Sunday, June 10, 2012

Great expectations

We've been lying to our kids. And because the lie has perpetuated for at least a couple of generations already, many of us have also been lying to ourselves. The lie is that the more years we spend in school and the better our grades are, the better we can expect our lives to become.

The assumption makes no sense at all. We spend time in school in order to prepare ourselves. But if our lives are expected to get better, then there's no need to be prepared for it. Who needs to prepare for a life of ease? Of sipping pina coladas by a sunny beachside resort in the Bahamas? In truth, the reason why we prepare ourselves is because we expect bad things to happen. We prepare for disaster. We prepare because our lives are likely to become infinitely worse once we leave the safety zone of our school.

So why has this obviously counter-intuitive lie persisted down the generations? Somehow, people have got the mistaken idea that being in school is the way we pay our dues to society, and that the child's relative present suffering is a way of 'paying forward' a ticket to paradise in adulthood. So when the child finally graduates, he can "[habour] high hope [sic] of a good life afterwards." But it's so disappointing to see his hopes dashed in the face of adult reality.

I don't know the letter-writer personally, but I shall assume that he -- like many other of our graduated students -- has "all the A’s in [his] report card", and yet is unable to find satisfactory employment. I shall also assume that being a straight-A student meant huge sacrifices of freedom and other personal privations in order to focus on his studies and score his A's, all the while telling himself it would all be worth it in the end: a nice, cushy office job; telling the B-graders and below to make the coffee; while the money just rolls in. Because all the hard work was already done in school.

It's hard to face the truth that the shiny, golden academic degree is not the passport to the good life we were told it was. If you've worked hard for it, great! Kudos to you. But the real work begins at the workplace. Sadly, the real work involves everything else you gave up in your earlier life while you chose to mug for your A grades. There isn't a job out there that requires the employee to sit and memorize stacks of notes only to reproduce it all over again a month or six later. Xerox made that job obsolete decades ago. Sorry.

Real work involves having lots of different interests, personal, general and current; in order to be interesting to co-workers, customers and anyone else along the production or service chain. Solo muggers are at a serious disadvantage because collaboration -- i.e., working with others, quirks and all -- is a premium at the workplace. People who can think beyond the manual or even improve it are much preferred to those who can just reproduce it or require it in order to carry out their daily tasks. Workplace problems do not come with their own formulas to apply; they have to be solved with new methods all the time. Workers are comfortable with learning, unlearning and relearning, a concept unthinkable to students of our carefully structured and scaffolded system.

Employable skills are those we pick up when we get our noses out of our textbooks and learn from life itself. We can't say we've visited Rome after reading a Fodor's guide. Likewise.

So why are employers starting to rely on foreign employees? Because foreigners are not as grade-obsessed as we are. They don't view educational qualifications as a certificate of entitlement to a job good or otherwise. It's blinkered of us to keep thinking such because today, every other S'porean grad holds a string of A's, but little else to distinguish one from another. What's an employer to do?

The letter-writer is probably right to call himself a "failed product" of the system and not label the system outright as a failure. We don't have a mass unemployment situation here, so it's likely that most who pass through our system do find jobs. It's these small, unhappy minorities who can't fathom what has gone so wrong for them. I hope his new career coach can help undo the damage his schooling experience has done to him. In the meantime, I'm not going to lie to my kids any more. Never have, actually...!


disputatio said...

