A friend was applying for an American university and asked me to help him with his personal statement. The following ensued:

“The question says to write on an issue of local, personal, national, or international concern and its importance to me. Any ideas?”

He produced a notebook and on each page was a mind-map on trending topics. International terrorism, the rise of China, climate change were in the mix. It looked like a standard list of pretty much what is happening in the world.  All that we had learnt in school.

“I can probably relate the rise of China to Singapore since Singapore has to cope with a more assertive China in the region. And probably talk about terrorism since Singapore being an international hub is vulnerable…”

I felt vaguely uncomfortable listening to him. Something was amiss.

“But how are these issues important to you? I mean, yea, these issues are important. But why and how are they important to you on a personal basis? How is it important to you as a human being, as a person?  ”

 At these words, we both stopped stunned, as both of us slowly understood what I spurted out. After that meditative silence, my friend spoke.

“I have a feeling that education has taught me all about this world, but nothing about myself.”

And I felt immense, immense sadness.

For my friend was no simpleton. He was, objectively speaking, one of the most accomplished of my age in Singapore, perhaps easily in the top 1 percent in my batch. His paper record is impeccable – Straight As with a Higher 3 paper distinction, leadership in the student council, team captain and national champion in his sport, and an assortment of various awards and book prizes. Now a scholarship holder and an officer-to-be in the army… He was by no means one of those whose success is limited to the academic; his paper credentials suggest a more than holistic education.

But now, he has just confessed that education has not… even made him a person. He was akin to some inchoate concept of a man, some aggrandization of trophies, some hollowed husk of purposelessness. 

I slumped in my chair, for I had never heard such a damning statement on our education system.