Saturday, September 24, 2005

Can't think of a better post title

Studying studying studying.

Should I post something up....? Guess I should. Here's an essay that I wrote not too long ago for an NUS Essay Competition. I wrote more for the experience than the prize... if you're wondering.



People are born geniuses, but a formal education ruins the genius in most of them. Comment. By Foong Tai Yong

A genius is one who has extraordinary intellect and thinking skills. For example, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is a genius in the area of political administration of a nation. Mahatma Gandhi is a genius in peaceful revolution. Warren Buffett is a genius in financial investment. A genius by this definition is not one with a high intelligence quotient, but a thinker. He is not just able to dream, but also able to do. The formal education I refer to is the highly structured, government-regulated path through primary school and tertiary education. It is meant to increase the value of a person.

Any normal person with an average intelligence has the potential to become a genius, but formal education ruins this genius in them. In the first place, formal education was never designed to bring out this genius in most people. It is a highly flawed system that attempts to make important what is measurable, instead of measuring what is important. It teaches the problems of our world today, but does not offer the solutions. It ruins the innate potential of each person to think and be of benefit to society. This essay will first show the suppressive origins of education and go on to discuss the numerous flaws which have caused the death of genius in most products of formal education. Then, it will show why current formal education is by itself impractical to the needs of present times and why it has not been revamped consequentially. Lastly, it will examine what can be done to bring out this born genius in people.

Formal education was designed to make people think less. It originated in Prussia, in the early 19th century1. Its objective was to build up a strong Prussia after its humiliating defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte. It was meant for the aristocratic class to suppress individual thought and produce a subservient force of soldiers and workers for Prussia. Soldiers and workers who thought too much would question the policies of the nobles and had to be checked. Formal education succeeded in its purpose. It destroyed the genius in most Prussians enough to make Prussia strong and united. But today, Prussia is no longer existent. The Prussian-era way of life is extinct, and so are its goals. Thus, the root of formal education is also obsolete and must be radically changed if it is expected to produce thinkers to tackle the issues of today.

Is modern day formal education different from the past? The answer is no. Not so in redundant structure and goals. A formal education still bears the following traits: a set syllabus, testing based on a single “one-size fits all” policy, and a feeble attempt at preparation for the working world. These traits are the reasons as to why formal education ruins the genius in most people for they cause people to think less. This essay will now discuss these three main traits.

Firstly, a set syllabus is flawed. Adhering to a set syllabus allows one’s education to be shaped by what someone else wants one to think. A set syllabus leaves no space for pro-active thinking, as Dr Edward de Bono2 put it. All it teaches is reactive thinking. This means that students are taught to criticize what is given to them to examine, instead of being given an allowance to explore new frontiers and formulate solutions to come up with positive changes. It is thus no surprise that many citizens are only able to criticize the government without offering solutions nowadays. After all, students are thought to criticize within the set syllabus, instead of thinking out of syllabus. This is why few critics are able to produce constructive criticism, which leads to the labeling of thinkers as negative, something which will be discussed later in this essay.

Secondly, testing is a flawed method to assess the intellect and thinking skills of people today. This is because testing is based on the fallacious assumption that all minds are alike, or should be programmed to be alike. Because all minds are alike, this assumption reasons, we are then able to assess the intelligence of everyone using the same system. We know that this is not true. One’s value should not be determined by how conformist to societal norms he or she can become, as in the days of Prussia. It should be based on the intellect and the level of thinking a person can operate on, the genius which can contribute positively to society. A single intolerant and rigid scale, as writer Aldous Huxley put it, sacrifices the interests of individuals for the average student.

Thirdly, a formal education is but a feeble attempt at preparing students for the world. This misconception is one that has been recognized by numerous educators, such as Robert T. Kiyosaki3 of Rich Dad Poor Dad fame. The great irony is that education is meant to prepare individuals for the working world, when in fact it does not. Students are taught to accept syllabus content as fact. They are labeled as less academically inclined if they are unable to regurgitate and analyze their knowledge of such a syllabus in written tests. A business-inclined student able to strike excellent deals and lead important negotiations might not have the stomach for sophisticated economic text. Yet this same student would not be able to pass his exams without memorizing numerous economics theoretical concepts which are very irrelevant to the real world of business. The genius for business in him will be ruined by a formal education, unless he is able to see that not doing too well in economics as a subject does not equate to bad business acumen.

With its numerous flaws, formal education today is by itself impractical. This is not to say that a formal education is worthless. A formal education does have many plus factors. It teaches reading and writing skills so essential to human relations. It places students in a classroom and allows students to interact. However, it simply does not bring out the full natural individualistic potential in most. Formal education thus kills the genius in students. They are taught not to think, but to accept. They are made not to formulate their own ideas, but to study the ideas of others.

