Heinrich Heine once said, “If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world.” While it may be true that school does equip us with useful knowledge and skills, the experiences of humankind throughout history make it eminently clear that learning transcends any single building or institution. Every situation, every place, and every chapter of our lives offers us an opportunity to learn something. We learn from the playgrounds; we learn from the factory. We learn from the tough streets; we learn from the football field. Indeed, far from the four walls of school, the world is a vast open field offering us limitless scope for learning.
The world is a complex, difficult, often dangerous place where you need to take care of yourself. This is probably the lesson that most stands out in my mind. A few years ago, a student from Raffles Institution, the top secondary school in Singapore, was stabbed by a group of gangsters after he allegedly stared at them in a public place. Fortunately, he survived and recovered from his injuries, but I remember thinking that this boy was perhaps the epitome of a book-smart, street-foolish youth. One has to be careful when encountering strangers in one’s everyday life. Strangers are an unknown quantity. One should not stare at them and try not to offend a stranger, especially one who appears to be potentially aggressive. If you learn the ways of the street, if you observe the outward demeanour of different kinds of people, you will learn to develop a nose for sniffing out potential trouble, and learn which people and situations to steer clear of. Within the controlled environment of a school, it is very difficult to learn such lessons.
Even though students are still minors and naturally dependent on their parents to some extent, I believe it is most beneficial for students to take up a part-time job or temporary job to earn at least part of their own keep. In doing so, they widen their horizons, being exposed to a wider cross-section of society — people of different age groups and social backgrounds. They learn that no matter how difficult their own lives are, there are others with bigger problems and heavier burdens to carry. This helps to put one’s problems in perspective: a student might go to work feeling like her life is the worst as the boy she likes has not reciprocated her affections, but discover a colleague of the same age who has to care for her wheelchair-bound mother stricken with a heart problem and kidney failure. I personally learned empathy and compassion from my temporary work during my schooldays, to stop feeling sorry for myself and reach out to others more in need.
Exposure to the world of work also enlightens a young person on the value of money. When one merely collects pocket money from one’s parents, he tends to think that money comes easily – perhaps that it even grows on trees. After a nine-hour shift at McDonald’s, however, he is likely to feel very differently. He learns that money is usually the fruit of hard, exhausting work. He learns that the pieces of paper he takes from his parents were the product of his parents’ blood, sweat, tears — and sacrifice.
Indeed, one’s relationship with one’s family is one of the most precious things in life. We often devote too much time to our studies and too little to developing healthy relationships with our family. A relationship is like a plant: it needs to be watered, fertilised and cared for if it is to flourish. If we mistreat it, or neglect it, it will be in very poor shape; it could even die. Hence if we reflect on the way we relate to our families, the way that we treat them, we might find that we tend to take them for granted because we assume that they will always be there for us. We might find that we hurt their feelings carelessly and callously, and fail to appreciate them for the unconditional love they give us. For instance, when our mother asks us whether we would like to have lunch at home, we often just offer a cursory, indifferent reply as our minds are more focused on our friends and hobbies. If we are open to learning outside of school, we can learn how precious the love of our family is and how much more steadfast their love is than the often transient and superficial affections of our so-called “friends”.
In sum, we students should always remember that school is only the institution of formal education, one that can never fully prepare us for the life that is to come. With its theoretical emphasis and hypothetical exercises, school lessons can only go so far to teach us how to live in this world. While we should be positive about learning in the classroom, we should also seek to learn from the world and be inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action.
Copyright Steven Ooi 2013
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Note: This model essay is about 850 words long, much longer than the recommended length for an O-level essay. I just figured that since it is a model essay, I might as well give you more rather than less. 🙂
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