TEACHING HISTORY IN SINGAPORE: THE STATE OF THE CRAFT
A Roundtable Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society
Monday 30 November 2009, National Library Building
Opening remarks by Loh Kah Seng
Dear teachers, students, historians, and members of the public
Ten years ago, history teacher Shirley Wilton reflected on the changes in the craft in the United States. In the 1960s, she first stepped into a community college and the idealistic world of teaching and social change. She observed the ‘class struggles’ now taking place between older teachers who breathed the rarified air of the era of the counter-culture, and students of Generation X whose guiding philosophy is ‘consumerism, entertainment and entitlement’. These students of the postmodern age, Wilton insisted, possess a hunger for history, but it is for a history with no fixed answers, and in which they are not passive rote learners but active participants. And teachers have to adjust the ways they teach.
In Singapore, the situation is arguably more complex. There are struggles taking place in our classes as in the American colleges, but the defining dynamic in these struggles is not merely between teachers and students. Yes, we will hear later about the increasing academic and non-academic demands being placed on teachers. We will also learn both about the claims and distractions which are redefining the traditional role of students in our schools.
Yet, there are also other vectors of change weighing heavily on history education in Singapore. The nation seeks to transform itself into a global city. Over the course of the last two decades, this has meant an unceasing process of destruction and restructuring in the discipline. The ministry has attempted to trim the content, introduce historical sources, encourage new methods of inquiry, de-emphasise examinations, and cultivate thinking skills. Above all, it seeks to forge the young historian and active citizen. History is not the only subject so affected, but it is telling that it is the past which is strongly regarded as the pathway to the imagined future. There are more changes on the horizon, to further encourage students to work like historians, build bridges between history and other disciplines and move to a more inclusive approach in National Education. In the scale of changes which have transformed the subject, history teaching in Singapore has truly entered a postmodern age.
So, this roundtable is about teachers and students, but it is also about context, which shapes the culture of the classroom, demands of the curriculum, and consequences of policies. We have a real opportunity to reflect on our individual efforts and the larger forces which enhance or deflect them. I must emphasise that we make our presentations in our personal capacity, and they are also often anecdotal and not necessarily representative. But I think it is because our thoughts are informal and earnest that they serve their purpose in getting to the heart of the issues. At the very least, the reflections will underline what teachers and students think. But more than that, they may enable us to assess the state of history teaching in Singapore. Some of what we say may not be new but we seek to explore the issues more deeply and to explain them. The reflections may provide a platform for teachers, students, curriculum planners, and historians to imagine ways to reshape the craft in the future. We aim to return.