My Son's School Books
Masturah Alatas keeps an eye on her son's education.
By Masturah Alatas
“Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”
Several people, among them smart people like Albert Einstein and B. F. Skinner, are said to have uttered these words. The fact that I’m not sure what it means tells me that its implications are more than just skin deep.
Trying to explain something often reveals more about the person who is doing the explaining than what is being explained, but it’s a risk I’ll take.
Do those words mean that how educated we are depends on how much we remember of what we have been taught; that if we’ve learnt hundreds of facts and figures and skills, but remember only a few, that’s our education? Surely it can’t be as simple as that, reducing education to a mere memory contest?
Maybe what they mean is that we have forgotten that much of what we know and who we are actually had to be learnt. For example, somebody thought Singaporeans were rude and this defect had to be corrected. Thus, the Courtesy Campaign was introduced in Singapore (I don’t remember if it was in the late 70s or early 80s). So if Singaporeans are now considered polite, we may have forgotten that courtesy was something Singaporeans had to learn.
The premise was that courtesy could be taught and could be learnt. Courtesy is an acquired, not a “natural”, trait and if it now comes “naturally” to many it is because education has achieved its purpose.
That’s why we say that rude children have been “badly brought up.” And we’re supposed to change them from being naturally rude to “naturally” polite or “naturally” rude to naturally polite. Yes, a lot in nature is a cultural construction. There’s nothing natural about it.
It is no accident that B. F. Skinner, who is associated with the phrase in question, is a behaviourist. Isn’t behaviourism the theory which tries to understand people based on what they do and how they act, and not on what they say about their thoughts and feelings? Isn’t education’s main function to get people to behave as you would like them to, in as natural, and not pondered or rationalised, a way as possible? Don’t reflect too much on what you do. Just do it! (Or just don’t do it!)
But it works both ways, doesn’t it? The law stickler’s (and not just Nike’s) imperative may just as well be a non-conformist’s invitation to rebel. One man’s “do it” may be another man’s “don’t”.
Anyway, all educational input aspires to the same goal: that some kind of structure of the material taught will remain, like a fossil in the sand when flesh and blood and soul have taken flight.
I just realised that some of you might be thinking: who says Singaporeans are polite?
Once I was standing next to a friend of mine in a photo shop near Dunearn Road. He needed some slide film.
“SLIDE film, got or not?” he says to the salesgirl with emphasis on ‘slide’ because he knows that most people buy regular print film.
She doesn’t say a word but hurries off to check. She comes back with some film.
My friend looks at the box and says, “Dis one not slide film.”
She looks at the box and says, “Dis one flim.”
“Can I have some slide film?” my friend repeats.
This time, she doesn’t go back to the shelves to look for the right ‘flim’. She just looks at him blankly and says “Don’t have.”
“Stupid bitch,” my friend says to me after we have left the shop.
The issue here is not whether the salesgirl knew what slide film was, or if she was lazy and had a can’t-be-bothered-to-give-the-customer-what-he-wants attitude, or if she was just trying to sell him print film because they had run out of slide film.
My friend had interpreted her perfunctoriness as rudeness. Others may have taken her curtness to be just a cultural trait (whether they consider it positive or negative I’m not sure), though it is interesting to note that my friend, who was of the same ethnicity as the salesgirl, did not recognise in the salesgirl’s manner a common cultural characteristic. Maybe Miss Flim herself thought she was the most courteous salesgirl around.
So who decides what is polite and what is rude behaviour? Who establishes the acceptable standards of social interaction? These are the kinds of questions raised by cultural relativism. Intercultural education is supposed to make us more aware and tolerant of cultural difference, and teach us how to move and speak in ways that will not offend a person of another culture (and why not also a person of the same culture, since our cultural levels are all different anyway?) This does not necessarily mean, however, that all cultural difference is to be equally respected or valued on the same plane. One person’s “why?” is another person’s “why not?”
I was born and raised in Singapore, which means I attended primary and secondary schools and junior college all in Singapore. It doesn’t matter which ones they were. I’d like to write this piece under the illusion, and with a tinge of idealism, that people don’t judge you based on the schools you’ve gone to.
