Friday, December 06, 2013

Leaning tower of PISA

A bit late to chime in on our national success at PISA, but the results have been impressive. Internationally ranking second in mathematics, third in science and reading, what's not to be chuffed about? Well, in terms of ambition, we're aiming way too low.

Wait. Backstory: Over the weekend, I bumped into a trio of my graduated students. We chatted at length about how everyone was getting along. All three are currently engaged in undergrad programmes and should be living the Singapore Dream for their stage in life.

But they're not happy. Everyone told them that 'life would get easier at uni', but guess what? Everyone they know is still studying their brains out 24/7, just like they were at JC. Nothing's changed except that it's even harder to socialize now that their class schedules are so diverse, it's difficult to meet anyone even for a simple meal. For the one enrolled in the University that is supposed to "Make a difference", he says that at least things are marginally better there, and that if he had gone to either of the other two more established unis, he'd go nuts.

Our three chums, like many others in their cohort, have no idea what they are studying so hard for, other than that everyone else is studying equally hard and if they don't keep up, they're bound to lose out. They want a way out before they become 'zombiefied' (their terminology, not mine) like everyone else.

See what I mean by not having ambition and not aiming high enough? For many of our kids, their only ambition is to top the subject, top the class, top the cohort and scale the increasingly leaning tower of PISA. Once they've done that -- and many of them are doing exactly that -- then what? Oh, right. Climb the corporate ladder as high as they can go... and then? Retire comfortably, fizzle out and disappear back to the nothingness they came from, I suppose. Woohoo!

I'm so proud. These three musketeers may not have been my best scorers in GP, but they learned my most valuable lesson: don't be a corporate zombie. They have seen through the empty shell of academic ranking and now they're asking about what else there might be for them.

So, lesson #2: Note that academic and career achievements are inherently selfish goals. The effort is entirely aimed at benefiting oneself and not anyone else. Instead of wasting your youth pursuing meaningless 'A' grades, go explore other areas of life and find something you really enjoy doing. How will you know what that might be? Simple: you will enjoy it so much, you will want to share it with other people. At that point, the more you share with others, the better you will get at sharing it with others. Translated into academic terms, your 'A' achievements become meaningful because the knowledge you are gaining is helping you become a better sharer of that which you enjoy most in life.

This is not to say that there is no ambition at all among Singaporeans. We've done some marvellous, even miraculous things with our little nation. We just need more people with more audacity to dream up and do more crazy things. Whether it's rocket scientists; Olympic competitors; big-name entertainers; environmental crusaders; cupcake chefs; or mad doctors looking to cure cancer, we have them, but we could always use more. After all, the kids are already doing well in school. Do we really need more academically high-scoring yet aimless corporate drones?

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