Yet another reason for its irrelevance in today’s world is its zero tolerance for mistakes. Students are taught to avoid mistakes at all costs. The effects can be stifling. Formal education is structured in such a way that a minute error can impact the life of a student negatively. In Singapore for example, entry into junior colleges is based on a point system that allows a difference of two or three percentage points to be magnified into a grade difference that decides whether that person is good enough for his desired course of study. This no-mistake mentality spills over into working life and causes executives to be afraid of the possible consequences of mistakes, destroying the genius in them to innovate. Warren Buffett, a genius in investing, supports the stand that one does not need to be right many times in one’s life to succeed, for he states that twelve investment choices in his life have made all the difference4 for him. He accepts mistakes as the necessary stepping stones to success. How can one possibly learn without mistakes along the way? Students are taught to avoid mistakes by sticking to common accepted answers. This unconsciously discourages them from reaching their fullest potential, regardless of what the formal education system claims to want to achieve.

Why then do we still use a flawed educational system as the basic foundation for modern society? There are two main reasons. Firstly, governments are reluctant to encourage thinkers, for governments in general have had a history of bad blood with thinkers. Though many claim to want their students to “learn”, most also retain a dominant hold on education.

Certain critics have attributed this to a fear of geniuses that question policies and demand change. This is not unfounded. For there have been numerous cases of such thinkers causing great disruption. Thinkers and writers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have caused untold chaos with thought regarding communism, for example. However, by allowing the continuation of a system of formal education that does not encouraging thinking, the governments are losing out on harnessing the full human potential of its citizens.

Secondly, improvements to formal education have only addressed the symptoms, not the roots of the problem. Measures such as electronic-learning or advanced memory techniques, which occasionally have the educational community taken by storm, are inconsequential. They simply and conveniently build upon the rotting foundation of a Prussian-era system’s needs. Students are still not taught to think. If students are not taught to think, they will never acquire the fullest intellectual and thinking skills possible.

What modern day governments and educators should realize is that the present formal education is heavily flawed and based on obsolete objectives. If they want any improvements in modern society, as they so claim, they have to start this with a crucial revamp of the education system. They must review traditional methods of testing, a set syllabus and change their system to prepare students for the real world.

One plausible solution is to set up an independent body comprising the geniuses of today’s world and a few national-level education policy-makers. This body would be commissioned by the government to spend say, five years examining plausible solutions and new policies to encourage such thinking. They would gather the opinions of teachers and students in the process and also draw on a wealth of personal and professional experience.

It is an irrefutable fact that the formal education was created by imperfect humans and is therefore imperfect in nature. I am not suggesting that the above suggestion will create an utopian education system overnight. But it will enable the government to take the essential first steps to creating a new system which can better serve the interests of both government and society. The present form of formal education has never before been revamped on such a scale as to mend its error of being unable to bring out the genius in people. Perhaps it is time to do so now.

The present formal education system has numerous flaws. It comes from a redundant system stemming from an obsolete purpose. If governments want their citizens to become thinkers and challenge policies in a constructive manner, they have to allow the born genius in people to flourish. They can do this by teaching them to really think. Formal education by itself is redundant. What students become is affected largely by what formal education puts in them. We should work towards the nurturing of geniuses in society. The production of the next Lee Kuan Yew or Mahatma Gandhi or Warren Buffett should not be considered a random act of nature and left to chance. Put fear of failure and mindless following into students in their youth, and they will grow up to become afraid of failure and non-thinkers. Put encouragement to try new things and real thinking skills into them, and they will grow up to become innovators and problem-solving thinkers.



Quoted in essay

1. Rick Gee Compulsory Government Education, Origins and Solutions. Available at

2. Dr Edward de Bono. Teach Your Child How to Think. McQuaig Group Inc., 1992

3. Robert T. Kiyosaki. (General views found in works such as Rich Dad Poor Dad and Rich Kid Smart Kid)

4. Robert G. Hagstrom. The Warren Buffett Way. John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1997. Forward by Peter S. Lynch

Not quoted in essay

5. Capitalism and Education, A Communist View. Available at

6. Idea Group Inc. Facilitating the Online Curriculum. Available at

7. The American Heritage Dictionary


pamela said...

i couldn't have written a better essay.
it's true.
my essay writing skills are horrendous yet the A level system says otherwise.
God's grace and miracle. heh.
All the best bro. Persevere on.
Galatians 6:4

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