I now live in Italy. I’ve been asking myself lately, mainly because my ten-year-old son has just done his Primary School Leaving Examinations, what it is about my education that has left a Singaporean fossil in me.
So I always cross roads at the zebra crossing and I would never dream of writing on the walls, or anything else for that matter, which isn’t a piece of paper. But I’ve discovered that those who have been educated in Singapore are not the only ones who have this kind of civic consciousness.
I still remember in Mandarin the pledge that we had to repeat each morning after singing Majulah Singapura! Learning by repetition is a method that is supposed to guarantee remembering. And memory is supposed to influence action. “We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves, as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion …” Wo men shi xin jia bo gong ming …
But lots of bilingual people know a smattering of a third language, not just Singaporeans. I’ve always wondered why, though, beyond the obvious preservation-of-cultural-identity reason, the Malays, Portuguese Eurasians and Indians (the ones who didn’t do Tamil) at school studied Malay, and the Chinese studied Mandarin. I never came across a Malay studying Mandarin or a Chinese (unless she was Malaysian) studying Malay. I don’t remember if the Babas studied Malay or Mandarin. We were grouped into classes based on this language divide. That’s why my best friend Erika and I were never in the same class. The funny thing was that she knew as much Malay as she did Mandarin!
Migrant writers who write in a language that isn’t their mother tongue or the language they learnt at school, and whose appeal appears to extend extend beyond those who share the migrant experience, are giving us another message: they don’t seem to have a complex about not writing in their “native language”. The products of post-colonial or assimilationist educations, the post-post generation, finally seem to be getting rid of their hang-ups and identity crises.
So what if you’re Native American and can speak only English? (so long as there’s no law which says that you or your children can’t learn Siouan one day should you or they choose to.) You still have a rich and unique culture. Joseph Conrad was born in Poland but he was more comfortable writing in English. Samuel Beckett (b.Dublin 1906 d. Paris 1989), the Irish Nobel laureate, wrote some of his major works in French.
I don’t remember what the first poem I learnt in primary school was. Do you? Somehow it’s become more important for me to want to remember it than to actually remember it.
My son, on the other hand, can recite verses from Dante. On a school trip, he and his class were taken to see the castle in Gradara, the one said to be the site of a 13th century scandal involving Francesca da Rimini, who commited adultery with Paolo da Malatesta, her husband’s brother. The couple were slain for their transgression. Dante puts them in hell where he meets their spirits in Canto V of the Inferno. In hell, Francesca tells Dante that it was while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere that she and Paolo first succumbed to their passion. Dante’s verses about Paolo and Francesca are mentioned by T.S.Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ as an example of intense poetry.
I don’t think my son cared about the Paolo and Francesca story, nor was he able to perceive the intensity of Dante’s words. He and his friends probably got more of a thrill out of exploring the castle for half a day and looking at medieval weapons.
My son does like one poem, though. It is Ed è subito sera (“Then it’s Immediately Dusk”) by Salvatore Quasimodo (1901- 1968). He probably likes it because it is short, essentialist and imagist; almost haiku. I translate it as:
Ask my son what the capitals of countries around the world are and to locate Moldavia on the map. The index in his history book runs from the 17th century to the present day. And that was just this year’s book! He is expected to know not just what is positive about Italian (and world) history, but also what is negative. His books haven’t undergone “cleansing.” I didn’t even have history and geography as subjects in primary school!
Along with studying Mathematics, Science, English, Music and Art, my son had to read abridged versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In social studies, he learnt about Gandhi and Martin Luther King; the Italian constitution and the first ten articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was also given a basic introduction to highway code.
That’s a helluva curriculum. And he’s only ten! I didn’t know at his age half of what he knows now. Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. Now, as an adult who looks almost enviously at her child’s educational process, I would say: When I grow up I want to become that child.
I am curious to know how much of what my son has studied this past year he will remember for the rest of his life. And I wonder if he will move from a crammed, full mind to an open mind. That remains to be seen.
One thing’s for sure: until he forgets what he has learnt, he is quite an interesting person to have at the dinner table. Then it’s immediately dawn.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004