Interview with Jenni Ho-Huan
for the Cathedral Podcast
The Cathedral Podcast was recorded 2 July 2020. 215pm. The final audio interview, to be released in Oct 2020, is different from the written interview below. I publish the written version for historiography.
Disclaimers : I don’t represent all Christians, homeschoolers who profess the same faith, nor all homeschoolers in SG. These are my opinions gleaned from my experience, evidenced based and faith based.
Jenni : Education is so prized, and so crucial. But I think most of us as Christians have a hard time articulating what education is.
Dawn : Education is an essentially contested concept. That means nobody has a monopoly on how to define it. The variations are too many. If we come to a major consensus on what education should include as a formal program, we are on safer ground for this question. So I would say that education has these components :
- A direction / what you want to achieve. Your vision.
- What needs to be learned. Your curriculum.
- Who will deliver the curriculum. Your teachers.
- Who wants to learn the content. Your students.
- How successful your students learnt. Your assessment.
I think these are broad enough to cover what education is like in most of the urban, developed world, especially Singapore, which favours clear structure and order of how things progress. Although the MOE has a vision, people on the ground feel that the outcome of our education still is about creating efficient workers for the economy. The best go to the civil service, financial private sectors and niche service providers like being a lawyer, a surgeon. Everyone else, find your lot somewhere. So when you say education is crucial, it also tells us that where you end up defines you, because the best and brightest rule and reign the country. Power and wealth are attractive. This is our fight to the top. Our children are not our prize but our prized fighters. The real prize is our desire to be admitted into powerful, wealthy positions.
And the church sorts itself via the education system too. The english speaking churches tend to be more affluent. The church goers are more well traveled, compared to say, the Filipino services. Somehow, wealthier Filipino expats are in english speaking services too. Our church services are categorised according to language and employment. And our services are efficiently run. Slow, unwieldy church services with sermons that overrun are unattractive. We don’t like it. We have planned family lunches, outings. Kids need nap time. Church needs to run like clockwork to gain approval from the congregation. If you hire a venue, you need to stop service at a certain time. The Singapore church as a whole is organised, sophisticated and efficient.
I can say our nation’s Christians are educated, according to the list I shared. And the components are set according to the state’s directions. The church is made up of mostly citizens who grew up with these directives. Are we happy with the outcome?
Jenni : What can we as Christians with a theology of stewardship and destiny bring to the conversation?
Dawn : The tension of wanting to fit in with society, to gain approval versus wanting to please God in our calling and lifestyle to Him where fitting in may not work, is a fine, daily conversation, I would say. I use the word conversation because I think that’s the gentlest, most cogent way of dealing with conflict in Singapore. Non-violent, articulate mediation. That is the Singapore Mediation Convention scaled down to the personal level. We learn to settle disagreements – within ourselves, with one another – as peacefully and orderly as possible.
The downside is you forget Jesus overturned the tables in the temple courts when he dealt with corruption, and got crucified as an innocent. You forget theology also has its violence in advocacy, particularly advocacy towards injustice. Yes, we don’t advocate violence towards fellow men but towards the supernatural dark forces, authorities that govern the world system. Yet I wonder about the effects of overturning current systems that are unjust, especially in education, systems that are not supportive of children and educator’s rights to the best opportunities. Wouldn’t those effects be offensive, even as they are needful? Would that be Christ overturning the tables, you think? And would you have a problem seeing the love of God in that gesture?
You have to look at the parts of the Bible that specifically talk about the treatment of children. By treatment, I mean the whole works. How children are valued, taught; what bible history tells us about how God thought about nations that sacrificed children to Molech; how children are not turned away by Jesus but by his disciples; Malachi’s words of turning the hearts of the father to the children and vice versa; and God as Father, longing to reunite with his prodigal children.
Then we look at education in the Bible. What was the vision of learning the laws? To replace the pagan habits of Egyptian worship that the Israelites escaped from. To learn how to relate to God and know Him. To build a nation. I mean, the law was the Constitution of the Hebrews as a young nation. You can’t change the Constitution, can you? Then you look at what needs to be learnt about the law. The law books tell us the details. For Christians, the book of Hebrews explain the significance of the details. In the beginning, the teachers of the law who taught the kids were the parents. You imagine a young nation, no buildings, no natural resources in the desert except one another. How will you hand down the values of your nation? Via your family. Your family was your first school. Then we look at the people who learned the laws – the children, the women, men, priests. Everything in their lives – their routines, temple rituals – revolved around learning and remembering the laws of God. How interesting. And how effective was this system? When it worked – when they all worked together to learn the law of God and maintain it in their lives, they saw success in wars and leadership, especially King David. When they didn’t work together to learn and maintain the law, the nation fell apart. The assessment was the rise and fall of their nation, not grades.
