Throughout the Facebook thread I was engaged in (here) – in response to his original post before it was taken down – I never did proclaim that Ernest Low was guilty of elitism. Besides pointing out that his substantiation was riddled with hasty generalisations and personal anecdotes, which were not necessarily representative, I noted that his assessment of “top” and “neighbourhood” schools, deviance (or “socially undesirable” behaviour), and the dichotomy between “positive and negative” peer influences was too simplistic.
Yet, within my wall of text, there was a strange sense of irony.
It was ironic, because I had – in retrospect – indulged in the same acts of generalisations as I had accused these individuals of. Just as it is unfair to characterise schoolchildren from “neighbourhood” schools as menaces, it was self-righteous and presumptuous to judge Ernest (subconsciously or not) for his post. In our anxiety to criticise, we committed the same fallacies we lambasted.
Never mind that he is only fifteen years old, and possibly unaware of socio-political nuances or backlash. Never mind the fact that this was a blog post, through which he was trying to make sense of his personal encounters. Never mind how I was irrationally worked up, when someone on another thread asserted that “neighbourhood school students tend to exhibit more socially undesirable behaviour”.
And so to Ernest, I apologise. I might disagree with your substantive, but there is no denying that I read your piece through tinted lenses. And I thank you for this opportunity for discourse and engagement.
Of Labels and Prejudices
These cognitive biases have no place in constructive discourse (or, at the very least, participants should be aware of them), but their presence in this context does not negate my disagreements with Ernest’s essay. While he does not deserve some of the flak he has been receiving – aside from that misleading, controversial title – many of his points should not go unquestioned.
One would be hard-pressed to disagree with the crux of his argument, that “the power of peer influence in school then dawned on me”. He had recounted how he had worked his way up from a considerably rocky start in a neighbourhood primary school, where he conscientiously sought to focus on academic competition and performance, over continued acts of misbehaviour.
The broad argument is sound, but his suggestion that peer influence per se distinguishes the “top” and “neighbourhood” schools does not quite square with reality. These instinctive and anecdotal justifications mask broader conditions, because students in different schools across the bands will not receive the same education. It is simply not true that manpower and resources are fairly or equitably distributed to the schools. This perspective also fails to take into account the observation that a student’s decisions and actions are not premised solely upon peer influence. However strong the “negative influences” might be, one cannot discount individual agency, familial circumstances, or the impact of educators in the classroom.
It was a slippery slope, when he tried to show that two boys who pick up smoking will experiment and spread this vice (or act of delinquency), which will then “perpetuate into a vicious cycle in neighbourhood schools like the one near my house”, or that “the school [will] become notoriously branded”. Instead, this could point to the multiple opportunities for intervention – which, in actual fact, are being utilised by schools, communities, and non-government associations – and how these challenges can be circumvented.
Tragically fatalistic, this point of view. And conveniently stereotypical.
Some might posit that the adoption of these labels – “neighbourhood” schools, “at-risk” youths – allow for easier intervention. That these labels and stereotypes are laden with stereotypes and unnecessarily dehumanises (or objectifies) should not go unnoticed. It might appear that we are whitewashing the differences across student groups, but we should be doing quite the opposite: to highlight that every student is unique in his or her own right, with a personal set of characteristics, complexities. There are no “neighbourhood school students”, but “students from neighbourhood schools” (on that note, aren’t all schools in one neighbourhood or the other)? Why operate within these pre-determined domians? Beyond the mere acts of “delinquency” observed by Ernest, there are narratives that are not considered, and conclusions that should not be extrapolated.
Are these labels and prejudices therefore structural? Perhaps the streaming system is to blame for the manifestation of these perceptions, but we know darned well (increasingly so, I hope) that primary-secondary students are streamed on the basis of their performance in a national, academic examination. Should we then be reminded of how we might be feeding this national psyche by internalising these labels and associated prejudices? Convinced by the education landscape we have been moulded in, for all we know, we might be creating self-fulfilling prophecies, and thus marvel when someone bucks the trend
Every school is a good school should not merely be an exercise in clichéd political correctness. As the government seeks to – slowly but surely – broaden definitions of “success”, to not just include scholastic achievements, our mindsets must evolve too. It is indeed sad that our society is obsessed with qualifications, but even more sad that we feel powerless. Evidently, with my cognitive biases on display, this is certainly a lesson for everyone, especially me.