Saturday, June 28, 2008

Education for what end?

Note: This post, and perhaps the two following it, may seem somewhat outdated. This is due to the fact that these posts are inspired by ideas that came to me over the past few months. I however lacked the time to develop fully these ideas due to other commitments, e.g. exams, SMUN 2008 and ICT. Now, with more free time on my hands, I think I will develop them into posts here. Hopefully, they will prove to be read-worthy despite them perhaps being somewhat outdated.

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s Minister of Education, delivered a speech at the Australian Universities International Alumni Convention. In this speech, Dr. Ng essentially briefly outlined Singapore’s stance and strategy towards the future development of local education, with special reference being made to tertiary education.

According to Dr. Ng, it is Singapore’s stance that local students should be provided with “quality” and “meaningful” education which allows them to develop their potential to the maximum.

What strikes me most was that, from my point of view, Dr. Ng, in his speech, equated a “quality” and “meaningful” education with one which will impart “market-relevant” skills to local students and thereby enabling these students to gain employment after graduation.

Well, I must concede that the pragmatist/realist in me concur with what Dr. Ng said. This is considering that, undoubtedly, education, especially that at the tertiary level, in Singapore is a very significant investment for not only the government but also for teachers, parents and students. It is evident that the government spends large amounts of funds investing in the local education system while teachers, parents and students have also expended much money, time and effort in the endeavour of education.

Also, though this may sound clich├ęd, it can be observed that Singapore, being a small state with human capital being its most significant asset, can ill afford to invest its funds on frivolous projects which accrue little, if not none at all, dividends.

Ergo, considering the above, a case perhaps may be made that Singapore (government, teachers, parents and students) can ill afford to have its investment in education come to nought if and when students find themselves unable to find employment after graduation.

And personally speaking, I too would not want to, after my graduation from university, discover that my years of education do not allow me to find a job to support myself and my family.

However, that said, the idealist in me cannot help but find Dr. Ng’s equating of a “quality” and “meaningful” education with one that allows students to find employment after graduation a most curious, if not mildly unsettling, notion.

I mean, shouldn’t education be an end in itself? And even if education should be a means to an end, should this end really be just the ability to find employment after graduation? Shouldn’t the end of education be something much more meaningful and grander? Just think about it, did the early pioneers of public education, who Dr. Ng made reference to in his speech, initiate their public education projects because they wanted students to be employable after graduation?

While the pragmatist/realist in me can appreciate the rationale behind having an education system which allows students to gain employment after graduation, the idealist in me cannot help but feel irked that education should mutate into something serving an economic purpose.

Hence, with no intention of offending anyone or any educational institution, I find it somewhat jarring when I read news reports about how graduates of a local university are able to find employment in high-paying jobs within a short period of time after their graduation. It also unsettles me when I see how advertisements of local education institutions place great emphasis on how the institutions are endorsed by leading corporate figures and on how good the employment prospects the graduates of these institutions can enjoy.

Do not be mistaken. I am in no way saying that Singapore should just invest in local education without paying any attention whatsoever to the employment prospects of graduates. My worry is that, as Dr. Ng himself quoted in his speech, “preoccupation with economic growth can narrow and distort society’s idea of what education should be”. It would be a dark day in Singapore if and when, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Singaporeans only know the price of education but cannot appreciate the value of education.

Hopefully, there would instead come a day when Singaporeans would not only know the price of education but also be able to appreciate the value of education.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire" -- William Butler Yeats

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