When you say “what can we as Christians with a theology of stewardship and destiny bring to the table?”, I think we carry the weight of learning the laws of God in our hearts. Jesus Christ, our head, summarises for us the laws of God: loving God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. If we learn rightly from history, our destiny is supposed to benefit our nation, not bring it down.
I read something a few days ago. I was looking at what social capital meant and who said it. It was social scientist Robert Putnam who coined it. In a 2007 interview, he mentioned that cultural diversity – the way we delineate our identities according to ethnicity (and more today, in terms of gender, interests, occupations, locations, wealth) – makes everyone pull away from each other, because we do not know what the other person stands for, or means. That is the short term difficulty of engaging in diversity. You lose homogenous understanding. Putnam was visiting mega churches then as part of a research. This observation he mentioned stood out for me:
“There were I think five or six thousand people there the evening I went to service there. It was the most micro-integrated group I’ve ever been in in my life. The whole 5,000 people was – it was just a definition of a rainbow.
There were – in my pew – well, it wasn’t actually a pew, because this was a basketball arena. But in my little area there was a Hispanic couple, and then me, and then a blonde, and then a Korean couple, and then an African-American couple. And everybody was hugging everybody and singing in sonnets. You know, frankly, I’m a kind of a New England intellectual and it wasn’t my style of religion. But it was an amazing experience.
…what was clear was, these people, even though they were of different races and – remember, this is in a part of the country that has experienced, and still does experience lots of segregation and not great race relations, but for that period of time some other shared identity trumped their ethnicity. They weren’t thinking of themselves sitting there as I’m white or I’m black or I’m, you know, pink or yellow or whatever. They were thinking about their relationship with, in that case, with God.”
I loved that. I’m not saying that mega churches are our answers, or religion will solve everything. I’m saying that as Christians, when we come together and focus on our relationship with God first, we can overcome the pain of navigating the differences we do not understand in our lives.
So I would ask the church – fellow Christians, especially parents and educators :
- How does knowing, making remembrance, and living out the law of Christ (because Christ is the head of our faith) help us understand the current nature of our education system? What do we need to change or overturn if necessary?
- How does focusing on our relationship on God first help us overcome the difficulties of comparing with one another, especially in a national race to educate the best and brightest?
- What does thinking upon God together regularly mean for families who struggle with conflicts daily?
Jenni : Christians are called to be in and not of the world, how does this play out when we think about education? What are the competing perspectives today?
Dawn : When I was a young teacher, single and without kids, I thought education was straightforward. You teach the best you can, with Christian values guiding your ethics, and you hope parents do their part to bring up their kids well. My treatment of students – younger or older – was only during the times I met them, either to teach or interact. I hope I would be inspiring as a mentor.
When I was teaching, married with no kids, I thought education meant parents should be more committed to learning with their children, doing homework with them and taking an interest in their lives. I thought tuition was not necessary. I thought tuition was a lazy and ineffective way out. Parents should not be kiasu. Not being a parent meant I could not understand the difficulties of parenthood. I judged parents very quickly.
When I was teaching, married with one kid, I thought education was about shaping the child’s mind. I assumed the MOE syllabus was easy to follow and to integrate with everyday life. I would teach academics in a fun way. But the truth was I had no time to teach my own child. I brought work home from school. I could not cope with my own needs for rest, and my family’s needs for my time.
When I was teaching and married with two kids, I thought the education system was nasty. No educator has time to really customise a child’s learning! I was running out of time trying to meet unrealistic expectations. If kids could not understand an issue, and were outsourced to tutors, it really meant a few things: the curriculum was too difficult for them, the teachers had classes too big to meet needs, the students weren’t interested in what they were learning. Parents who chose tutors did so because they were desperate, and we – our management, our curriculum, our skills – could not deliver the ideals of education we believed in. Everyone worked out of a mix bag of resigned acceptance and adapted resilience. We will try and try again. My own experience showed me that I also could not deliver to my own kids the learning that I wanted. I was unhappy with the system. There was no joy in learning, just doing for the sake of doing. There was something glaringly wrong with the choices I was making for my kids.
