SINGAPORE — A liberal education not only encourages critical thinking but can help cultivate good citizens, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Walter Theseira in Parliament on Monday (7 October), who called for more Singaporean youths to be exposed to the learning approach.
“A liberal education simply aims to educate a good human being and citizen... (It) teaches a student that the truth is something to be discovered rather than something imparted by a wise sage – that no writing statement or deed should pass without critical questioning,” he said during his adjournment motion.
Associate Professor Theseira noted that an electorate that is unable to critically assess facts could be susceptible to the “politics of fear and misinformation”, and argued that a liberal education could address such a “citizenship skills gap”. A well-defined liberal education would also allow weaker students to develop their critical reading, writing and speaking skills in a “safe space”, he added.
Beyond education, Singaporeans could also gain much from adopting liberal values of “open-mindedness tempered by critical inquiry”, which could help them deal with the complexities of a changing world, said Prof Theseira. He disclaimed, however, that this did not necessarily entail the adoption of “so-called Western liberal social or political attitudes”.
“Rather, we must accept as a society and as individuals that there is a right to question ideas, beliefs and policies, and to have one's own ideas and actions be questioned critically but respectfully,” he added.
Expanding the benefits
Given the potential benefits of a liberal education, Prof Theseira asked why more young Singaporeans are not exposed to such a form of learning. He noted that almost all autonomous university programmes here have components that expose students to critical reading, writing and thinking.
But the “most comprehensive components of the liberal education are still reserved for the elite”, Prof Theseira said. The NUS University Scholars Programme and the Yale-NUS College, which focus on liberal education, are “highly selective to ensure rigour and quality”, according to the Singapore University of Social Sciences academic.
While he acknowledged that the liberal education courses are faculty intensive and highly demanding, he argued against having a narrow focus on costs.
“What the (Ministry of Education) could do is to play the role of convenor or provide a safe space for staff from the autonomous universities to share their practices in liberal education and to send a message that the liberal education is not a luxury for the elite but, in fact, is the foundation for lifelong learning and citizenship that as many should receive as possible,” said Prof Theseira.
In his speech, Prof Theseira sought to quell the fears of “many Singaporeans” about the risk of a liberal education being “subverted for non-academic ends”.
Stating that such concerns are not new, he acknowledged that many are uncomfortable with the possibility of students being taught falsehoods and putting their ideals in action. Prof Theseira argued that this was not the objective of a liberal education.
“If as a result of education, the student discovers that some social injustice exists and develop his conviction that they have a responsibility to set it right, then that is a consequence, but not the aim of the liberal education,” he said.
Prof Theseira also voiced his own concerns in light of the recent cancellation of a course on dissent at Yale-NUS College.
“We should critically question the false dichotomy separating the activist from the volunteer, where we often treat the former with suspicion, while showering the latter of praise – both the result of putting values into action,” he said.
Acknowledging that potential educators must be carefully assessed to prevent young minds from being exposed to truly reprehensible ideologies, he warned that “we must guard against unnecessarily narrowing minds in the guise of protecting them”.
“What concerns me is that it will become difficult for Singaporean academics to examine and to teach contentious topics because the standards must always be exacting, perfect, lest one is accused of subversion, flawed scholarship or activists’ motivations,” he argued.
Prof Theseira added that expecting “unrealistic perfection” of academics will push them “towards the safe, the status quo”.
“This is the hidden danger that threatens us all. It encourages a sloppiness of thinking, a belief that it is safer to regurgitate received wisdom than to seek new answers,” he warned.
“This will be bad for our youth and bad for Singapore.”
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