Ain’t nobody know Asia better than Wallace, Durand and Gibson.

In this very special episode of The Line, the tai tais host a salon in Singapore to discuss the educational arms race and whether it’s actually counterproductive. Listen in to hear a variety of expert perspectives, but also for reassurance from people who’ve been there that when the world does end, your children will in fact survive.

Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day, while you do your ironing or whatever.

Here’s an excerpt:

Gibson:

There’s a quip about how in the Seventies parenting was about getting your kids fed sometimes. Nowadays, however, being a parent is like a performance art with self-inflicted KPIs. Choose your poison. Is it because there is too much information leading to anxiety about the right way to raise a child? Is it because of the loss of the village? Is there too much judgement about what it means to raise a good child? Like the Upper East side Manhattan corporate wives who live vicariously through their children’s achievements, who are we parenting for? Are we parenting for the kids or for ourselves?

Nadine Yap (digital media and social entrepreneurship product strategist):

So, I grew up pretty scheduled. I did gymnastics and track and field. People keep asking me, are your kids in gymnastics too? No, I actually don’t recommend competitive sports at a young age, unless it really comes from there. But I feel that when you look at the demographics of Singapore, when we were growing up, our parents here, only a small percentage went to university. Our own generation, it’s a quantum difference. The options have multiplied. It becomes very difficult to pre-emptively choose something for your children. You want to keep as many doors open as possible. It’s hard for me to step back. On the one hand you think, yeah, a little bit of extra help wouldn’t hurt. I don’t regret having worked really hard in childhood. On the other hand, I think why not leave her [Nadine’s daughter] the choice, the option. There are so many kids who can’t have playdates with her because they are too busy having tuition.

Gibson:

Does giving her the choice mean she would be unfocused? Does she have a passion? Is passion important?

Nadine:

I mean, I would say at this age, she’s a little unfocused.

Gibson

Why do we expect our nine-year-olds to have focus?

Sarah Ichioka (Hon FRIBA, The New Intentional Communities Project):

I think one of the big experiences that has changed from our cohort is this idea that the Internet has brought, along with other facets of globalization, that every option is open before us, just like twenty-somethings have this idea that every possible mate is an option for them now, probably to the detriment of being able to establish relationships with the fantastic person in front of them. Once you have the feeling that every option is open to you, you feel you should maximize your potential. And correspondingly, your competitor group now becomes everyone, even a middle-class family from a third-tier city in China.  Whenever there is a technologically-underpinned period of tremendous social change, the elites will try whatever they can do to maintain their position. There has been interesting research out of the Brookings Institute recently, which applies not just to America, about the upper quartile using every possible weapon in their arsenal to maintain their position there. The Brookings term is “dream hoarding,” which keeps other families from progressing.

Gibson: 

In South Korea, the richest families spend nine times as much as the poorest families to get their kids into university.  The saying in Korea is that you need three things; father’s wealth, mother’s information and child’s stamina, to get your kid into a good university. I think that’s quite reflective of what’s happening elsewhere.

Maya Thiagarajan (educator and author, Beyond the Tiger Mom): 

I think one of the questions you asked that struck me as particularly relevant is, what are we parenting for? What is it that we want for our kids in the long run? As a high school teacher, I see anxiety levels that are really high. You wonder what is the goal ultimately. Is it to get into top universities? Is it to raise kids who are happy? Is it to build a more humane and just society? Is it to help our kids understand who they are? I think the larger question is, are we forgetting why we are educating our kids to begin with?

Gibson: 

Why are teenagers anxious?

Maya: 

I think college pressures are definitely a cause. I think that with all the technological changes, like you pointed out, kids are hyper stimulated. Too much information can be anxiety inducing, particularly for a teenager. It does feel like you are in a global competition as opposed to the kids next door or the kids in your classroom.

Nadine:

There’s not very much emphasis on the life well-lived. There’s so much lauding of the excellent. Now our kids have us to live up to in a way, so they fear disappointing us. That’s a very strong fear I think.

Maya: 

And peer pressure. I find a lot of the pressure is coming from a society that is continuously telling them that if they don’t do X, Y and Z, they are failures. I think it’s such a culture of anxiety. The opposite of anxiety is possibility.