When I quit teaching to homeschool, I realised being out of the MOE curriculum transformed my thinking. For a start, I could see clearer what I had been a part of, and how being away from it helped. It is almost like being in another country and thinking about Singapore. You get a different perspective, one that you never thought of before. Homeschooling is the only alternative available to Singapore citizens because you can’t get into international schools (and if you could, you pay through the nose). The alternative is a world of learning opportunities that would re-ignite any dying passion about education.
I took responsibility over my children’s learning, when previously, I had outsourced to a kindergarten. Without having to fit into anyone’s box, I felt free to be a nicer, kinder parent to my children. I had to unlearn many things just to enjoy my children, and not associate my happiness with them achieving some academic checklist. That was what they wanted anyway – me, my time, and joy in being with them. It is cruel, when you cannot accept your children for who they are – yours – and only what they can perform for you. Children are sad when you’re unhappy with them. Why feed them unhappy memories?
I tell people, a big difference between homeschool and school is the time that you have with your children. Unhindered time to explore at your own pace. This is the holy grail environment of great education for children – for anyone – and it is elusive in the current education system that pegs our learning journeys into timetables, subjects, outcomes, grades. When you homeschool, you stop comparing. There is no one to compare with, because you’re not in a place where you have to compete for limited placements. When children’s learnings are not judged by where they end up, they feel appreciated and loved for trying.
I am not wanting schools to disappear because I think that is unrealistic. Nor am I wanting homeschooling for everyone because that is also unrealistic. I want enough choices for parents and children to feel free to love learning. Education, remember, starts with a direction. What is education for you and your family? Is it really a bread and butter issue, or is it more than that?
In our education system today, our children perform learning for our approval, but it may not mean that they enjoy doing so. I see so many children growing up disheartened and feeling unloved in the education system. They carry a sense that they are never good enough, and this unresolved tension haunts them into their future as parents. We perpetuate our own narratives. Children believe what adults tell them about them – that’s innocence for you. Do we tell children that they are uniquely created with their own giftings, but not follow up with sound educational practices that reflect what we say? Jesus Christ calls this hypocrisy. The Pharisees and Sadducees were condemned by Him for saying things that they don’t act on, but expect others to.
I see having time to learn about yourself and the world you’re in as a biblical model. For one, Jesus Christ said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Are our education yokes on children easy and light? When you slow down to be present with your children, and observe how they learn, you honour the pace suitable and appropriate for them. Whether neurotypical, special needs, large or small families, single or blended, there is a learning pace for every family that fits the family. God came down in the form of man to live among us. He modelled for us what the strong ought to do – serve the weak, not oppress them.
Malachi 4:5-6 : Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
Jesus Christ tells us John the Baptist was the Elijah to come (Matthew 11:11). We are at an interesting juncture. We are in the season in history after Elijah has come, and before the “great and dreadful Day of the Lord”. How interesting that it is God who desires to reunite families, and to turn (especially) fathers to their children. It means left to our own devices without God, we will not choose what is wise. God the Father wants to teach us, to help us remember what He instituted, that in the early days of Israel, fathers were tasked with teaching their children the laws of God. The father-teachers were obviously absent from their roles in the context of this verse. Then the prophet says that if this doesn’t work out – if we do not heed God’s voice to educate our children in His ways, to be present with them – the land would be cursed. If you ask me, we are in a prophetic time, to heed the voice of God to overturn a curse of our land. And the land is where our nation is, our home. Are parent-educators listening?
As a Christian in the education system today, you need to be very prudent with your decisions because they affect children. Whether you are a parent, tutor, teacher, principal, staff, thought leader, you have authority over young lives. Is what you advocate for right now in line with biblical treatment of children? Would the program lead to adult yokes put on young children, totally unaligned to their developmental paces? Would the structure of your program forbid children from resting? Kids need at least 4 hours of play and outdoor exposure daily. Are we shortchanging their childhood? As teachers and tutors, are you insisting unrealistically that homework – which is after work hours for kids – is compulsory? Will homework really bond the family? Why does a government agency, or any organisation, have so much control over children and parents’ private time at home? Christians ought to be take responsibility for their actions in the educational positions they hold. We are a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. What are we championing? I love my nation. My faith tells me to love God above all things, and then my nation will prosper.
