Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Some old-school wisdom for new challenges in education

Early last December, on the same day that the Government’s “Skills Demand for the Future Economy Report” was launched to great fanfare, I attended an evening lecture — a much more modest affair — on the history, present, and future of Catholic schools in Singapore. This was part of the festivities in celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Catholic Church in Singapore.

Some old-school wisdom for new challenges in education

The author believes that the lives of students can be extremely lonely in a system that is (still) focused on credentials and assessments, and undergirded by a narrative of competition and meritocracy.

Early last December, on the same day that the Government’s “Skills Demand for the Future Economy Report” was launched to great fanfare, I attended an evening lecture — a much more modest affair — on the history, present, and future of Catholic schools in Singapore. This was part of the festivities in celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Catholic Church in Singapore.

As someone working in higher education and, arguably more importantly, as a father of three sons, I found much that was useful and important in the Skills Demand Report.

Furthermore, as a former policy wonk, I understood where the report was coming from, the gaps it is trying to fill and the anxieties it is trying to assuage. And in case the economic imperative underpinning the report’s recommendations isn't clear enough, it is there — "for the Future Economy" — in the full title.

Contrast that with the talk on Catholic education in general, and how it has been practised in Singapore for the last 169 years in particular, in which I was reminded that education means more than the sharpening of tools and the creation of economic agents.

I thought I would share three insights I gleaned from that discussion on Catholic education.

Let me, at the outset, state very clearly that Catholic education claims no monopoly on pedagogies that emphasise pastoral care and holistic development, and these too are found in the other great traditions and practices in education that are faith-based or secular.

It is simply that this is the tradition in which I grew up and with which I am most familiar.

One, the notion of the "vocation". It is typical, perhaps even fashionable, to lambast Catholic education, and faith-based education in general, as being naive in its focus on the "soft" touchy-feely ideals at its core.

This is especially so given the hyper-competitiveness of a world that is accelerating in complex and volatile ways. Far better to focus on marketable skills, preferably in some fast-changing and glamorous new sector as the "digital sector". Skills which are as resilient in the face of disruptions and robots as possible.

But the notion of vocation is indeed important in Catholic education, although it is more intimately linked with the Latin root “vocare”, which means “to call”. As in, "who am I called to be?" and "what am I called to do?". 

No tradition of education that has lasted this long is so naive as to dismiss the bread-and-butter issues of earning a living. Instead, though, such issues are framed in the bigger and more important context of living and life.

Before answering the "how" (skills, knowledge and so on) and the "what" (for example lawyer, teacher, artist) questions, grappling with the "why" is important. And there is no short-cut for answering the fundamental albeit inconvenient "why" questions.

As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, put it: "...it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that may take a very long time...your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don't try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow."

Before we get to the work you will do, let's focus on "you" first, last, and always.

Two, the notion of community.

Despite the ra-ra of school cheers and fight songs, the lives of students can be extremely lonely. In a system that is (still) focused on credentials and assessments, undergirded by a narrative of competition and meritocracy, it is little wonder that students (and educators, come to that) report higher levels of stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, anomie, acedia, “sian-ness”, even paranoia.

All of which have been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic these past two years that have not just seen friendships fray, but more importantly friendships fail to germinate and grow.

We use comforting rhetoric about schools being a safe space. More often than not, they are experienced as arenas in which scarce prizes and resources are battled over.

But as a commentator put it, schools should be sacred spaces (I'll leave the word here sans quotation marks). Spaces for growth not just as individuals but as a community, where each is valued, as opposed to being assigned an instrumentalist value.

A community centred on relationship as opposed to pragmatic transaction.

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and theologian, reminds us that the word "school" derives from the Latin “schola”, which means "free time".

A time in our children's lives to better understand themselves and how they relate to the world, a time to learn, work, rest, play, fight (yes, that too), and to reconcile and forgive. A time to be with others, in community. Or communion, if you like.

Finally, perhaps the biggest gem I unearthed at the lecture is that Catholic education is actually, in a sense, progressive, bordering on prophetic.

Long before notions such as social justice, fairness, pastoral care, holistic development, reducing the emphasis on grades, soft skills, mental wellness, values entered the education policy lexicon — sometimes reluctantly, but almost always in a knee-jerk reaction to some angst or tragedy that can no longer be avoided — these have been the mainstays of Catholic education.

As one of the panellists put it, we are human beings, not doings. We are talking here of the formation of the whole child, the whole being, and that is not incompatible with the practical concerns of jobs and the economy. At least, it shouldn’t.

To be sure, putting these things into practice has never been perfect, and mistakes — sometimes big and cruel ones — were made along the way.

But it makes a difference to have these values explicitly at the heart of your education mission.

Given the anxieties that have assailed us since the onset of Covid-19 two years ago, and future existential crises that will surely come our way, perhaps there is some “old-school” wisdom — that of vocation in the deeper sense of the word, of community, and of educating the whole being — that we can draw on to guide our children (and ourselves) in these times of uncertainty.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Adrian W J Kuah is director of the National University of Singapore’s Futures Office. These are his own views.

Related topics

education competitiveness school students challenges

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa