Why compare education?

On the train back home one day over Easter, I could not help but overhear a couple of students debating who the smartest in their class was.


Crazy as that could have sounded, yes, that was commonplace in a typical Asian classroom - students feeling unnecessarily stressed by class rankings, anxious parents taking leave from work prior to their child's examination period (hopeful to pressure the poor kid to work in their presence). And the stress does not just get dammed up in Singapore (where the standard of education was one of the highest in Asia) where I was from. Further North in South Korea, 590,000 highly-stressed students take on the annual college entrance exams (their equivalent to the A-levels), to which trains and buses would operate specially just to ferry them. Elsewhere in neighbouring Japan, students endure juku (cram schools) late into the night, way past curriculum hours.

The typical Asian workplace, where most are made to overwork, is like a dangerous sea of paper-chasers. Sadly, any recesses for creativity are quickly stubbed out. This would be why (as you might ask) paper qualifications are so valued in the Asian society, and for similar reasons, parents pile ridiculous amounts of pressure on the children. Suicide attempts and self-mutilation by school-going children, needless to say, are not at all uncommon.

I am glad to be one of the lucky few. When I was 14, I went home with a failure slip one day. I had failed Mandarin again, for the umpteenth time. My mother then told me that my life from thenceforth was mine alone to handle. I thought she had given up on me, but as it turned out, she had read an expert’s article that there was more to a child’s development than mere grades. Today, I am thankful. I would have definitely rebelled under all that stress I see my peers face.

Perhaps we should sometimes take a step back and wonder, what is it we are competing for? Would you take up a course that you are totally disinterested in, if it were at an Ivy League school? Is success measured chiefly by academic results?

As much as many would quip that the top echelons did not really finish school, I am a firm believer that education is important. It is. If you had followed Bill Gates’ or Mark Zuckerberg’s life stories, you might realise that a large part of what they do best, was primarily discovered in school. Indeed, none of them was competitive enough to complete school, but still, they enjoyed what they did best.

Competition makes education ironic. To mark out which school did best – and to produce a ranking out of it – is deeply flawed. No doubt, the press and various magazines would publish their own versions of rankings to boost their popularity; let’s face it, who would not like to see university or school rankings - it is almost like the Grammy’s for schools.

Yet when we one day become parents, let us not fall into the trap of forcing our kids to do beyond their capabilities and at the expense of their interests. Let us not be Asian parents. Let us perpetuate what the rest of the world admires the West for – an education system that promotes creativity, avoids rote-learning, and one that rewards interests.

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