Interesting read as always sminy. I beg to differ on many counts though. Who needs to prepare for a life of ease? Everyone. Save those who are fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon. Yes, we Singaporeans (Asians) were brought up to with the mentality that learning was the best way towards infinite riches. And the reasoning behind it is sound enough. Education is a social leveler. Back in the olden days, survival was of utmost importance, and education was deemed as the way forward. That was when majority of Singaporeans were vastly uneducated and incapable of anything more than odd labour. Eventually, the government’s relentless pursuit of higher education got escalated far beyond what they ever imagined; it inflated grades to such a saturation point that anything less than straight 3As at the A levels would automatically dump you into a social science course, aka not a medicine, business or law course. Which were of course seen as the way forward. The only way forward at that. To shift this discussion back on track, what this meant was that unless you are lucky enough to have your own capital to start a business, or to pursue life’s greater pleasures of exquisite dinning and extensive travels, you have to work to earn it. Money does not grow on trees you see. For majority of us, this unfortunate rule of nature has resigned us to a path of mugging, mugging and guess what? More mugging. Yes, as you kindly point out, most of us who pass through the system will be able to find jobs. Yes, but as what? Honestly, would chalking up a meager pay of 2k a month leave you truly satisfied? No doubt it would be able to grant you a roof over your head (maybe not even this), confine you to taking a transport system with your face jam-pressed against the door and for the most part of your life, yearning for a more comfortable life. Granted, it would tide you over, but would it leave you happy? No doubt many teenagers nowadays hate the hectic rat race-cycle that we are stuck in now, however, without an obvious alternative to securing our future, we can only follow blindly, or rather, get swept along by the current.

Min Seah said...

see where this kind of thinking has led us to? people are dissatisfied not because they earn $2k or less, or because the transport system is overcrowded, but because they were promised a lot better if they stayed in school and studied hard. so they sacrifice their early lives cut off from every other form of personal development (i.e., that which has not been imposed on them by their parents) which would have made them happy in order to mug for a grades. then when they come out to work, employers don't want to employ them because they don't know how to do anything else. i'd be upset too if i did my part and scored straight a's, but the other part of the bargain didn't materialize for me. time for our society to learn, unlearn and relearn.

disputatio said...

Yes, we are unsatisfied with $2k or less. Because with less than $2k, short of begging on the streets, how do you expect to survive? Sure, it may be to comment that one can survive on such a meager income in today's world. Yes, we could. But not in Singapore. Are you then proposing for us to leave Singapore? If so, your solution is worse than my predicament. Think about it. Apart from studying, what else can I do? What else can I do to get a job? Paper qualifications is better than none Is there any other clear alternatives? Is there any other way for me to ensure the survival of my individual and my kin? And while we're on this track, does it necessarily mean that every student who passes through the system with straight As turn out to be a lumbering idiot who has no economical worth to their employers? It must be real easy for you to dispute the role of education in Singapore today, when you have a stable career, a roof over your head, a car and whatnot. But not for a teenager with uncertainty looming over his future career. Until a new alternative arises, I am certainly not going to jeopardize my future. Back to the books!

Min Seah said...

happiness occurs when reality meets or exceeds expectations. these days, reality doesn't meet the high expectations we are being promised. we can't do anything about reality but we can moderate our expectations.

i'm not a doctor or businessman or a lawyer. i am of the social sciences, so maybe the faculty that you disparage isn't such a dead-end after all.

there are ways to score a's. mindlessly mugging is a way, but it's not the best. the better way to study is to use textbooks as a guide to understanding about life, not as a substitute for it.

i eventually ended up scoring a decent handful of a's when i chose to pursue my interest and passion for english literature and (a smattering of) theatre. though not smart professional choices, i loved and understood the subjects best. i studied those subjects because i wanted to learn more about what i was reading. The grades came in as a result of my study, though they were not my goal. note that i do not use 'mug' and 'study' interchangeably. mugging is only one aspect of study.

anyway, when i chose my subjects, i did not have a long-term professional goal. after graduation, i drifted from contract job to contract job for five years or so earning less than 2k, but long enough to build up a work portfolio and more importantly to realize that perhaps the corporate world was not really my thing.

my current job in which i have been able to afford better was also the result of following my interest (i hesitate to say 'passion' because that sounds so cliched) in teaching young minds. but i had to discover that interest because i never knew i had it when i was younger.

i'm not advising people to give up their books but to choose books that interest them and enrich them as they develop as a person. i am advising people not to give up their other interests and social pursuits because they develop confidence and personality which impress other people (including but not restricted to job interviewers) more than the paper qualification ever could.

yes, the degree/dip/cert gets you past security at the front door. it doesn't get you past the interviewer. it helps, at that point, to be able to offer more than that. showing a keen interest and an ability to do the job required is usually a better approach than the "give me the job cos i have straight a's" approach.