My conversation with Ting got me thinking about an interesting nugget of Japanese history. In the Edo period of Japanese history, the Tokugawa government structured the society into 4 classes. At the top, were the samurai (the ruling class). Next, came the peasants (who lived in villages and produced goods). After that, came the artisans. Last, were the merchants, because they produced no wealth at all.
The Samurai: A Past Tale of Riches to Rags
Why were the samurai top of the heap?
In the era preceding the Edo period of Japanese history, Japan was at war. There was civil war and there was war with foreigners, who tried to settle in Japan. The samurai played an important role in wartime because they protected commoners and secured territories. Many privileges were thus granted them at the start of the Edo period. Wise men of that time structured society for the needs of that time, and gave thus to the samurai, generous yearly stipends that would keep them in style, for doing nothing but spar with weapons all day.
The Edo period was a very peaceful period in Japanese history. Arts flourished and consumption increased. The art of war became just that - a prestigious art with no practical value for that time.Fighting produced no wealth in peace time. The samurai lived off the taxes on what the peasants produced. The peasants were illiterate and so they allowed the merchants to take a larger share of the profits when trading goods. As the years went by, it was the lowest of the 4 classes that became the most wealthy. Within 5 generations, merchant houses arose to organise trade and hold legal monopolies. The law prevented these merchants from living a lifestyle on par with the samurai but on the other hand, with inflationary pressures, the samurai (on their measly stipends) could no longer afford to maintain the lifestyle the law required them to have. There were many impoverished samurai floating around at the end of the Edo period.
Within 5 generations, the samurai had the carpet pulled from under their feet. Their society saw no more utility in paying them well for excelling at Fighting, for the sake of it. But how is this relevant to Singapore and academic success?
Academic Talent: A Future Tale of Riches to Rags?
In the 1960s, we had a relatively uneducated population. Systematic numeracy and literacy education provided a path to success. Foreign companies invested in Singapore and gave our newly numerate and literate populace good jobs, good salaries... aka wealth. Standards were low so home grown companies could not compete on the international arena. Entrepreneurs in the 1960s were numerous but few made it big because general standards were low. The path to success was to be an academic samurai. Academic prowess lead to wealth.
In the year 2012, things have changed. Social parameters have drifted and at present, a chorus of voices can be heard from all corners explaining that academic success is not everything. Lately, people are even saying that scholarships should not be awarded on grades alone - HERE. Perhaps the tide is turning and in the next 20 years or so, academic prowess will no longer be a ticket to wealth? Will we then see many impoverished academic samurai in the years ahead?
Consider further, the following.
In the year 2012, standards in Singapore have risen tremendously. Our entrepreneurs going out into the region now possess a certain reputation called the Singapore branding. Times have changed and the merchant classes are poised for success. What do these entrepreneurs need? They need creativity, risk appetite, incredible amounts of EQ... on top of some level of literacy and numeracy.
More than 10 years ago, the Singapore government had identified creativity and entrepreneurship as the way ahead. Schools were tasked with teaching students how to think and be creative. The PSLE exam went from tropospheric to stratospheric to positively errrrr... ionospheric in difficulty. All in the name of testing creativity on paper. Unfortunately, you can't LEARN creativity on paper. Hence, school teachers were exhorted to TEACH LESS so that students could LEARN MORE. Meanwhile armies of tutors rose up out of the ground like Cadmus' army of old and strove to teach creativity with paper and more paper. I don't think the students became more creative. They just practised more and more and more to the extent that by the time the exams came around, they were already familiar with what MOE had intended to be tests of creativity.
So... at the end of 12 years of schooling, our kids are just really really good academic samurai.
Then along comes Ting's children. To understand her kids, you need to understand Ting. She is an amazing woman with boundless energy. Singlehandedly, she brought up 2 boys. She cooks. She cleans. She makes cakes for her friends' birthdays. She runs a business that pays for all the above and more. The one thing Blurting could not do was what Petunia did to help Little Boy do well at exams. As a result, Blurting's boys struggled through school. Happily enough, Blurting is the sort of Mommy who loves her boys as they are... and focuses on what they are able to do. Through thick and thin, Ting believes in her kids - HERE.
And Ting dropped a bombshell into my pool of contentment. She said "When push comes to shove, my kids have the skills to make money from their hobbies. They are good with people. They are not arrogant because they have not tasted academic success too much to become proud. They are kind to animals and people. They are numerate and literate. They know the value of money and have had experience earning it in various ways."
I can truly believe that Ting's kids will make it good in the years ahead. They're both self-starters and voracious self-learners. There is no tuition for hobbies so the boys had to hustle to learn the breadth and depth of what they loved to learn. These are not the sort of boys who wait around for people to give them a job (give homework) and tell them how they will be appraised (marking scheme). These are the sort of boys who will know to hustle for what they want.... and when push comes to shove, they will demonstrate the spirit and will of Mother Ting, a non-grad, rebellious as he**, Boss of her own company.... with enough success to pay for a private condo apartment, a huge car, holidays abroad and visits to posh restaurants. That's Ting. With a massive dose of EQ to go along because you CANNOT help liking her.
Ting and her boys have the sort of never-say-die spirit that I so admire in the people of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta HERE. These are people who make something out of nothing. They are people who will survive when the academic carpet is pulled from under their feet. I can't tell for sure, but I suspect that our society is no longer willing to handsomely remunerate academic samurai for being good at Studying (for the sake of it)... hence the carpet is already starting to move from under our feet.
About Me and My Little Boy
I took a long hard look at my Little Boy and wondered. "Will he have the skills to make it in the world when the academic carpet is pulled from under his feet?" I think I am proud of myself. We lost only 3 years to the PSLE paper chase. Before that, we explored life in all its richness from cooking to guerrilla farming to selling French fries at 10c PER fry to schoolbus mates. Going forward, I will strive to emulate Ting's parenting style, and go easy on the academics and heavy on character and life skills.
At the end of the day, it really is all about the money no? I'm taking an educated bet that academic prowess will become an obsolete path to success in the years to come. This is already happening in Korea. I need Little Boy to be numerate and literate... and then I need him to learn to be like Ting's 2 sons. And that should ensure that my Little Boy will know how to hustle up a living for himself in his world of the future, no matter what carpet is pulled out from under his feet.
Little Boy wanted to start a rabbit farm and sell baby rabbits to pet shops. That was BEFORE my lunch with Ting so I offered him the choice of academic courses with an online US high school. He picked 2 modules... World Geography and Economics. When he's done with that, I think I will help him start his rabbit farm.
We prepare our children for the world they will live in.... not for the world we parents came from. In the next post, I will address how I have been preparing my kids for a future that only they will know.
Part 3 of this series of posts is HERE.