students have heard it all before. Go to school, study hard, get a good education, get a good job, settle down and start a family. It’s a tired refrain, repeated by well-meaning tutors, teachers, and school principals.

They mean well. Making a living wage, having a roof over one’s head and enjoying strong relationships are always desirable. But then what? This road offers no purpose in life, no formula to self-discovery, no way of contributing to humanity and no means of making meaning out of a complex existence. This meme treats students as bees churning out wealth and babies and little else.

Students are humans. They are not rats pursuing fragments of cheese in an endless labyrinth, nor are they the digits of capitalism’s invisible hand. While education should prepare students for gainful employment, the times are changing. Knowledge and skillsets in demand now may not be so tomorrow, and to live one’s life in the perpetual chase for grades and money is to exist solely for material comforts and to deny the full range of one’s inherent talents and strengths.

The purpose of teaching is not to create the next generation of workers. It must be to create the next generation of humans.

Knowledge is Transient

Current pedagogical methods are focused on delivering content and techniques to students. Teachers are charged with passing on knowledge through explanations, exercises, field experiments, and other such techniques. Now take a step back and ask, why?

Why must a student possess an arsenal of literary artillery and break down the components of Hamlet’s most famous speech? Why must a student be able to recite the shortcomings of the long-dead Serene Republic of Venice, or regurgitate the official narrative concerning separation from Malaysia? Is there a practical application for the mapping of polynomial graphs? Are there any prizes for being able to precisely calculate the by-products of a chemical reaction between light, carbon dioxide and dihydrogen monoxide? Why are students expected to walk into examination halls armed only with pencil cases and memories when the answers to most simple questions are routinely found with ten minutes of Googlemancy?

Textbook knowledge is transient. It contains incomplete knowledge filtered through cultural mores, government approval, popular opinion, projected economic necessity, perceived ability of understanding, and what is currently known as of time of publication. It is easy for teachers to simply deliver textbook material – but the easy road yields little fruit.

In everyday life, the majority of what is taught in today’s schools have no practical application. Even in jobs where specialist knowledge is necessary, these industries do not necessarily require the application of information belonging to other fields. Chemists have little use for the ability to recite the history of the Celts, and there appears to be no connection between poetry and accounting. This means most of what is taught in school is essentially a waste of time.

The official rejoinder is that such education creates a ‘holistic’ individual. According to the Ministry of Education, “Our schools are striving to provide students with a holistic education, focused on both academic and non-academic areas. We want to give our students a broad range of experiences and help them make the most of their years together in school where they will interact with one another and form strong friendships for life. As they grow up, we want to provide them with the full opportunity to develop the skills and values that they will need for life. Besides judging our students’ performance through examinations, we are also looking at other and broader measures of how well they do in education.”

It is a reassuring cloud of buzzwords that answers exactly none of the questions raised above and raises even more. What is a ‘holistic education’ and ‘broad range of experiences’? What are these ‘skills and values’, why are examinations so important, and what are these ‘other and broader’ measures?

The Foundation of Education

The foundation of education is not knowledge. Academia is useful but it is not the be-all and end-all of education. The knowledge imparted in schools is a means to an end, not just an end in of itself.

Most people do not need the ability to light literary pyrotechnics at the drop of a hat, but they do need to be able to communicate clearly and confidently. Reproducing historical facts is not nearly as important as gleaning and applying lessons from history, and applying those same analytical skills to the present. Appreciating poetry and plays may be for sensitive souls – understanding characters and motives by analysing words and deeds is essential for everyone. An understanding of photosynthesis underscores the importance of sound environmental policy, and a deeper appreciation of the scientific and mathematical methods points the way to cutting through the sturm und drang surrounding the science-based controversies of the day. While computers can connect people to information, computers and the Internet are not always available, and silicon lacks the intuitive capability to link multiple seemingly unrelated fields into a single united whole and create new works.

The role of educators is not to transmit dead knowledge from one brain to many. Their role is to impart the life skills needed for people to participate in the greater human community: communication, analysis, objectivity, creativity, and others. Classwork is merely the vehicle to do so.

It is easy for teachers to simply deliver classroom content, and indeed that is the benchmark by which they are assessed. But delivering knowledge is not enough. Teachers must go a step further, and teach students how to be humans. Beyond just passing down content, teachers have to unearth the skills inherent in their fields of specialty, understand their relevance to the mundane world, and show their students how to apply them.

Teaching people to be humans

Times are changing, and education must change with it. The Singaporean meme of studying hard is obsolete.

Going to school to get a good degree is becoming an increasingly irrelevant argument. Outside of fields that legitimately require specialist knowledge, a certificate tells people exactly nothing about who the possessor is as a person. Paper qualifications may be useful for getting jobs, but little else – and to the self-made entrepreneur, the degree holds even less value.

Society’s definition of a ‘good job’ is changing, as the next generation sees little value in sticking to a single company or even industry for an extended period of time. People may hold a diploma in one field but be employed in another. Specialist knowledge is effectively useless to them. Further, as humanity progresses, old knowledge is rapidly being invalidated with new understanding – to stay relevant, people must first want to stay current, and that is not something taught in textbooks.

Settling down and starting a family is something people do not learn in school, and sometimes never. Social skills do not come easily or naturally; these have to be learned, directly through lessons, indirectly through group and project work.

Mainstream education, by necessity, must paint with a broad brush, yet every single person is a unique individual. For education to have worth to society and individuals, it must work from common ground, and that common ground is humanity itself. By teaching people to be humans, teachers become more than dispensers of information: they become the custodians of humanity and the catalysts of progress, ushering in better tomorrows.

About Benjamin

Benjamin Cheah is a freelance writer living in Singapore who has contributed to citizen journalism websites The Online Citizen and The Independent Singapore. He also writes speculative fiction for a better world. His blog can be found at and his author website is .


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