Pastoral Perspectives

Not an examinable subject

     From not naming the top Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scorers, to changing the PSLE scoring system and now cutting down on school examinations (mid-years for Primary 3 and 5 and Secondary 1 and 3 students will be scrapped over the next three years), it is heartening to know that Ministry of Education (MOE) is making efforts to move away from the narrow focus on grades and helping students to discover the joy of learning.

   Indeed, it is never easy for any education system to strike a balance between motivating students to study and maintaining the rigour of education. Furthermore, even as our schools try to alleviate the stress and anxieties associated with formal education, a significant part of how one’s education experience will turn out depends largely on the students and parents themselves. While some may be more self-motivated in their studies than others, most of us were probably “compelled” by our parent’s carrot-stick approach. Besides, how many people do you know who actually enjoyed memorising Chinese idioms or solving quadratic equations during their schooling years?

     Although there is nothing wrong with valuing the place of education in our lives, the real danger is when education starts to take the place of God. Even as Christian parents, we are equally susceptible to end up trusting education more than we trust God. After all, no one can deny that good academic results do open more doors and provide a person with more pathways to pursue one’s dreams. Yet, we are also mindful that if we unwittingly give in to this fear that our children may lose out in life should they perform poorly in their studies, we are likely to end up drowning our children with enrichment classes and driving them towards chasing after “A”s at all costs.

     As much as we can all readily agree that one’s PSLE results do not define a person’s worth and future, we cannot deny that there are greater obstacles to overcome for someone who starts at the lower band. Furthermore, for families who are banking on their children’s academic success to lift them out of dire straits, getting to enjoy what one is studying or faring poorly in their exams may be a “luxury” they can hardly afford.

     To some extent, it is understandable for parents to take pride in our children’s accomplishments. In the past, honour is brought to the household when a son gets selected to be in civil service after excelling in the Chinese Imperial examinations. These days, it is not uncommon to see parents sharing their thanksgiving on social media about their children clearing their piano exams, receiving scholarship for overseas studies or graduating from tertiary education, etc. I believe herein lies our challenge as we often tend to associate only certain achievements as commendable and praiseworthy.

     If you think about it, we hardly hear of someone thanking God that his child graduated from ITE or having acquired the skills to maintain our HDB elevators. However, if that is the best that this child can do after all the sweat and tears, surely there is much that we can affirm him about as well as to celebrate the fruit of his labour? Instead of having a mentality that nothing apart from A’s is good enough, it would better to develop a mindset where there is always room for improvement. Indeed, if we believe God has made each one of us unique and different and we are called to glorify him, our focus must be to help our child work on his character and personal growth instead of comparing him with others or envying the latter’s achievements.

     Consider also the recent Life Beyond Grades (LBG) campaign that was launched by a group of parents hoping to shift mindsets away from the relentless pursuits of academic result, in particular the PSLE score. As much as they had good intentions, the individuals whom they chose as spokespersons, varying from entrepreneurs, celebrities and respected names in their respective fields all tended to be from the higher socio-economic status (SES). In other words, LBG’s definition of success unfortunately remained rather clichéd, as it was similar to what many would consider as being successful in life.

     I do wonder if their message would have been more persuasive and compelling if for example they choose a SMRT Station Master, an Air-con Technician or MacDonald’s Restaurant Manager as their spokespersons. Would it not have been better if they sought to affirm the value of hard work and the dignity of earning an honest living instead of drawing our attention to the accolades and glamour that some get to enjoy despite their “unimpressive” PSLE results?

    As long as we are in this world, the pressure to perform and out-perform others will undoubtedly always be there, whether as a student or in the working world. Even stay-home mothers are not spared since we do hear about mommy-guilt, where mothers feel bad about themselves for not doing enough for their children. Therefore, what matters is how are we growing in our relationship with God as we respond to those challenges and resist those temptations.

     If we are to avoid being conformed to the world, our minds will need to be constantly renewed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While MOE can tell us that going to school is more than just about grades and career options, only the Gospel can reveal to us about what life is truly about and why God must be at the centre of it. Even when we are done with school after we have ploughed through the “Ten Year Series”, there is a greater joy that comes with continuing to know God and making him known now and for all eternity. The best part of it all is that no one will end up having a score in the lower percentile when it comes to that. After all, God never intended it to be an examinable subject.

Rev Edwin Wong

October 21, 2018