Nadine:

They don’t know what’s possible. I go back to [her alma mater] the Raffles Girls School, I give career talks. I tell the meandering story of what I’ve done. I did sociology…It’s not a lawyer, become a counsel, go work at a bank, then retire before you’re 40. One telling question a kid asked me is, “OK, you seem to have had a relatively serendipitous life, quite unfocused. Why are we studying so hard?” Nobody said I didn’t work hard, but I think maybe the difference is that you are studying hard because you are afraid of something somebody else told you to be afraid of.

Sarah: 

I don’t know if I can ask a personal question, but how much debt did you graduate with from university?

Nadine: 

Not a huge amount.

Sarah: 

Because I think that was another generational shift that was obviously a huge campaign issue in the UK most recently, on the Labour Party platform, and in the US. Even students with parents who can afford to pay some of their tuition are faced with coming out after three to four years with multiple financial obligations. If they were to go follow their dream of working in an organic farming start up, they would be looking at forty years of debt, whereas if you follow the lure of the Wall Street recruiter–I know many friends who pursued those careers because they were from backgrounds where they had to shoulder a lot of personal debt for an Ivy League education and that was the way to pay it off, and once you are on that treadmill, you have a certain lifestyle that you want to maintain etc. So I think debt and the price tag of private education is a huge influencer on anxiety with real reason.

Durand: 

Well, we are lucky to have with us here tonight the artist Mamakan, who can speak to the Scandinavian system of education that we’ve all heard so much about.

Mamakan (artist, Treasure Island 2017 at National Museum of Singapore and GastroGeography 2016 at Singapore biennale):

Coming from a country where everything’s free, paid for by the state, this whole tuition system really bothers me. I grew up going to whatever school is close to you. At one point, my family lived in a place withe three bands of income. There was a beach area with high income, a middle area and a poor area. I remember visiting a kid from the poor area, and her house was almost made from cardboard, and that was normal, and I felt sorry for her. I tried to make her come to the local disco, some kind of rescue thing which was totally silly. We had that exposure—it was normal. We grew up with all sorts of people. We didn’t have exams till we were sixteen. There were a few tests once in a while that nobody cared about. I grew up not making any homework. The beautiful thing about that is you grow up doing what you love. I spent all my free time reading newspapers and taking photographs. Today in my art work, I do fine art photography and installations, using social commentary in my work. I used my childhood for doing what I am today, and I think that’s maybe why I am successful, because I spent all those years doing what I love…Until somebody said, but no you also have to make a a living, and I spent a few years in the corporate world trying to do that, and I wasn’t very successful! What I’m trying to say is that I think that most parents are missing the big picture. Some of those wandering years, I spent in future research, and with the AI revolution that’s coming, there’s only three things that kids need to be good at. One is empathy because that’s the only thing that machines can’t be good at. Yet. Apparently some forty percent of Japanese want to have robot wives. Creativity is very important, because machines are not really good at that. The third thing is the wild card, that is if global warming goes completely crazy, which it will, and we’ll all have to be foraging and living in rudimentary conditions. And none of those three things are taught in schools. None of them.

Sarah: 

Building on what Mamakan said, I think when you look at the Scandinavian model, it really highlights how the majority of transatlantic anxieties around preparation for higher education is based in the neoliberal system, and which conditions us to perform as individuals in competition and with very little safety net. So you can’t fail. If you’re relying on your child to provide for you in your old age, of course you’re going to drive them to the lucrative job they can succeed at. Whereas in the Scandinavian model, because there is that broader social contract about supporting people, there is more room to let people fail. It’s envisaged more collectively. I really wish that those of us who are parents would use that as a catalyst to find solidarity with others to look at broader systemic change, as opposed to purely looking at our own pathway.

Nadine:

It’s also a very narrow view of what it means to be successful.

Societally, as well, I’m also giving people a hard time about how maybe unconsciously condescending people are to less well-educated people and people who aren’t as well off. I think all of that needs to be restructured as well.

Durand:

Well, as to your point about neoliberal systems, we are lucky to have three people here who were educated in the communist system, so maybe you can give us your perspectives on what that was like. Was it very competitive?

Madina Khamitova (management consultant turned florist):

What I would say was we really had a happy childhood. We were all equal, and there was no pressure from anyone to be better in consumerism. There was no way to portray yourself as better with the physical things. You had to be either smart or physically fit or creative. Just showing your insight rather than showing artificial success.

Jana Sehnalova (fund manager):

It was a world of no expectations because the opportunities were limited or capped. 

