Rites of Passage

We don’t really have all that many rites of passages in Malaysia.

Each religion and culture has their own rites, sure. But there aren’t really that many that apply to the whole country.

Take graduations, for example. In many countries (particularly Western ones) high school students are sent off with a ceremony – acknowledging their effort, celebrating their success, and having someone from their community pass on a few words of wisdom as part of the graduation speech.

In Malaysia, you do your SPM/STPM, and that’s it. Yeah sure, three months later you pick up your results, but there isn’t much of a ceremony there. There aren’t any workshops, classes, or speeches on how to live as an adult. How to manage outside the boundaries of school. How to take care of yourself. Some private schools in metro areas do have proms and graduations, but not many can afford them – and they’re often glitz and glamour.

It’s not a wonder that quite a number of Malaysian students can’t deal with failure (such as the not-perfect results sheets or not getting a scholarship), or that they don’t often take risks and explore unorthodox territory. They have not been entrusted with the skills and knowledge of moving forward, moving on.

We coddle them and spoonfeed them throughout their school years, expecting them to always bow to authority, follow rules, go on the straight and narrow. Then we thrust them into the real world with nary a Goodbye, where they have to make their own rules and authority – and they have no idea where to go.

It’s not so much that they can’t think for themselves, or that they’re not able to be independent. I feel that the larger problem is that we don’t allow them to do so – we shelter them from the myriad of challenges of the world, making them believe that the world only operates on grade scales, and so they can’t deal with its complexities. It’s so alien to the tight school environment.

I propose that we introduce a Rite of Passage in school, after SPM or STPM. Something to herald their completion of 11-13 years of formal schooling. Something to give them support for the later years.

Let’s educate our students on life after school. (I did this and it was majorly successful.) Let’s give them some time for them to stop thinking about exams and try something else instead – an arts week, or a fun excursion, something different. Let’s build up strong alumni networks that support these students no matter what. Let’s provide resources for these students to tap into once they leave school.

And when the chaos of exams is over, let’s throw them a party, a celebration to commemorate their achievements – not just academic, but also personal – and their selves. Give them time to relax. Acknowledge the greatness that lies within them. Reaffirm that no matter what the exam scores say, they will still be OK. Send them off, and wish them luck.

How can we build a Rite of Passage for our school students?

Is dropping out necessarily a bad thing?

I just saw these series of ads today and, as odd as it may seen, the sentiment portrayed here rather annoys me:

I completely agree that education is important, and as the ad says, it’s good for everyone. (After all, that’s what guided the formation of EducateDeviate.) However, what annoys me about campaigns like these is the false dichtomy that they set up – it’s either school, or nothing.

Not everyone thrives, or even survives, in a traditional school setting. Most schools around the world focus on mathematical and verbal intelligence, judging competence through written examinations. There isn’t as much respect or attention given to those who express their intellengences in other ways, such as through the arts or mechanics (see Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences). For instance, in Malaysia, vocational and trade schools, as well as business and humanities streams, are usually seen as being for “under-achievers” – those who could not score well in exams. Taking up vocations or trades (or indeed, anything that’s not the Pure Sciences) by choice is unheard of, as it does not carry the same prestige as being in the Science stream.

Why have we developed this pro-Science-anti-anything-else mentality? Life consists of all sorts of knowledge and experience, and education comes in different forms. Just because someone cannot cope in the cut-throat academic environment of traditional school, and has decided to drop out, does not mean they are automatically a failure in life.

It would be better if campaigns like the above didn’t just say “dropping out is EVIL” and actually gave you concrete options for those who can’t cope with normal schooling and feel the need to drop out. Sometimes students are facing immense social issues, such as bullying (see my last entry) and can’t concentrate on education when their peers or teachers are acting against them. Some want to learn something that their school system does not offer, or even learn best in a style not offered by their schools. Some are facing major personal and family issues, such as poverty or ill-health, and need to prioritize those above school work.

Some suggestions of those options would be:

  • Homeschooling or distance education, which would allow students to learn at their own pace (is it really such a terrible thing if they graduate high school at 20 instead of 17? At least they’re learning) and receive personal guidance, which is often missing from traditional schools
  • Alternative school systems such as Sudbury Valley/Summerhill or Waldorf-Steiner, which focus on students’ democratic rights to choose their own education, as well as a more holistic form of learning
  • Vocational or trade schools – Australia is really good with encouraging and supporting trades education, providing apprenticeships and other education+career pathways without the stigma
  • Schools like the Albert Park Flexi-School which are specifically formed for those who could not function in traditional school (for various reasons), letting them learn at their own pace while still providing structure and emotional support
  • Taking a break from school, and coming back to it later (also following the “at your own pace” idea)
  • Taking college/university classes while at school – some students feel like dropping out because they don’t find school challenging enough and get really bored
  • Providing real-world experiences with education, such as internships or projects, which get them engaged in their education
  • Providing support for student welfare to cover needs that are of a higher priority than school – for instance, nutritious food, health-care, and family support

In the same vein, campaigns that encourage high schoolers (especially those from at-risk backgrounds) to aim for college need to be carefully examined to make sure they don’t make college the only option. While those programs certainly mean well, and are needed to show that college is an option for anyone (not just for a select few), my concern is that they unnecessarily stigmatize those that can’t, or have made the choice not to attend college. Not having a college degree does not doom you to a life of failure.

Many of the above options apply at the college level – personal and alternative education, taking a break (one big reason some students don’t thrive at college is because they aren’t prepared enough and just need some transition time), getting involved in the real world. As I’ve mentioned earlier, while college is certainly a form of education, it isn’t the only one.

The macro-reason for campaigns like these is that the world has been set up so that one would find it hard to move forward without some level of formal education. But is that fair? Should people be denied employment, sustenance, or personal development just because their education and life experiences are uncertified? Doesn’t this create a stigma against non-academics who have opted to learn from experience (or are forced to by life circumstance)?

In some places of the world, valuable educational experience is set at a very high premium, causing elitism and class divides – people can’t afford university, so they can’t get the paper that would help them earn more money to help them get into higher education. It’s a vicious cycle. A better solution, then, is to widen the scope of education to include all forms of learning – academic, vocational, humanistic, holistic, and so on – and create pathways for people to get involved in life and their community, welcoming all forms of learning.

Everyone’s educated in their own way, and we all need each other. Telling them that if they opt out of one form of education, they won’t succeed in life at all, is misguided and unhelpful.