Knowledge Pursuit

I don’t have a knack for criticizing things I have learnt. Most of the criticisms are learnt from other books or articles and then reproduced in my own words when they are deemed consistent with my logic. The same is very true for economics – sometimes I discover an enlightening piece of critique, which I go on to extend its analogies, examples and finding more evidence to substantiate its claims. Other times I reject it with a joke about its relevance and decide that there are lunatics around the world anyway. That being said, I seem to form a double standard when I meet with something prescribed in the holy document known as the ‘syllabus’. Just as the responsible, unquestioning syllabus-following teacher, I suppress any doubts I have about the knowledge to be passed on to the next generation and blindly follow the examiner remarks made by UCLES.

Lately, I have begun to wonder if I have been doing the right thing. No doubt my abilities in Sciences and limited scope of exploration in the field has empowered me insufficiently for the duty of pointing out the mistakes of our mentors. I did, however, point out problems with the knowledge we were taught when I was doing Primary School sciences because I was really interested in them in the past. The discouragement I got later (teachers told me to ignore my outside readings) played a rather critical role in limiting my personal exploration. Yet in the field of Geography, and perhaps also Literature, I have been constantly encouraged to explore and challenge the limits of analysis of the ‘experts’. Teachers welcomed fresh perspectives on old issues, exploration of new interpretations on old poems no matter how well-studied they have been. In retrospect, these great teachers I got were more of exceptions than rule. But I guess I have been lucky.

More than 20 months ago, the subject of Economics trotted along into my life. It is a wonderful subject that intersects several disciplines that I have always been interested in – Moral Philosophy, Social Issues, Multiple Agent Interactions (or Social Networks as I used to know it as), Anthropology and perhaps even Logic. Some say it’s ‘common sense made difficult’ but the dynamic nature of what truly constitutes common sense in today’s world makes theorizations of this social construct rather vital in our study of many other things. The tools of Economics, ‘Marginal Analysis’, ‘Demand & Supply Curves’, and convenient assumptions of ‘perfect rationality’ & ‘ceteris paribus‘ came to me easily because I knew what the subject seek to study and thus the things it needs to get models working. As a social science, I expected a degree of self-exploration bestow upon me by teachers that would be similar to that of Geography. I expect fresh analysis in the subject, previously unexplored to be welcomed and heralded as an indication of precocious abilities. Yet truth have been otherwise since I was connected into the Economics circuit in the Academia. I am not sure whether this is restricted to the rather closed education system, merely my College, or that it applies to the whole of Singapore (though I am very confident it doesn’t apply throughout the entire field itself globally – or it should surely have crumbled quite thoroughly).

When asked to cite factors of a particular phenomenon, or concept (such as demand), an answer that is not previously laid down would quickly be dismissed as implausible, irrelevant or at best, insignificant – true common sense was never evoked in the process. Just take for example the concept of demand. All factors of demand (as well as its elasticity) have to be non-price. I have, however, decided to evoke common sense and realized from this small-scale activity that the concept has to be much more complex than it is currently practiced. Say the demand of a good starts rising and rising because of a non-price factor initially. We have learnt that this will merely caused translation of the demand function. But thinking about it: Won’t the changes in units of the y-axis have any effect on the elasticity? In other words, if demand for something rises (say because of fashion), the elasticity will also change once the price starts climbing. In actuality, changes to demand is not so simple and changes between elasticity and the function itself cannot possibly be isolated concepts. If such fundamental common sense is not even expected of us, how can students, or even teachers be trusted to analyze concepts that involves even more variables. Ceteris Paribus must be challenged sufficiently and not ignored. I have seen economics teachers highlighting that Ceteris Paribus is not a significant thing to question because it is hard to quantify changes in the real world.

Yet these discussions I attempted above would be easily considered heresy in my classroom or lecture theater. At best, they are thought to be ‘divergent’ thinking that should be left to the break-time discussion and limited just to that time. When examinations come, be prepared to fail if you attempt to explore these territories charted during coffee breaks. I have come to realized, that our education promotes nothing close to the pursuit of knowledge. It merely tries to ‘train’, ‘instill’, ‘inculcate’ (do note that other synonyms includes ‘brainwash’, ‘persuade’, ‘coerce’) people into model agents that would promote growth in the economy and possibly stability in the society. Thinkers can just suffer similar fate as Socrates or Galileo Galilei. Education systems did not progress beyond the ancient times of Church’s reign although social cultures did. I therefore, disagree with the idea of having an education system that teaches beyond the 3 ‘R’s (wRiting, Reading and aRithmetic). Schooling and the pursuit of knowledge should have little to do with each other besides the fact that the former leads to (or at least allows for) the latter.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. – Mark Twain

I didn’t have the intention of using the quote but it just seem to fit into today’s entry so nicely. But there’s one thing I cannot agree with Mark Twain in the quote. It would be too kind to simply tolerate the nonsense that our schooling is doing to us.


  1. The 3 R’s? Why not just call it “RAW” education. Its not really an education in a sense, since all it does it Reading, Arithmetic, and Writing.

    TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) are fun, IMO.

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