Monday, May 16, 2005

Exam nation

Perhaps it has something to do with my own uneasy upbringing that has made me wary of school achievements and social status as requisites of the good life – the endless comparisons with my brilliant high-achieving cousins, the self-conscious demeanor of my parents in the company of the wealthy.

But I do despair at well-meaning parents who drill into their children the need to excel, pass exams (and therefore have good jobs) because that’s the 'calling' of every school-going child. “It’s your station in life,” droned a Sunday School Teacher to the children in a Sunday School class. My sons complain that not a week pass without some mention of schools, studies, exams, so much so that the kids in the class constantly ask for prayer because of exam anxieties. Now I am not saying a child is not supposed to study hard or pass exams; I am merely concerned this preoccupation excludes other things which may be just as important, if not more important.

We are a nation obsessed with exams and it shows. Even Malaysian churches make a big fuss about exams by holding group prayer for kids facing school exams (PMR, STPM, etc). Church leaders intone the usual mantra that these students would be strengthened to do well, glorify Jesus, etc. Is it any surprise that so many of these children have no other interests outside school? No hobby they feel passionate about, a poor appreciation for reading (for pleasure) or the arts, scant regard for church or things spiritual, and total indifference about the state of the world.

When these same kids grow up, adults wonder why all these people care about is their careers. We fool ourselves that this is reality, that this is what life is all about, unaware that it is we who have made it so. It bothers me even more that those who make noise about “worldliness” do not count this myopic conformity as one. Novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) who’s a highschool treacher (and homeschool advocate) has very perceptive things to say about this in his book Family Matters:

"A counter argument I often hear is that the competitive life of schools is a necessary prerequisite to the competitive economic lives adults lead. But this is the argument of people who don’t distinguish between social health and financial success, between sound relationships and the necessities of financial success, between the welfare of society and the mechanics of capitalism. Those who assert that we are condemned to social struggle in order for our economic system to work assert by extension that we must lead unhealthy social lives. Schools should not be arranged so as to foment a perpetual and relentless social strife merely to prepare people to perpetuate the same arrangement when,one day, they go to work in the world. On the contrary, we should want our schools to aspire to something better.

Educators complain about unsupportive parents who blame everybody and everything but themselves for the fact that their children are poorly educated…Yet career-track parents are only doing what they’ve been taught to do by an educational system that prepared them for economic life while simultaneously excising them from their families; their absorption in self, work, and money are the inevitable products of our sociopathic schools, where they learned to compete for external rewards and to claw their way to the top."

Dr David Elkind, whose book The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Rev 2001) made an impression on me, wrote that parents are feeling more afraid and insecure than ever, and are projecting their fears by hurrying children to do more, and sooner.
“While parents have traditionally taken pride in their offspring’s achievements and have been concerned about their education, it is a characteristic of contemporary society that we burden preschoolers with the expectations and anxieties normally (if wrongly) visited upon high school seniors. Today, parents brag not only about the colleges and prep schools their children are enrolled in but also about which private kindergartens they attend.”
Elkind also said, "People give their kids a lot materially, but expect a lot in return. No one sees his kids as average, and those who don't perform are made to feel like failures." I mean, like all parents I too want my children to succeed; I want them happy and confident and secure. Onthe other hand, the tendency to measure these qualities materially is a big hint that our talk about laying treasures in heaven and seeking God’s Kingdom has not translated into deepseated life-changing worldviews.

No comments: