Do Academic Results Still Even Matter?

The value of academia seems to be more under debate in recent years. The most popular TED talk, sitting at 43 million views and filmed over ten years ago in 2006, is Ken Robinson’s ‘Do schools kill creativity?’. Just a few days ago in The Straits Times, there was an article calling Singapore to ‘Go beyond book-smarts, to resilience and curiosity’.

All these, along with the now famous stories that billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college, create the illusion that academic success is no longer necessary. Indeed, that it may be impeding students to becoming truly successful, by ‘killing’ their creativity, curiosity and/or resilience. Or what some may call being ‘street-smart’.

To which I say is a dangerous tale to tell our kids.

Being academically smart doesn’t mean you’re not street-smart.

Yes, I know it seems easier to dichotomize being ‘book-smart’ and ‘street-smart’ but that’s simply not true. Being one does not prevent the other.

What often doesn’t get lauded from the previous billionaire examples is this: they were all able to get into an academic institution in the first place. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, and Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College. They all had the ability to get to those colleges in the first place.

Most importantly, these are exceptions to the rule. The majority of successful and influential people have solid academic background. Lee Kuan Yew was a graduate of Cambridge, and both him and his wife Kwa Geok Choo were top academic students at Raffles, and both contributed so much to our society. A look at Forbes’ ‘Most Powerful People’ list for the past several years show that most of them have a solid academic background.

What saying otherwise does is that it gives students the illusion that they can just give up if they face difficulty in their academic journey. But this opportunity for an easy excuse to give up robs them of the experience to form their grit and character. To continue portraying the conversation as if a student or person is academically smart won’t be street-smart is a huge disservice to students.

Which leads me to my next point.

Being academically smart means you have to train your discipline, resilience, and ‘can-do’ attitude. All those qualities that makes a savvy, ambitious person.

Singapore’s education system has a reputation for being tough. Our education system is fair and transparent, which means that students can only rely on their ability to make it through to top schools.

It is also precisely why students who manage to survive and thrive in our education system prove that they have developed several qualities that will be useful for them in life. This includes the ability to control and perform despite being under pressure, time management skills, and the discipline to remain hardworking for extended periods of time. Students who are able to surmount the difficulties they face in our education system do so because they expect and want more from themselves. The students who go the extra mile to excel in their studies do so because they are ambitious.

In other words, students who excel academically do so because they have the qualities of those ‘street-smart’ savvy and ambitious people.

Am I saying that being academically smart equates to being street-smart? No. But everyone who is only focusing on reforming the education system to shape students into savvy, ambitious people are probably going to be disappointed.

A student’s academic journey is only a part of their upbringing. Family education is key to making well-rounded people.

People love to criticize how schools should be and how our education system isn’t perfect and are ‘ruining’ our children. The fact remains that family is the number one factor that affects how a child develops, particularly in their attitude and how they face challenges. Parents are everyone’s first and foremost teachers.

Off the top of my head, let’s list some people who are influenced by their parents’ career choices in some way: Lee Hsien Loong became a Prime Minister like his father. Michael Jackson came from a musical family. Bill Gates’ mother worked with the then-CEO of IBM who gave Gates the chance to develop an operating system for their first personal computer. I’m certain you know some families of doctors or lawyers, where the children seem to naturally become a professional like their parents.

Of course, not everyone follows their parents’ footsteps. I am from a humble family background myself. But it was what my parents taught me about character and attitude that helped me push myself through to top academic institutions locally and internationally. These which in turn gave me the chance to meet and connect with talented people from all walks of life.

Again, to maintain that the education system is the only thing that needs to be better and giving students reasons to give up in their formal education is to do them a huge disservice.

Every parent wants their children to do well, so why is it that we seem to encourage placing the whole burden of educating children on schools? Schools and the academic system are ultimately still institutions, with limits to what can be realistically expected to change. If you have friends or family who are teachers, you will likely have heard instances where parents seem to think that school should be adjusting for them and their children.

This is foolish. And it’s coming from the rhetoric that schools should be accommodating and being responsible for the whole part of educating students.

Can I call for a different perspective? Instead of trying to change an old institution with lots of bureaucracy en masse, there is a much better alternative. One that places the responsibility, but also the power, to change our children’s lives for the better back in our hands.

The simple but hard truth is that the discussion over our children’s education is missing a core component.

There is simply a limit to how much schools can educate your children to become successful people. Academia provides students with trials and challenges with rewards for top performers. It is ultimately best served as a measuring system for the youth of our society.

It is far from perfect, but there is much more that can be done on the part of parents as well. I am sure individually, parents may be wonderful, but as a group they are flying under the radar in the issue. Why not call for more recognition into what parents can do for their children? For example, more parent workshops can be promoted so that parents are given the knowledge to know how to best raise their children.

There is a lot that can be done. Parents can build better relationships with their children as their best listener and advisor. If it’s schoolwork that is getting them down, work through it with them, or find the best outside help for them. If it’s friendships and other emotional problems, listen to them and be their advisor.

If it’s cultivating curiosity and opportunities to the world outside of academics, what better way than for parents to bring their children out to where they know is best and most interesting for their children? A blooming mathematician is very different from a budding historian. Children are simply too different for there to be a system that will cater to all.

As for becoming street-smart, what better way than for students to simply hear and learn from their parents, who have more life experience than them and surely means them well?

Many successful people have parents who were their ‘best friends’ in their early years and throughout life. The difference between a child who can trust their parents to help them through, and those that don’t and feel like they have to figure everything out on their own is immense.

In conclusion, undoubtedly our education system is tough. While academic institutions, like all institutions, can be improved, they are also good for training how children should react when they face difficulty and challenges. We should also recognize that those who are academically smart generally means they have learned to work under pressure, develop discipline, and overcame their challenges by their own efforts. Those who push for the top and go the extra mile demonstrate their ambition.

The burden on developing children into mature and capable adults cannot be placed solely on the education system. A huge part of developing young people into savvy, ambitious, ‘street-smart’ people is in how their parents raise them. While I agree that school systems may continue to improve, what is missing in the general conversation seems to be the concern, or even awareness, about providing parents with the resources to help educate their children.

For our children to succeed in the future in our global and competitive world, we can’t take the easy way out and wait for institutional changes that can take ages. The academic system remains the best means for students from less advantageous backgrounds to meet top performers; it is still meritocratic if imperfect. For our children to be competitive in the global market, our students need to be academically and street-smart. So let’s start broadening the conversation on how educating our youth is a two-pronged effort from schools and families.

By Ms Cheng

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