There was an age when we needed mass education to get everyone up to speed on some basic things. Civics, some basic sense of rules, laws as well as literacy to be able to perform functions as a citizen, be it to serve in the community, read public notices or just the wisdom to spot a scam. Mass education helps when the parents at home don’t have that education background or ability to inculcate all that into their children. It enable very quick uplift of a generation of people. And of course, we designed credentials, qualifications and all that to go with the mass education to certify the skills and abilities, and to use educational qualities as a means to filter people.
More importantly, those were times when knowledge and information was scarce. And schools became essentially the distribution centers of such products. Teachers were facilitators of this transfer and distribution of both explicit knowledge as well as tacit knowledge about civic behaviour, values and character. This is why the problems and tests in exams are more about what and why; less about the how though there’s attempts at getting students to ‘solve problems’. But the application of knowledge was something taken to be done later in life through work and other contexts, not really at school – unless it is a vocational institute. In any case, most of the problems defined are pretty closed ended – with right answers or model answers.
Today, learning can be done through very different channels. Self-learning through the internet is pretty straight-forward. The core skills that is required in school becomes more about developing wisdom and discernment in the information received; the taxonomy around what constitutes more close-end problems vs open-ended problems where solutions can be more multi-faceted. And because this is the case, we need to reconsider how we value the old school certs and qualifications and find new ways to test and identify the talents in our midst, as well as the fit for various different work.
Gone are the days where we can easily get people to fit into the work and job roles designed within a company. We may have to start finding the right talents to deal with the crucial problems we want to solve and then leave the rest to be outsourced or dealt with by technology. At the same time, the ability to self-learn becomes so much more important. Not only should we start giving employees time to self-learn, we need to invest into structures, environment and coaching that enables that.
Do you think that Singapore is governed mainly by fear of sticks and people drawn by carrots? That we have a pragmatic society that is often about dollars and cents? And people are following rules because they are induced by incentives and pushed away by disincentives?
If you look at videos of Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches in the past they were fiery but also inspirational. He does not try to push actions or responsibility on people without giving them a destination that is worth their while. We tend to forget this in public communications.
We tend to tell people that they can’t do this or that because if everyone does it, there will be chaos. Instead, they should be saying that when we disallow people from doing this or that, it makes for a more orderly system or design. And it allows everyone to enjoy the environment better.
Instilling inspiration can be more rewarding than trying to great fear. But we are all too anxious for success, too impatient to do that. We prefer to think the energy to wield a whip is less than providing a carrot. That may not always be true.
About 81 years ago, Dorothy Sayer, a British writer penned these words:
A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.
Dorothy Sayers (1942), Why Work
In the article, I’m amazed by the clarity which Dorothy Sayers foresaw the world post-war, with piercing critique of the economic system we have created. The economics that she was schooled in was one of observations of the market, of history and of human psyche itself.
The second world war has ended for more than 70 years now; and as predicted by Sayer, we had immediately jumped back into the business as usual, where work and labour was valued only by money. And this is why we churn out more waste our planet can scarcely handle (both in terms of carbon emissions and lots of material wastage).
Sayer’s remedy has to do with appreciating our work in a different way and valuing it more. And much of it certainly sounds like echoes of the messages around ESG, corporate social responsibility and sustainability these days. Yet she also points to something deeper, points revolving around values of work, of the things we do in society, and value that is created to serve lives and human beings, not abstracted by the market in the form of price signals.
Her full essay can be found here. I confess of course that my shared faith with Sayers help me appreciate the essay in a deep way. If you do care about sustainability and our world, even if you are not a Christian, surely some of the points she brought up should give us a deeper motivation to drive us to live in a manner that is a part and yet apart from this market system?
There are areas of our ignorance we are aware of, but there are also vast spaces of our ignorance we are unaware of. This area is perhaps where we would exhibit the Dunning–Kruger effect. It is really important for us to know and understand our circle of competence, and to create boundaries and rules for ourselves to navigate within, and beyond this circle.
Think of it as comparing a person who lives in a town for many years and know his way around it by his senses and strong local knowledge, against an out-of-towner who had got hold of a map and managed to navigate successfully to a few places of interest. The guy who is new in town tend to overestimate his understanding of the place and might make overly risky decisions or commitments as a result (eg. showing friends around, or bragging loudly about his knowledge of the best local foods).
One of the critical skills that we need to acquire especially as we are new to a space, and trying to grow ourselves, is to be able to develop not only the self-awareness but the toolkit to navigate a new space when one runs the risk of getting into the Dunning-Kruger effect. In fact, even as kids, we should already be conscious about what is happening and how we can deal with such struggles.