Jenni : Clearly in a secular society, education is not designed to turn out faith-filled next generation. How should Christian parents deal with this, or is this a dichotomy we should address?
Dawn : I had to check it up to be sure. Dichotomy is a sharp division of things or ideas into two contradictory parts.
Remember the first component of education is the direction. Obviously, a secular society seek to create socialised, civic minded citizens. Religion is not the dominant curriculum from which we formulate language for public discourses. It never has been in Singapore since the Singapore constitution was laid down. But in Singapore, we are rooted in communities that are deeply religious. In a secular society in Singapore, we divide our work according to the roles we play. We adapt accordingly to the contexts required. This is socialisation. It takes skill and experience to read social norms.
A religious society also has its social norms. Someone who goes to a country rooted in religious practices would find it difficult to navigate. There are hierarchies everywhere. I don’t believe a religious education will turn out faithful Christians. Jesus Christ scolded the religious teachers of the day. The ones who ran the education system weren’t the most faithful, were they?
The onus of imparting faith-filled values is always on the parents. Only parents care the most for their children. Jesus Christ said so. Even the pagan parents know how to give a bread instead of a stone to their children, what more the parents of light? (See Luke 11:11-13)
The dichotomy appears whenever there are decisions to be made: do we choose God’s desired approach or rebel? For a Christian, anything that intentionally takes us away from God’s desired approach is sin. I think of Daniel in Babylon. His parent must have taught him well about faith. He was in a pagan system for most of his life yet he did not waver. He always chose God over empire.
I don’t have the answers to this. I don’t think I am a role model parent. Homeschooling has given me the luxury of time to reflect on, and face my failings. I am certain that only Jesus Christ’s work on the cross can save us. Homeschooling or any education system cannot save our moral decay. It cannot repair dysfunctional marriages, cannot bring people back to life, cannot heal traumatic divides. The best of education can provide an enriching environment for learners, which is already a very big thing. If we understand what education can and cannot do, we can make good decisions from the options available to us.
Jenni : You lead a homeschool network, most of us aren’t familiar with that space. Can you ‘educate’ us pls?
Dawn : I can give you some leads. The modern homeschooling movement as we recognise it came from the USA. John Holt, John Gatto, Pat Farenga, Peter Gray are notable leaders in the movement for self-directed learning. Raymond Moore, James Dobson, were the earlier homeschooling Christian leaders who advocated for Christians to homeschool their children away from secular, immoral, dangerous school environments where gun shootings take place. They don’t all agree with one another. They stand at different ends of the spectrum of homeschooling ideologies.
Mass education is new in the history of education. It started in the late 19th century. Previously, only the rich got home tutors – a proper education that includes all the components as I stated at the beginning of this interview. But it didn’t mean freedom for the kids. If you were born into royalty and aristocracy, it meant your future was determined from birth. You learnt what you needed for your role in society e.g. women who were born to be princesses learnt etiquette and royal duties. They didn’t have the freedom to be astronomers or barristers. They learnt what they were told. For the peasants, everyone else helped in the fields, trading or whatever opportunities were available, else natural disasters and wars killed them.
The idea of a written exam to gain a bureaucratic job by merit is very ancient. You can trace it to China. In China, education was the path towards civil service jobs. The imperial exams determined the curriculum required to take the exams, and there was no guarantee you would get anything in the end. And then the idea of written examinations to get top officers spread to the west, particularly France, Germany, England where modern universities and iterations of the education systems as we know sprang up. The British East India Company used the exams as a way of selecting their employees.
Around the same time, industrial revolution made mass education attractive because the nations that kickstarted mass education needed workers, particularly workers who were trained in specialised knowledge for the particular industries. The masses were educated for bread and butter jobs, from agricultural fields to industrial fields, to factories, offices, shops. Today, we accept mass education is a national sorting process for citizens to find suitable employment. We cannot imagine life without it. It also provides opportunities for governments to homogenise the country for social cohesion (think National Education) or social evil (see Nazi Germany).
Rich students still had access to great tutors in renowned universities to be positioned for ruling positions or culturally sophisticated labour. Customised education for the rich is always towards the position they are groomed for.
You can see how heavily influenced Singapore is by policies from the east and west. Educational histories show how interconnected we are. Everyone today is exam conscious. To take examinations out of our lives now will cause unhappiness, even if they are terribly stressful. I believe exams should be an opt in. There are other ways to determine skills and readiness. We should not tell children narratives that are untrue. If the exam is really unimportant – which I think is one way of looking at the PSLE – then tell the kids the truth, and don’t expect them to study hard for something that they are not interested in. Politicians should not tell parents that exams do not define their kids, and then act like they do in school. The message is confusing.
As an educator and parent, my aspirations are high for my children, and for children everywhere. I find the current education system limits the potential of children. The streaming in Singapore schools cut off opportunities too early. And our nation’s meritocratic education, as we know now, is not only a result of IQ + efforts. It is time to overturn a system that doesn’t work. The effects will not be pretty, but the gesture will be loving to children who cannot hope to win.
Homeschooling is a protest of some sort against the kind of divide that we see happening again and again. Children should not be sorted so early according to their stations (socio-economical backgrounds) in life defined by standardised testing, or educated in environments that are not beneficial for children’s developing, absorbent minds. You know, the more outspoken, visible homeschooling leaders are usually dedicated parent-educators, teachers, and researchers in education. They are not politicians, aristocrats, nor ivory tower researchers. They are saying, “We want something better for children. We know how children work, and we want to see the best for them.” Perhaps that is why I am drawn to homeschooling. It is customised education available for the masses. It means children from different backgrounds can access great learning opportunities.
People protest when they feel strongly about something. It is not just an intense feeling, like you crave for chocolate and you get upset when the chocolate shop is closed. A protest is a culmination of experiences, stories and results that show the established patterns in power are not working in favour of the ones protesting. In Singapore, protesting is not about strikes or hurting people physically to get their attention. We protest with our choices. Homeschooling is my way of saying the mainstream did not work. I replaced it with something else that did for my family.
Yet protesting is not the desired goal, because my new choice should not be an idol. I will end up lost in arrogance. Pride is blinding. It comes before a fall. The conversation for believers must always go back to “Lord what is your direction for my family? And what does education look like in my family?” That is a Christian posture.
Is homeschooling easy? Homeschooling is an extension of parenting. Parenting is never easy. Anything that requires commitment over a long period of time with no remuneration is a bad bargain, right? I think if your question is asking if the homeschooling community could be a wonderful, Christian led space for parents to do life together, I think the answer is maybe, no guarantees.
The homeschooling network is a loose community of parent-educators who are from all backgrounds. We agree to disagree on what we teach and the way we teach. There are 1001 curricula out there. You can mix and match. But we agree on what homeschooling is about: parents taking responsibility to educate their own. The approach will lead you to desire to understand children better, to teach what is best for them, and to explore opportunities to learn alongside them.
As a Christian, I believe God knows best. His ways are higher than ours. If He says to give children a yoke they can handle, to turn our hearts to them so that our nation will prosper, I should believe that. But if I am focusing on my children and not out there working, how does the nation prosper? Our nation’s resources are our people. Our children should grow up healthy, protected in well designed educational structures that honour their development and personhood. This helps to reduce mental illness, healthcare woes caused by stress, prolong lives (and taxes), and build resonant, civic contributions. Great bargain, right.
In the space that I run – I founded Homeschool Singapore – we focus on activities that bring homeschoolers from different backgrounds together. We run events that are open to all, publish articles that engage on homeschooling issues. I have started an in house program called Little U to get families to apprentice one another in areas of interests. This is the civic minded part of me, that I feel is a liberty of a Christian, to advance good (in terms of opportunities, learning) for the community that I am part of. But this is not my goal in life.
I feel a deeper calling for education reform in the land. I want to see our land healed of the scars of wounded children, now wounded adults. I want to see children treated in the dignified, loving way that our Saviour advocates, and I want to work with every stakeholder that comes my way. I want to speak up for children, and advocate for better learning environments, even if it is not homeschooling.
I prize education as much as my Father in heaven prizes our learning for the sake of learning about Him, to gain wisdom and power to help the weak; to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. I would like to end off with James 1:27 as a reminder of our Father’s heart, in whichever system we choose to put our children in, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This, I think, is the direction of Christian education.