The bald truth of education

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By Alfred Dodwell

What does a shaved head mean to you?  Prisoners have to have their heads shaven. In Singapore, the first steps into national service are usually accompanied by having the hair cropped off. Some religions practise it as a ritual or as part of fulfilling a sacred vow. In the early days of Singapore, we had a campaign, ‘Men with long hair will be served last’. Needless to say, a bald head was the preferred choice.

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Who knew then we would be splitting hairs over shaven heads? There has been a right royal rumpus over a broken promise, a breach of school rules and five bald schoolgirls who had their heads shaved for a worthy cause. The heated debate has thrown up an array of questions that can be summed up as whither Singapore, whither education?

It all began with the Hair for Hope event organized by the Cancer Foundation of Singapore over 27-28 July at Vivocity. The event itself was a booming success, with long queues of people waiting to have their heads shaved, and the commendable services of  the Jean Yip group which, as the official stylist sponsor, had its many hairdressers giving of their time, effort and energy to help each and every one make a bald statement to the world.

 There were also many individual and group sponsors seeking to raise $6 million for a worthy cause. After all, one would not wish cancer upon one’s worst enemy, let alone a child. Imagine the ordeals of a child suffering from cancer, including losing hair from chemotherapy. It’s traumatic. So, the CCF’s noble purpose as outlined in their webpage: “The only head-shaving event in Singapore that serves to raise funds and awareness of childhood cancer. Every shaven head in Hair for Hope represents the understanding by an individual of the ordeals that a child with cancer is subjected to. By volunteering to shave, shavees become CCF ambassadors in helping to raise awareness of childhood cancer among their family and friends. It also provides an opportunity to garner support from the public in the form of donations. Hair for Hope is in its 11th year running this 2013.”

Regrettably, this event made the news over a promise made by five students to the principal of St Margaret Secondary School, Mrs Marion Tan, to don wigs after they shaved their heads. Needless to say, they did not keep to their promise. The principal was displeased. It made the news and became one of the most talked- about issues online and offline. It raised a lot of valid questions and people spoke up both for and against Mrs Tan.

The five girls and Mrs Tan have now resolved their difference and all is peaceful now in St Margaret Secondary. Even as the dust settles, and valuable lessons learnt, what other lesson can one take away from this?

Today, on National Day, we salute the nation, but is ours a nation where rigid and somewhat blind adherence to laws, rules and regulations is taking precedence over understanding that we live in an ever-changing world and sometimes we need to be flexible to enable our people to express themselves? We reside in a country where OB markers control many forms of expression and news is sanitized to a point where it is oftentimes deemed to be tasteless.

Can’t Singaporeans be free to express themselves in ways such as shaving their heads? Must there be restraints on that too? Is a teenager with a shaven head or coloured hair a bad influence on the rest of the school?

Perhaps it is time for the education ministry to re-look at the importance of uniforms and allow schoolchildren some level of self-expression in terms of the way they dress and choose to wear their hair. It is not unknown that many polytechnic students, given the first foray into freedom of expression, usually do take huge liberties with their dress sense and hair sense, and this oftentimes does not curtail their academic performance.

So, what is the purpose of these rules and regulations that Mrs Tan so dearly was holding onto, insisting the girls suffer the discomfort, heat and needless to say ridicule of their fellow students as they parade around school in their wigs?  Somewhere rote education seems to have won the day and creative education appears to have taken a backseat.

Today, we live in an increasingly changing world. Innovation and creativity has won over dull and boring. Even Singapore has desperately tried to become a fun place with integrated resorts and entertainment. So, is it not high time to re-look at the true sense of education and train our children to make smart choices on every aspect of their life – from their dress sense and their overall portrayal of themselves to the world. It speaks volumes of the Singapore we live in that heads shaven for a worthy cause can raise the ire of the lead educator in what is a top-notch school. Does she honestly believe that her role is purely to create automatons that look alike, dress alike and does this magically make them all alike as they transform into adults? The sad reality of education in Singapore is that individual autonomy and hence individual creativity has become stifled from the outset of school life.

St Margaret’s school mission itself states that it seeks to impart “an all-round education” and values continuous learning. Are the actions of Mrs Tan in keeping with an all-round education? Is there really room for one to learn continuously? Mrs Tan started off from a point of rigid adherence, but once the folly of her position was pointed out, she was prepared to reflect and change her stance. The girls have also to learn that Mrs Tan did extract a promise from them and they should have stood their ground then in explaining to the principal why her request was impossible to fulfil.

Mrs Tan has every right to feel let down as it is, after all, a broken promise and hence defiance. We cannot encourage our children to take liberties with laws, rules and regulations, and they must be taught that a promise made must be a promise upheld. After all, what we fail to acknowledge is that the principal was not stopping them from shaving their heads, but in a misplaced attempt to balance the personal choice of the girls and her greater role as principal and not to allow this to become an infectious copycat act, she placed discipline over the bald statement that this particular act of baldness was meant to convey.

However, this incident has clearly been a valuable lesson for us all. This has truly been a learning experience for everyone including the many who have been posting online about it, the newspaper reporters and even Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat. He said on Facebook that he was pleased that the five students and the principal had been able to resolve this impasse after they shared their perspectives. The principal clearly learnt that she must learn to exercise flexibility in place of showing blind adherence to rules and regulations. The girls, one hopes, learnt that a promise broken can understandably raise the ire of anyone.

As for the many others who had their heads shaved at Vivocity, some came with friends and they encouraged one another to do so for a good cause. This is a lesson in solidarity. Some came alone, stood alone, weaved through the long lines alone, resolved to carry out their act of shaving their heads to show their firm commitment to understanding the ordeals of cancer patients, especially the children, and they were prepared to go it alone. Oftentimes, it is hard to stick to a commitment alone when it is so easy to follow the crowd, to mock, ridicule and toe the line.

This incident, one would hope, would open the eyes of the many educators in schools and various institutions in Singapore. They should spend some time reflecting on the wisdom in the words of Minister Heng, who said: “This, then, is the real heart of education, that everyone appreciates there is a learning moment in every situation, in every decision we make, in every promise we pledge. Our Principals and teachers have a huge responsibility to help shape our students’ characters. Of course, parents play a most important role, so I ask parents to work together with our educators to give our children the best experiences and lessons to become outstanding young people of character. Because ultimately that is what is really at stake.”

So, what can we learn from this? We all make mistakes, we all break promises, and dialogue, reason, understanding and wisdom should win the day. Educators should not be so rote in meting out education and the youth should learn that they should seek to educate the educators about their perceptions and reasons for things. Perhaps it is high time to consider that uniforms could be on the way out, strict adherence to such rigidity is not doing the country any good. Perhaps it is time to go back to the heart of education and acknowledge that there are many ways to get a good education and the path should not be hard and fixed with all kinds of rigid rules and regulations.

Finally, a simple suggestion to break the mould of rigidity. Maybe the principal of St. Margaret’s secondary school should kick off the Hair for Hope 2014 by being the first in line to have her head shaved. This would truly reflect a lesson learnt and the process of continuing education, which is of course what is needed. That is the bald truth of education.

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