The start of the school year has prompted Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng to tell Primary 1 pupils to be brave, curious and ask questions. These are timeless qualities. Education, both as a free intellectual pursuit and as an exercise in structured learning, requires the courage to rethink received truths. That courage is derived from a restless curiosity of mind which is uncomfortable with the ways of the world as it is. Driven by a quest for new horizons, students direct their most pointed questions at teachers, who are among the closest figures of moral and institutional authority in their cognitive world.
Thus, the conversation between teachers and the taught, mediated through books and other accessories to learning, constitutes the core of education. It is a two-way process in which parents encourage their children to settle for nothing less than an engagement with the world in themselves. Ultimately, education empowers the individual to compete with himself: Competing with others is the easy part. Since this competition cannot begin too early, Mr Ng was right in emphasising the enduring values of courage, curiosity and questioning to his young audience. It is to be hoped that the students' parents, too, would heed the message because, without their ability to think in new ways, their children would find it difficult to do so. Unless the right attitudes are inculcated and ingrained in the young, they could grow up basically replicating the outdated habits of a receding past.
There are compelling reasons for Singaporean parents and educators to support their children and wards on a new educational journey today. Any educational system reflects and in turn underwrites the larger society's need for stability and continuity. That fundamental purpose is achieved through the teaching of languages, mathematics and science to begin with. However, the Age of Disruption that has descended on Singapore, along with the rest of the world, demands that students be equipped early with the mental and emotional skills to deal with discontinuity and disharmony in the economic and political functioning of the world. The unpacking of comfortable assumptions, transmitted from earlier and easier times, plays an essential role in preparing for the school of life. Instead, as the minister said separately, educators must give students the space to learn from their mistakes, find their own answers, and put in the effort to make solutions succeed. There are few comfort zones for retreat.
Parents should not fear the coming future. Creative destruction, wrought by technological and wider economic change, makes better ways of living possible. Likewise, the universe of knowledge would become static, and soon lifeless, without revolutions in thinking and learning. Singapore must educate its young in the art of survival.