If you live in a system that kind of cheats on you, it gives you a greater ability to be creative, because you need to find your way out of this framework. For example, if you wanted to travel but you weren’t allowed to, you had to cheat the communist apparatchik. That allowed you to be creative in any sphere of life. Interestingly enough, the best literature was written when we didn’t have freedom of speech. As bad as the communist system was, it gave people who wanted to differentiate themselves greater opportunity to be different. It’s harder now than back then, when we were living with certain barriers and limitations.

Medina:

Yeah and I think the most important point from that is that people were doing it not for money. They were doing it just for self expression.

Jana:

There was the thirst inside people to prove it to themselves that they could have done something slightly different than what the prescribed framework was.

Veronika Khan (tax lawyer):

I think the difference between our parents’ world and our world now was much more dramatic. And they were trying to prepare us for the future but they could not expect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the change of the whole economy and political system, but still we survived.

Durand:

I think that’s a great point, that we can’t anticipate the future. I can’t imagine a more dramatic change than the one Veronika just talked about.

Jana: 

In a way it prepared us for hardship because we were never living with a silver spoon.

Medina:

We don’t know if our kids will be prepared to withstand the things that we experienced in our life.

Sarah:

I think that whether you’re looking with clear eyes at the global situation, the environment that our children are going to inherit, incorporating both environmental destruction and technology, one thing that we can try to incorporate into our kids lives is flexibility and comfort with difference and change. I know that’s a neoliberal thing, that you have fluid modernity, you have to constantly change and never be one fixed thing…and one way that can be achieved is through working as hard as we can to ensure that the education environments that we are participating in, that our tax dollars are supporting, cultivates diversity. When I was thinking about this event that is the one thing that I am most grateful for in my education.

I do feel that my experience, like Mamakan’s, of going to school with such a range of people, where you couldn’t assume necessarily that their parents did the same things yours did, has in some way enabled me to be comfortable with a wider range of people from a wider range of places. And that’s what I would hope for my currently very young children, and that’s what I’d like to pursue and that’s what I’d encourage others to pursue for theirs.

Maya:

I think that’s interesting because there are very few school districts in the world that are that mixed. I taught in three public school districts in the US, and they were all racially and economically homogenous. There was almost no diversity, and even in Singapore, which is supposed to a meritocracy, the elite schools here tend to have a very elite demographic, very different from one generation ago, and certainly private schools, just the price tag makes it economically homogenous, even if it’s racially diverse.

Nadine:

What’s the experience of scholarship kids at UWC [the United World College of Southeast Asia, where Maya formerly taught] ?

Maya:

It’s a very small percentage. First of all, they are only in the high school, and I think they tend to actually spend a lot of time with each other because for them it’s a tremendous culture shock. I honestly think that the biggest issue when I look at students is not race, although race is what’s talked about, but class. It’s the socioeconomic divide. I think it’s easy for elite kids to cross racial divides but it’s much harder to cross those class divides.

Nadine: 

I feel like teenagers nowadays are really stressed because we feed them a constant diet of, “Ok here’s the stairs, I’m helping you go up the stairs.” And we don’t let them fight their own battles and discover things for themselves. At student orientations, they actually have to tell parents to not save their children. If they leave something at home, don’t bring it to school, don’t have the maid do everything, give them chores to do.

Gibson:

So kind of letting your children fail in a way. That was an article I was reading about letting them not achieve certain things so they learn to be more resilient.

Sarah:

So this is where diversity comes into the picture, because that’s already showing —coming from such a place, which I share, of incredible privilege—that you have to let your children fail. If there is a way to diversify the school system, it’s just as good for the parents as well to have a bit of perspective on the range of challenges families might be facing. 

Maya: 

Yes, because it’s such an elitist statement to say we want our kids to somehow experience hardship, we want them to fail, because they are in such a cocoon…it’s a symptom of elite distortion.

Sarah:

I feel like in the same way that we’re destroying the environment because we don’t see it as part of us, although we are totally part of it, when we disadvantage others in our society we don’t realize that we do that because we can create the illusion that their children’s future is not fully integrated with our children’s future.

Durand: 

The thing I’m finding interesting listening to you all speak is that clearly there are a lot of benefits to the child growing up less privileged. More grit, more resourcefulness–Jana mentioned the Czech example. So I sort of wonder, having seen that, why are we protecting our children from that experience? Why are we so scared?

