What Grades Cannot Grade

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Some say the question should not be, “what do you want to study?” but “what is the change you want to be?” or “what do you want to do for others?”. Answer the last two questions, and then work backwards to what logical steps you might take at this point with the choices you’re meant to make. Looking at the big picture helps, but the uncertainty remains and makes what we call “our future” indefinitely fuzzy – you can’t be sure when you might change your mind or what revelations you may make in time to come. The learning and experiencing never stops: we may never be sure and that’s okay. This piece is in reflection of what the recent result release has meant for me, 8 days from d-day and counting.

This week began with following a friend to the “Retaking ‘A’ Levels” Sharing by the Thought Collective, a gathering of about 30 odd people in The Red Box that they also refer to as “repeat night”. Taking turns to share their stories of resilience, I could only imagine the feelings of loneliness, abandonment, humiliation and disappointment that these individuals had withstood in face of their results and a society that judges the people we are, based on the grades we receive. “I have lived with the stigma of being a ‘failure’ ever since” and “My parents didn’t speak to me for two weeks, I had disappointed them.” – Can you imagine? Who should ever deserve to judge themselves or by others to be ‘failures’? Never, regardless of grades. In an essay I recently peer evaluated for a friend, she expressed her criticism to the system that teaches us to judge one another and ourselves based on grades: “You can never grade ambition, sense of adventure and creativity”, she wrote. Growing up with excellent results more often than not, I liked to think that I was special. I was taught to believe that the future that lay ahead of me was bright because of my grades and that the relation between the two was closely-knit. I was taught, also, to credit myself for the achievement of the results – the results themselves rather than the values that I exemplified in pursuit of those grades. But as tears welled up in my eyes just listening to these individuals’ stories of bravery, I am reminded to attribute every person’s strength to what is within them instead of their external achievements. Each and every one of them were stronger for the choices they had chosen to make in times of crisis, that made them special. And then, what is truly in a grade is more than what the grades themselves can show us.

Allow me to qualify myself. I do value the strengths of a meritocracy: my share of non-fiction reads by renowned economists (Michael J. Sandel and Joseph Stiglitz, amongst others) allows me to understand the economic sense that a meritocracy makes. Ensuring that the best people for the jobs are rewarded the suitable opportunities accordingly, our economic development in modern history certainly has our religious belief in meritocracy to thank. That, though, is part of Singapore’s success story and so is the association of grades to value. In this time when we internalize our ‘A’ Level results and decide what it means for us, the decisions we make should be designed to create our own success story and no one else’s.

I’m just saying: I think grades should just be grades (as in, the assessment of our performance in a one-off trial at proving a set of knowledge). It is a race against ourselves to be better than we were and to be the best that we can be. Where these intentions have been met, the grades should proudly stand as proof of that.

Every year, there are 1200 private candidates retaking their ‘A’ Levels. This excludes the many others who courageously go back to their schools to retake JC2. We have had 40 years of the ‘A’ Levels private candidature system, which makes 48, 000 individuals who ‘fall through the cracks’, facing self-doubt, the sense of being trapped and excluded for their grades. Imagine that. Tonight, I am on a long bus ride that brings back many memories for this is the route that I took home for years while studying in RGS. One of my best lessons from my alma mater was exactly this – to value people for their verve and passion, the causes they believed in and the convictions they stood for. These are what make people people and it is with this understanding that our regard for one another becomes humane.

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