Great Expectations: What’s In a Theme, Anyway?

By Tan Jun Xiang (14S06C) and Bryan Chua (14A01A)

It is everywhere we look: from the massive banners festooned on the parade square to the promotional booklets handed out during Open House. Yet to what extent do we really understand and appreciate the theme that supposedly charts the very direction of our school for the year ahead? In spite of the great meaning and value such themes hold for the school, they have hitherto been little more than decorations on our parade square, left in plain sight but going largely unnoticed and unappreciated.

Close to seven months after the theme was first unveiled this year, it has yet to gain significant traction with many Rafflesians. A quick survey conducted on a small sample of 50 Rafflesians found that a majority of respondents were unimpressed by the theme this year, with two-thirds of the respondents indicating that the theme was “not meaningful to them”. When asked about what they thought about this year’s theme in general, responses ranged from an utter lack of awareness (“What? You mean this year’s theme is Great Expectations?”) to general puzzlement (“Why doesn’t the school just tell us what the theme is actually supposed to mean?”). Among the students approached for the survey, more than 15% were unaware that “Great Expectations” was even the school theme for the year, let alone what the theme actually meant.

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This year’s school theme, as featured on the school website

 So, for starters, what does the theme actually mean? As stated on the school website, the original inspiration for the theme came from a staging of the play “Great Expectations” by Raffles Players in 1975. Faced with the departure of two key teacher-advisers , they made the bold move of eschewing the traditional Shakespearan play and staging an original, adapted version of the great Victorian classic “Great Expectations” instead. The musical was subsequently presented to a national audience comprising students from different schools, where it turned out to be a great success. In this respect, the theme serves to pays homage to their ingenuity and resolve in the face of adversity.

However, the theme itself is an odd choice given the actual meaning it seeks to convey. The theme draws heavily from two renowned novels written by Charles Dickens: Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities. The latter featured one of Charles Dickens’ most famous lines “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, a line which was adapted into part of our school theme as “It was the best of times, and it’s still getting better”.  Ostensibly, the quote signifies our drive towards continual progress and improvement – an apt reflection of our school motto, “Auspicium Melioris Aevi”, or “Hope for a Better Age”.

Yet the meaning of the quote as originally intended by Charles Dickens is nothing like the actual message the school is attempting to convey. The famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was taken from the opening paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities”. The deliberate juxtaposition of the two extremes serves to highlight the coexistence of great prosperity and poverty in London and Paris – a theme that later served as one of the central tenets of the entire novel.

By alluding to this literary quote, the school may inadvertently accentuate the divide between RI and other schools around Singapore, highlighting the schisms that have long existed between so-called “brand-name schools” and other lesser-known schools. This could easily be misinterpreted by some as asserting our school’s superiority over others (an opinion held by several Rafflesians we surveyed), and is certainly not an impression we would hope to give to incoming students.

But of course, it would be unfair to expect every prospective parent or student to examine the theme in such literary depth. To the average newcomer who takes the theme at face value, what would “Great Expectations” connote?

For one, such themes are often employed during Open House, and tend to make up a large portion of a 12-year old’s first impression of the school. When taken literally, the theme basically seeks to remind anyone wishing to enter the school that they will face “Great Expectations”.

Admittedly a realistic picture, but nonetheless hardly a draw factor for a typical 12-year old student choosing the right school in which to spend the next four (or six) years of his life. It is both perplexing and unfathomable that as the national education system looks to shift away from the stressful school environment that has become so characteristic of our nation, our school seems to be moving in quite the opposite direction.

Reminding students of the great, often insurmountable expectations that come with being a “Rafflesian” is no sure-fire way to keep our students on their toes and constantly striving for excellence. As far as personal experience goes, the opposite effect is far more likely. For the average Rafflesian who is constantly bombarded by the need to excel in pretty much all aspects of life, the relentless push for excellence might well be the impetus for students to give up entirely rather than trying even harder.

In a bid to better understand the thought process behind the conception of the theme, Raffles Press corresponded with Mr. Dominic Chua, the Head of Department of Communications, Alumni Relations and Advancement which was largely responsible for coming up with the theme. One thing that was brought up was how the theme was intended to have “different layers of meaning” and to “mean different things to different groups of students”. Mr. Chua described it as a “theme that works when there is discussion about it”, an opinion we wholeheartedly agree with.

When asked about the meaning behind the theme, Mr. Chua mentioned that the theme was trying to “do justice to all these people who’ve come to this school and gone on to do pretty significant things and serve Singapore in many ways”, and the difficulty was in “striking the balance between selling the school short and … not presenting a prideful or egotistic image of the school”.

We cannot help but wonder then if more could have been done to convey this impression to the student population. For a theme that celebrates an entire 190 years of our school history, there is remarkably little mention of it throughout our Rafflesian corridors. Though it is not a bad theme by any means, it joins a long litany of themes that have been let down by poor execution and a general lack of resonance within the very student population it seeks to represent.

In the future, it might be worthwhile to consult students during the drafting stage of the school theme, according the student population a keener sense of ownership and pride in their own school theme. Coming up with a meaningful theme that everyone can appreciate is no easy task, but it is definitely worth working on if we hope to create something that the entire student population can rally around.

At the end of the day, the large and expensive banners purchased by the school every year really don’t matter all that much; what’s truly important is not how prominently the school themes can be displayed around the school, but how proudly they are emblazoned on our hearts.

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