The Tyranny of the Product

By Ling Young Loon (18S07A)

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Maybe it’s crass capitalism, maybe it’s a testament to our ambition. Could it just be human nature? As Rafflesians, teenagers, Singaporeans, we are grossly obsessed with the work that we do. We attend laborious lectures and defy terrifying tutorials. The grind leaks into the afternoon. The clock strikes five, time for CCA. Ten, back to it on the study desk. Twelve, nights in. Lights out.

By far, no one has stopped turning the wheels. We’ve been told to accomplish – what? Some of us thrill at the push. Many damn the needles and continue sweating it. The rest prefer the periodical dose of pre-deadline adrenaline. Side effects include frizzled hair. You could finish all tutorials until your big As, and pull off a stunning triple-squared distinction on your teachers. But the question remains: what for?

My friends would hum and shrug their shoulders. Parents would clamber on and scream blasphemy. Teachers may consider dispensing a blue slip. I want to push the question a little further. But beware, this isn’t for the faint of heart:

Are we going to school to learn or going to school to get good grades?

The first one’s important, but the second is mandatory as well. I’ll answer this over the Mcdonald’s counter: “I’m taking both”. Yes – the perfect resolution to no solution – is both. That, however, occurs in an ideal world; where perfect competition exists and firms are all price takers. Last year, I swallowed sample history essays for every possible question. Throughout those restless nights, it never occurred to me that I was “learning”. I was fixated on the ends, and indifferent of the means.

“We are a culture that worships the winning result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way – learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure – aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.” – William Zinsser

Every day, we see an outbreak of restless headlines, touting the latest prize. The Straits Times reports:

Singapore students top in maths, science and reading in Pisa international benchmarking test

Skill, not luck, powers teens to RoboCup victory

Five bag SPH journalism scholarship

It seems that in our hubbub, we have internalised the latter and done away the former. In recent years, “Learning” has become a euphemism for “Grades”. It’s not a solely Singaporean thing: the world measures itself by results. Nevertheless, MOE has made tremendous leaps to counter this. They have revamped the PSLE relic to reduce the emphasis on grades. No longer do they rank students on numbers. Closer to home: the Dean’s List made its final rounds last year. The trend is hopeful.

Yet, it seems this attitude leaches into other areas of work. More and more students – and parents – clamour for leadership titles, artistic credentials, and sporting success. The pressure has shifted from school to other aspects of life. Clearly, this is no fault of educational policy. We have been given what we demanded: diverse education, diverse development. Except now, “service” becomes “VIA”, and “music” becomes “SYF”. We repackage our non-academic pursuits, deliver them to our children, and await the day we can measure kindness with thermometers.

Whenever I hear a friend wax lyrical about grades, championships, and CIP hours, my heart sinks a little. Deep inside, we are gravely concerned with our final product: the university application. It’s unsettling: the future always unseats the present. All of us are on this quest to achieve. Maybe it’s Harvard. Maybe it’s Berkeley’s school of music. “I need CIP hours for my RD.” How many times have I heard that? Our pursuits, academic or not, are meant to inch us closer to our final product. Indeed, we are all seeking something. We identify a target and we dash straight in.

Already I can hear the sirens blaring. What’s so wrong about that? Teenagers would slump into an underachieving mess if left without direction. A goal is a leash. It keeps us in check.

William Zinsser, a writer whom I admire very much, presents a new perspective: the Tyranny of the Product. The pensive Zinsser recounts how his students are swoon by hopes of Austenian styles and Orwellian prose. These grandiose visions blind them: They become so fixated on the product that they forget the process. They see no joy in an extra sentence. They see only their handicapped piece. Disappointed by the perfection expectation, the discouraged writers rest their pens in defeat. The goal has paralysed them.

Many things can be said about the tyrannical, monopolistic conception of the product. To some, their perfectionism engulfs their motivation. Others find the outcome influencing their decisions – in ways they do not want. The problem goes far deeper than an unfulfilled aspiration. As mere Singaporeans, are we entangled within this tyranny? Are our lives being run by performance? Am I doing something for the sake of accomplishment? Is our fear of failure holding us back?

Most self-help books, advocating the pursuit of success, toe this line: Begin with the end in mind. Yes, indeed, but don’t overlook the means; learn to live within the means. Often, the destination changes. We end up in jobs we never expected to do. CCAs we never knew we enjoyed. Other times, our goals are just a little further than we reach: Not all grades do us justice. Not all effort guarantees returns. Throughout rancid failures and startling successes, our products never turn out as expected. Yet the process, our process, reigns constant, duteous and honorable.

As a writer, this is my product. I take pride in its readership, accessibility, and sincerity. I take greater pride in the act of writing itself. I hope one day, I will say the same for my education.

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