Aside from housing and transport, one of the hottest topics in recent years has been education. Although Singapore enjoys a great reputation for its education system, we really should not be complacent since international standards are calibrated according to its own set of values. Things that are held in high esteem are not necessarily problem-free. It could mean that the problems have yet to surface. Remember the population control and urban redevelopment policies of the early days? They won universal praise back then too; but, by the 1980s, their negative effects became apparent.
Any appraisal of education should involve a return to the fundamentals — its ultimate purpose and aim. Nevertheless, the meaning of education is always determined by a certain era and the leading ideology of its day. However, a core aspect of education that remains true, across the ages and across cultures, is its significance in the cultivation of human nature. No one would dispute such a statement, only the extent of its importance.
Hence, it is probable that no one would object to the claim that the foundational importance of education is teaching one how to be a useful and good human being. It is no wonder that when some intellectuals realise that the present education system favours the pursuit of knowledge and skills at the expense of the cultivation of human nature, they begin to champion for the study of texts such as the Confucian classics, affective education, and the Di Zi Gui (Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child) in order to restore the fundamental purpose of education.
According to a report on the status of education, Feeling the Pulse of Policies, published in the Chinese daily, Lianhe Zaobao, on June 6th the Ministry of Education (MOE) acknowledged the importance of holistic education upon concluding a review and implementation study two years ago.
John P. Miller, in his book Holistic Curriculum, mentioned that the concept of holistic education arose during the mid-1980s, in response to the distortion of the moral compass of our modern society that places technology, material wealth, and consumerism above all else. Education has succumbed to national interest and economic development, by relinquishing its focus on the acquisition of wisdom and compassion. Ideally, education should be ‘integrated and holistic’, thus helping the human race to rediscover its own soul, as well as establish close bonds with others, the community, and its connections with the Earth and the Universe. This kind of education is spiritual (non-religious). Indeed, education should be placed on a philosophical level where a comprehensive and profound analysis of humanity is undertaken in a bid to search for and define values.
It is important to point out that the West did not invent the concept of holistic education; similar ideas could be found in Eastern philosophy. For example, Confucius’ motto of “rectifying the heart, cultivating the mind, putting the family in order, running the local government well, and bringing peace to the entire country” was written in the chapter of “Da Xue” (“Great Learning”) in Li Ji (Book of Rites).
Hence, before MOE embarks on the discussion of education reforms based on its acknowledgement of the importance of holistic education, it should, first and foremost, reflect on the ultimate aim of education at a fundamental level. And this should not be determined by MOE alone since it concerns the values and means of survival to which the nation and its people must relate. In other words, we have to first establish the core ideology and values of our country. Otherwise, the education reform would become once again a mere adjustment in policy — new wine in an old bottle — without any changes made to its fundamentals.
This soul-searching process about our education system is all the more important for Singapore, as we lack natural resources and rely mainly on human resources for our survival; thus, each and every citizen is important. We must, therefore, help every single one of them to find their place in society so that they can make their contributions. This should be our core belief and value.
For a long time now, education in Singapore has been conducted on the principle of cost-effectiveness — those who do not make it within a certain timeframe would be eliminated, thus saving resources in the process. This is a choice that we have made in accordance with our core beliefs and values. It was probably based on our interpretation of the circumstances of a moment in time. But this practice is long overdue for a redefinition: we need to put in place the key conditions for the implementation of holistic education.
Furthermore, if the crime rate and the quantity of legislations are any indicators of the upbringing and quality of the citizenry, then our society has not made any real progress over the years. Even the simplest law — the one that stipulates fines for littering — has not extinguished this pernicious habit. In order to effect genuine change, we must address the inner qualities of the person. This is precisely why education should not solely be about the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but also about the cultivation of quality in a person. That is the only way holistic education could be realized.
Of course, it would be an incredible feat for teachers to be successful in providing ‘holistic’ care and guidance when they have to deal with classes made up of 40 students, while managing affairs that are directly or indirectly connected with teaching outside the classroom. Yet at the same time, there is also no denying that teachers possess the potential to exert the most direct influence on the students. However, to achieve such an achieve, the teachers require not only professional knowledge, but also the presence of other prerequisites including effective institutional requirements and direction (curriculum, students’ performance, etc.), the supportive attitudes and views of the school’s management, and reasonable workloads.
Ultimately, it is important that holistic education is not treated as an isolated policy, or a slogan. It is an ideological value that requires the acknowledgement of policymakers, school management, teaching staff, parents, and the public. In order to achieve lasting and effective changes in the education sector, we must recognise and examine all the interconnected factors before implementing any reforms.
It has been more than 30 years since the concept of holistic education was first raised. Ever since then, it has been fighting an uphill battle in a world obsessed by material wealth and consumerism. Advocates of holistic education continue to face a daunting task in the days ahead…