Maya:

I think that word is exactly it. “Scared.” There’s a lot of fear. I actually have a lot of empathy for parents. When I interviewed parents for my book—I interviewed middle and upper class parents–and there’s so much anxiety about their kids’ futures. They are trying to do what they think is the right thing, and the system is telling them you’ve got to do well on this exam in order to get here and there, and so it’s a peer based system, isn’t it?

Karen Yeoh (social entrepreneur):

I just want to add, I think in the Singapore context, I just went to the National Youth Council, and this is a government body, and they had a survey that came out. I think one of the stressors—and this is why parents are always pressurizing their kids–is because they are not depending on their kids to take care of them now. If you ask a lot of parents, they don’t, they are just worried their kids cannot. If you go to the Central Provident Fund calculator to find out how much you need to retire, it was one million a few years ago, and God knows, it’s five million these days. And I think there is that sort of pressure, and kids feel that they may have to do that lawyer, doctor job even if they don’t like it because they don’t know if they can get a place of their own or pursue their aspirations. It’s quite disheartening.

Sarah:

And we’re social creatures. Except for the few brave souls, we do tend to want to do as the “sheep” in the title you chose, we do tend to want to do what our peer group is doing. If they’re not letting their kids fall off the playground, and if they are staring at you if you’re letting your child fall off the playground to learn grit and diversify their microbiome, then of course you’re not going to do it, right? But what’s interesting on a positive note is that things can change really quickly. We had the example within very recent lived memory of this very different system, not to romanticize it, that produced loads of healthy, functional people.

Durand:

I want to ask the people who grew up in India who may have had somewhat similar experiences as Singapore, very competitive.

Anu Shenoy (management consultant):

So yes, I had a bit of a tiger mom. It was all about studying, if I didn’t do well, if I wasn’t among the top three in my class, I would get punished, and now I struggle, because I want something different for my daughter. I do not believe that the current system of education and the whole factory way of bringing kids up is going to be suitable or make them fit for the future.

And I have the same question, what is success, how do we define it. Is it too narrow?

The problem is twofold for me: one, is where is the example, what can I follow, how can I be different and what kind of parenting can I do? How much ever I try, what is ingrained in me is what I saw my mom do and her peers do. So it’s tough to break away from that. I try, I succeed a little but also struggle quite a bit. The second thing, there are lots of people out there who believe in what I do too, but who might not go to the same lengths as me, or might go further. A lot of us are so busy with our lives, we can’t pull ourselves out and think what are we going to do differently? So the easy way out is to just follow the crowd and tweak a little here and there where it’s easy.

Nadine: 

Well, you know, are we raising sheep or are we sheep?

Regina diBenedetto (banker): 

Well the thing is, it’s like our children are not an experiment. So it’s very difficult to get away from the mainstream, because we may be drawn to it, see the pros and cons of it, but these are our children, and I think it’s innate in parenting that we want to prepare them the best that we can. So perhaps it’s about a balancing act, maybe not feeling pressurized ourselves to move away from the mainstream to prove any point, but to follow along the mainstream, but make sure along the way that we give our children perspective, let them see another way. Let them, within this mainstream have some room as well, and provide them a framework and some guidelines, but don’t pressurize them on top of that. So let them go through these school systems, but also if they are deviating from the mainstream within that context, to allow them to do that and not try to bring them on track or create a rigid framework at home. Maybe it’s a balancing act between the system and how we let them maneuver within that. Because I don’t want to put my kids in some experimental school just to kinda see how it goes. I think that’s expecting too much of parents as well.

Maya:

I also think that as an educator myself that it’s good for kids to study and learn and have some discipline. So that it’s not as though we need to throw out so much of what schooling is about as well. What I find about my own students is that I would love for them to be motivated by the learning itself, so that if as parents you could focus on learning as opposed to just the scores—that little shift is important. I wouldn’t say what’s bad for kids is to have academic pressure or to learn something. Those things are important. And they learn a lot from that—and learning can be satisfying and engaging. Kids and parents shouldn’t think of studying as something bad or negative, or assume it’s pressure. I certainly found learning enjoyable myself, and so you’d want that for kids. So moving away from the intense focus on scores, to the idea that learning itself is satisfying.

Sound by Maggie Bigelow.