Is it OK to burn PSLE assessment books?


My gripes with wrath

By Fiona Chan

Having been an avid Internet user since its inception, I’ve come to realise there are three universal rules governing cyberspace.First, there is no right way to spell anything.

Second, just because someone has uploaded 16 photos of her lunch/baby/self in the mirror does not mean people will not give a thumbs-up to her subsequent 23 photos of the same thing from a different angle.

Third, and most important, everyone can – and should – become vehemently upset about everything they read online, especially if it has nothing to do with them.

Cats eating cheeseburgers? Someone call the animal rescue hotline to save the poor pets from their abusive owners.

A young singer pushing the boundaries of sexy dancing? Someone call Madonna.

Parents burning their children’s homework? Call the police – or put a photo of it on Facebook, with a similar effect.

Indeed, the online persecution that resulted this week after a group of students and their parents were photographed setting their worksheets ablaze post the PSLE exams was almost as bad as an angry bystander dialing 999.

Every aspect of the proceedings and their participants was vilified by observers, who didn’t let the fact that they knew almost nothing about the event stop them from denouncing it.

Disposing of textbooks that could be given away was wasteful, they said – only to be told later that no textbooks were hurt, merely assessment papers that were unlikely to be reused.

Some then changed their tone to say even completed worksheets could be passed down, if not to students here, then surely to those in Africa, the world’s hypothetical dumping ground for all rubbish. Given the sheer volume of stuff that people insist on sending to Africa, it’s a surprise the continent hasn’t buckled under its own weight yet.

Others argued that destroying anything bearing the printed word is tantamount to repeating the destruction of knowledge under past tyrannical rulers. I worry the fumes from the mouldy newspapers and books under their beds may be affecting their judgment.

Perhaps the only justifiable cause for outrage was that the act of burning harmed the environment. This reason was mentioned by about 3 per cent of protesters, roughly the same proportion of people who bring their own shopping bags to the supermarket.

The fact is that the homework burning exercise was – as later explained by its organiser, a colleague at Singapore Press Holdings – nothing more than a cathartic way to relieve stress after the back-breaking PSLE and promote family bonding.

It was not, as its detractors have suggested, an attempt to eradicate learning, a protest against the education system, or a stand against any objectionable content in the worksheets (except maybe trigonometry).

I can barely remember taking the PSLE, but I am willing to bet I would not have objected to burning my homework then or at any other point in my 16 years of schooling, nor would the act have killed my love and respect for books.

I’m not the only one: a Google search on “homework burning” turns up countless gleeful images, a 2011 Facebook party event, and the enlightening tidbit that the act is considered a crime in Seattle.

Yet the ferocity of some of the reactions this week had me wondering if something in the water is making us all extra-jumpy these days. A big part of it, as with any lapse in modern human behavior, is probably due to the Internet.

It wasn’t so long ago that the word “netizens” didn’t even exist. Now not only are they everywhere, they seem to be up in arms about everything.

The phrase “netizens are outraged” returns 67,700 results on Google. This is not nearly as many as the 25.7 million hits for “Miley Cyrus twerk” - which leads to some suspicion that the number of people upset about Miley Cyrus’ dance moves has been severely overstated - but still significant enough to conclude that outraged netizens are indeed a trend.

A recent study of 200,000 Chinese social media users found that anger is the Internet’s most powerful emotion, the one most likely to spread quickly and widely online.

This may be because the Internet exacerbates the worst in us: our boredom and judgmentalism, conveniently cloaked in anonymity.

It doesn’t help that the world seems to be caught up in a trend of hyper political correctness, in which any stray word or action is liable to invoke the wrath of dozens of interest groups whose sole raison d’etre is to get offended by things.

If you must be angry online, at least channel your anger to the right causes: people who share posts that say little more than “share this post” or who constantly ask whether their friends on holiday in foreign countries can help them buy back a bulky product that costs 14 cents less overseas.

For the rest of it, let’s try something that existed long before the Internet: a large dose of empathy.

Let’s entertain the wacky idea that people may have not the worst but the best intentions, give everyone the benefit of the doubt – and feed those cats the cheeseburgers they want so much.

Book burning is pure vandalism

By Ong Sor Fern

Book burning is barbaric.

No ifs, ands or buts. No grey areas. Simple as black and white print on paper.

As someone who has loved books all my life, the very idea of burning books fills me with revulsion and the act itself strikes fear in my heart.

Hold your horses, I hear you say, aren’t you overreacting just a tad? After all, the group of parents and children who organised and took part in a little bonfire of PSLE assessment books and papers recently were just indulging in a little stress relieving exercise.

To me, it does not matter if it was assessment books that were set alight. The very act of burning a book, any book, is anathema to me. It is an act of vandalism.

Arguing that it is simply an assessment book, to me, is just the beginning of a slippery slope.

Once one dismisses one book as disposable and objectionable, what’s there to stop one from deciding another book contains objectionable ideas and therefore needs to be burnt?

And if books contain objectionable ideas, what about the people who believe in the objectionable ideas?

Qin Shi Huang burnt books. And he buried scholars alive.

The Spanish burnt Mayan codices. And they tortured and killed Mayan people in the name of civilising them.

The Nazis burnt books and works of art. And they were guilty of genocide.

You might think I am making a great leap in logic here - burning a few assessment books is very far from committing genocide.

But book burning has a long, infamous, unbroken association with death and destruction. It often presages narrow-mindedness, intolerance and inhumanity in a community.

It is not simply the act of burning a book itself, but the symbolic power of the gesture.

In great cultures throughout human history, there has been a high value attached to the book as an object, as a symbol of learning, a marker of culture, a badge of civility.

With good reason, since they carry the wisdom of the ages, the knowledge painstakingly acquired and recorded through the generations.

Books were once treasured because of their rarity - literacy was the province of the privileged few, and creating books was a laborious process, hence the saying knowledge is power because it was once, literally, so, as access to them was controlled carefully by the powers that be.

Thus attacking the book was, and still is, a potent move, which explains why bullies in power, tyrants and dictators, have always zeroed in on books as a target.

Organising a book burning is an action pregnant with meaning and redolent of threat throughout the ages.

It is the formality of the ceremony - bringing together people to witness a communal attack on an object which represents the very best of human endeavour and intellect – that fills me with horror and dread at its implications.

The act signals a blithe disregard for, and active antipathy towards, what every man should strive for - learning, knowledge, culture.

The recent case in Singapore was deplorable as it was the parents who allowed, even encouraged, their children to take part in an act whose resonances they clearly do not understand.

Children may be excused because they do not know better. But did the adults who masterminded this act of vandalism think about the message they are conveying to their children? Have they considered that by burning books, they undermine the inherent value of the pursuit of knowledge?

Blaming it all on the stress created by a pressure cooker education system is no excuse.

The system is there, you can buy into it or not. The choice is up to you as a parent to teach the values you want to inculcate in your children.

Just as the choice was there to find a way to relieve stress that did not attack a symbol of intellect and imagination.

That decision – to burn books – ironically shows why we so direly, urgently, need more books in our culture.