Education does not develop individuality but conformity

The conception of an education system came with the aim of equipping students with the necessary skills to fill the jobs in the economy to make the country more productive. This form of education is most efficacious when there is a fixed set of rules for those that comprise it – it guarantees an entire batch of workers able to work efficiently on the assembly line. As society develops, so has the system of education, which aims to meet society’s needs. In a world where societies are becoming increasingly meritocratic, education has become less about knowledge and more about students’ achievements and grades, compelling people to avert from “the road less taken”. As a result, education restricts one’s choices, and ends up developing multiple individuals who are good at abiding by rules but lack personal voices and interests.

It is claimed by some that the education system has diversified, allowing a vast array of choices for students – we can now choose what school to attend, and what courses to take. The choices individuals make, they argue, would be reflective of the differing qualities and characteristics of each person. Theoretically, this argument may hold true, but education today is not just as simple as they suggest. Granted, it may be true that there is now a larger variety of choices for a student, but the overwhelming need to conform to expectations overcomes it. On the most basic level, students need to conform to the most basic school rules or risk punishment. For instance, a large number of schools mandate a uniform appearance – all students of the same school have to wear the clothes of the same design, and there are rules about every single part of one’s appearance. Not only is this inherently an expectation to conform, it conditions young minds to think that their actions will represent that of the school, so anything that catches others’ attentions is deemed to be “bad”, and is frowned upon. This means that students are discouraged from taking up courses commonly associated with unsuccessful people. For example, Korean society expects its crème de la crème to study engineering or medicine in university, although that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. This is because they buy into the concept that people should practice what others before them had done, because that is thought to be the “safe” route to success which guarantees a stable income. As a result, those with good results are pressured into taking these courses even if they find greater interest elsewhere – a quarter of all Korean university graduates major in engineering. This overwhelming expectation quells any earlier consideration of taking up a course that one has an affinity or interest in, like the arts, which is vehemently discouraged because it is seen to be a job with an unstable income. As a corollary of this, heuristics are being taught in many societies, especially in Asia. For any question, there is a thought to be a predetermined method to derive the answer that would “guarantee” high marks. Students follow these “model answers” to meet the rigid requirements present in national examinations to gauge the ability of students. This means that they blindly apply formulas without understanding why these concepts and formulas apply to solving the problem at hand. This encourages rigidity in terms of thinking, and all that results from the system would be people who can only excel in repeating what they have done before. Evidently, students in the education system are not only overtly conforming to the school rules, but they covertly begin to conform to society’s beliefs and mindsets instead of developing their own, individual passions and qualities.

Opponents of the thesis argue that effective teachers can instill a sense of interest in learning in their students. As a result, students will have a life-long thirst for knowledge. Despite the claim, the truth remains that the system of education today creates obstacles for teachers, which limits their ability rather than help them teach effectively. Most education systems around the world today have national exams, because it is deemed as necessary in order to determine the standard of the students. In the face of these inevitable examinations, teachers rush to prepare students for the multitude of questions to be tested. In such a circumstance, even a teacher who believes in developing the interests of students has no choice but to focus the bulk of his or her lesson on the curriculum to be tested. This is because the education ministry gauges the ability of teachers based on how much improvement students make in terms of grades, and focuses less on students’ holistic, all-rounded development, something that cannot be measured accurately. In Singapore’s case, parents that traditionally adopt the “kiasu” mindset fret over finding tuition classes for their children sitting for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), GCSE “O” Levels or “A” Levels examinations, while teachers feel pressured to get as many “A”s in class as possible. Effectively, the requirements of education as set out by the country’s government limits the ability of teachers, even good ones. Furthermore, it would be idealistic to argue that all teachers are as effective as opponents claim them to be – in many cases teachers are more focused on getting students to do well in order to get a raise in pay, as compared to trying diligently to help develop each individual student based on his or her needs and interests. Anything outside the declared curriculum is seen to be “unnecessary” or “irrelevant”. In addition to the fact that teachers are limited by the requirements of the system, the school also has to be accountable to society. Parents send their children to school with the expectation that the latter group will gain knowledge and learn some morals, and this expectation falls on the teachers and the school. Schools tend to err on the side of caution because they are paid to take care of the needs of students, so they are unwilling to take risks. However, to create a system actively promoting individual development hinges on not just the curriculum and the school rules – it comes with a large amount of risk. Encouraging individuals to find out more about themselves necessarily means that teachers do not advice students on what they should do – teachers let children develop without interference. When a system is lax, it cannot identify children who are acting abnormally and help them. As a result, if a child grows up in a poor living environment, he is likely to be negatively influenced, and this is where a hands-off system fails. It is exactly this that many schools are afraid of, compelling them to hold a tighter leash on students and forces them to conform to the rules, thereby limiting students’ ability to explore and develop their interests.

Critics would argue that individuals can spend time on their own outside of the school gates in order to develop their own passions, because they are still able to choose what extracurricular activities to take up and what activities they should pick up in their free time. However, this is increasingly untrue in a world where the burden of students keeps increasing. Students of today recognise that their future choices hinge upon their grades – even with an outstanding co-curricular portfolio, it all comes to naught if they cannot manage their academic grades. This is because educational achievements are the determining factor of the nature of one’s future – when hiring employees, many corporations today look at the school the applicant attended, his grades, the scholarships he received and so on. Hence, the students of today go to school not to gain new knowledge about topics they are interested in, but rather in a mad paper-chase to build up their portfolios. This generates an interest to focus more on academics, equating to a heavier workload. This results in individuals unwilling to spend time nurturing their own passions and interests – the time spent on learning a musical instrument is thought to be better spent on revising more past-year physics papers. Even if students pick up an activity that they are interested in, for example a sport, it would take a backseat in students’ lists of priorities. When push comes to shove, most students would rather drop their sport when the national examinations approach, because the sport is unlikely to define their future lives, unlike good grades achieved in exams. Hence, even outside the school gates students are compelled to conform to society’s expectations of them, instead of developing their own personal passions.

The idea of rules is central to all forms of education – people need rules to teach them the limits of what they can and cannot do. For instance, a person cannot be allowed to search up the steps needed to make a pipe bomb because the information can cause great harm if misused. However, as are most things in society, rules are double-edged swords. While it protects people from others, it also limits the areas of interest because people avert from testing boundaries, making them conform to what the government or society deems as “safe”. Ultimately, while some can still have that personal space to develop themselves, and indulge in their interests, education systems largely warn individuals against challenging social norms, and force them to make decisions that may not be the best for every individual in society. 


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.