By Claire Yip (13A01A)
It’s been just over a week since the Dean’s List for the Year 5s’ CT1s has been put up, but I’ve only looked at it once—furtively, alone, on a quiet afternoon. This isn’t because I’m too cool to care: oh, no, I certainly am not disinterested in the Dean’s List. In fact, I am so very fascinated by it that I would pay actual money for a digital version of it so I could look for trends, take note of recurring names, or just bask in the academic brilliance it extols…from the comfort of my room.
In school, I wouldn’t, and don’t, dare linger in front of the Student Affairs Centre notice board for too long, because I don’t want people to assume the worst of my intentions, just as I do for them. I am being judgmental, yes, but not blindly so: every excuse I can think of for them—and myself—falls flat. Maybe they’re checking for their own names—but their progress report should reveal whether they’re in the top 5% or not, so that points to self-indulgence and narcissism. Maybe they’re checking for other names (friends or not)—but why so publicly kaypoh? Maybe they’re checking out the competition—but is that really “competition” in the first place? Because, unlike in universities, RI does not grade on a curve. In other words, your foe’s D will not increase your chances of getting an A.
This all makes it quite popular to dismiss the List as yet another manifestation of our grade-chasing system, but for Yun Zhen, her first reaction was confusion. “Is it like some top scorer’s list? Do they get some special reward or recognition or something? Or is it just like glory of being on a noticeboard outside the SAC?” Taking a more politically correct approach, Celeste Koh shared, “It’s just external recognition. Like exams. Why do you need that? That’s so sad.”
When cognitive dissonance fails us, however, the discordance between our desires and our values can be painful. A Year 5 (who wanted to remain anonymous) told us: “I felt physically nauseated when I looked at the Dean’s List, partly because of the people on it, and partly because I kind of wished I was on there, while hating myself for wishing that.” This somewhat explains my own guilt for being so morbidly curious about the List: it’s the antithesis of all my trendy anti-establishment ideals from secondary school. I used to be averse to any “conformity” to the “system”, which meant not studying the syllabus properly and writing irrelevant but “heartfelt” essays in exams (although I must admit that sometimes I pretended to have done that when, really, I just hadn’t understood the demands of the subject).
“[The Dean’s List] is just external recognition. Why do you need that? That’s so sad.”
But, now, it’s hard not to feel the pull of the A levels when they’re repeatedly and constantly emphasised as the main purpose of your JC education. I think I have become a willing participant in the same system I used to eschew, though I still haven’t quite got the hang of understanding what to write in exams (what a nice euphemism). Similarly, for those who aspire to devote their lives to studying, but often fall off the wagon, something like the Dean’s List—a plain, honest-to-goodness proclamation of the importance of grades—can be an inspiration. Han Jun says, “I guess it’s useful because it gives you a concrete goal to work towards, like, ‘I’m going to work hard and get on that list.'”
However, if you have been pretty good with studying all your life, you probably can embrace the List fully, along with all the other idiosyncrasies of our education. A science student who scored in “only” the 94th percentile for Biology (one percentile away from making the Dean’s List) said, “I’m so disappointed. I wanted to boast to my grandkids.” Another was similarly unabashed about his wholehearted pursuit of good grades. A Humanities Programme student on the Dean’s List for Economics told us: “During the last two weeks of the holidays, I studied every day from 7 to 11 in the morning, 1 to 5 in the afternoon, and 7 to 9 at night. You know, I’m not very smart or talented by nature; I just study a lot.”
Often, however, the distancing of time and space can bring us to a more syncretic approach to things. Mitchell Tan, who graduated in 2011 and was a serial Dean’s Lister, said: “While I thought taking pride in success would bring confidence and joy, it only brought more insecurity and despair—I would cry in disappointment or be so consumed with wanting to ‘do well’. No, the Dean’s List was something I slowly and painfully learnt to ignore because it emphasised a lie: that having exemplary results meant anything of real and lasting significance…I can tell you how many times I’ve been on the Dean’s List, what universities I’ve gotten into, but standing at the end of the JC road, my deepest thought is: these things don’t really matter.”
Each Dean’s List is taken down and filed away into obscurity, and accessible records are kept only by particularly enthusiastic students, such as one private tutor: but his account of his illustrious academic history—managing to place on the List a record 24 out of 25 possible times—is, although no mean feat, a rather unnecessary fact to put on one’s résumé. If the purpose of the Dean’s List is, however, to recognise students who have done well and inspire the rest, then it is only fitting that each List should disappear as swiftly as the next set of results comes in. The focus here is not on individual students and their glories—not on singular, distinct persons, but rather the names that make up a statistic: there will always be a 5% at the top.
Maybe I don’t want the List to be available online after all. I don’t want it to outstay its welcome. Information on the Internet is known for its impermanence and editability, yet paradoxically, it’s also known for its permanence: once it’s out there, it’s probably out there forever. Because the Dean’s List shouldn’t be a self-indulgent commemoration of past accomplishments, but instead an exhortation to students, whether on the list or not, to work all the harder, for more exams to come. And why would we want a perpetual reminder of that?