Creating the conditions for division and structural inequality: The human being as a historical construct


To investigate the apparent contradietion between the rhetoric and practice of equal educational opportunity, this chapter conducts a preliminary analysis of the 1979 policy report which legitimised streaming based on recognising different capabilities of learners. In examining this policy development, the analysis is situated in a combination of Foucault’s perspective and critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a way of understanding the ‘regime of truth’ (Foucault, 1980, p. 131) that made possible capability-based identity constructs in the original policy.

In doing so, this chapter provides a preliminary' archaeological investigation into how policy works to recognise, define, and classify learners through binary' categorisations. The analysis makes explicit the conditions necessary' for identifying particular types of learners and how this is related to systemic changes. Three conditions emerge from this preliminary' archaeological policy analysis: ‘capabilities as social change’, ‘inequality as justice’, and ‘ethics: or philosophy of desirability’. They' provide a basis for the genealogical research trajectory' of the rest of the analysis of this research.

The 1979 Ministry of Education report (Goh Report)

In his speech at the Committee of Supply Debate on 5 March 2018, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung proposes that the education system ‘must build’ on the ‘solid foundation’ originally' set by' Goh Keng Swee in 1979 of‘allowing students to study at different paces that suited them’ because ‘the uniform curriculum did not cater for students’ varied pace of learning’. Contrary' to the meritocratic principle of ‘equal opportunities’ (Wong, 2000, n.p.), the Goh report asserts that a school system informed by a commitment to egalitarianism negates the fundamental tenet ‘that different children have different capacities to acquire knowledge’ (MOE, 1979a, pp. 1-5). As the official justification for streaming continues to be underpinned by the ‘fundamental belief that students had varying learning ability, and would therefore be better off being grouped together to learn at their appropriate pace’ (Ng, 2008, n.p., italics added) the analysis of this report provides crucial evidence in understanding by what discursive processes and under what

Conditions for human division 21 conditions learners become categorically objectified in language, in the ultimately dichotomous objectifying terms ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ learners (MOE, 1979a, pp. 1-3).

In August 1978, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was tasked to lead a study team of systems engineers to identify problems in Singapore’s education system and propose solutions for reform (Raman, 1978, p. 1). They had to streamline and align the education system and make it more sensitive to the rapidly changing social and economic needs of the country (Goh and his team get down to the task, 1978, p. 1; Soon, 1988, p. 1). A key aim of the exercise was to consider how education policies and their implementation could be made more flexible to enable each child to learn at a pace suited to their ability (Raman, 1978, p. 1).

Submitted on 9 February' 1979, the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, known as the Goh Report, was endorsed by Parliament on 30 March 1979, and identified three main shortcomings in the education system, namely, high education wastage, low levels of literacy, and ineffective bilingualism (MOE, 1979a, p. 4-1). Having identified the problems in education and their underlying causes, the study team made several recommendations that became the basis of the New Education System (NES) (Soon, 1988, p. 1).

The Goh Report was the first of a series of educational reforms of the NES, and it was not until the introduction of early' streaming as a policy' in 1979 that any' explicit form of structuration was widely practised in schools (Rahim, 1998, p. 123). Among the major changes brought about by the Goh Report was the streaming of pupils into different courses at the upper primary' and secondary levels depending on their language proficiencies and academic abilities at Primary 3 and Primary 6 (MOE, 1979a, pp. 6-1, 6-4). More importantly, ‘the report recommends different streams of education to suit the slow, average, above average and outstanding learners’ (Dr Goh pinpoints the three real causes of trouble in the system, 1979, p. 8). The Goh Report was endorsed by Parliament on 30 March 1979 (Fong, 1979, p. 1).

The report consists of 113 pages. It has an opening address to the Prime Minister by the review committee and an address to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education by the Prime Minister. There are six chapters in the report. Chapter 1: An overview of the problem; Chapter 2: History of the education system in Singapore; Chapter 3: Existing problems in the education system; Chapter 4: Education policies - Contributing factors to the existing problems in the education system; Chapter 5: Contributing factors - Systems and procedures; and Chapter 6: Recommendations, annexes and references. The following recommendations ensue from the report (MOE, 1979a, p. 6-1, italics added):

  • • Those pupils who cannot cope with two languages would be better off being literate in one language than attempting to learn two languages and being literate in neither.
  • • The academic and intellectual abilities of children vary'. The pace which is suitable for the bright pupils would be inappropriate for slow learners. There should be provisions for slow learners to proceed at a pace more relaxed than that for the bright pupils.
  • • There should also be provisions for late developers to join the brighter pupils when they (the late developers) can cope with the faster pace.
  • • Pupils who do not succeed in academic studies could succeed in technical or commercial training.(MOE, 1979a, 6-1, italics added).

The 1979 report names categories of predetermined, divisive capability identities (bright pupils and slow learners) with their ‘appropriate’ forms of knowledge access (faster pace for brighter pupils) but without giving reference to any substantive evidence. These assertions argue for change to be driven exclusively by distinctive capability identities as a simple and certain way forward. In order to understand how these arbitrary propositions and the notion of an identified being (Bohm, 1994, p. 222) are able to hold themselves as true and taken as ‘an end in itself ’ (Medina & Wood 2005, p. 9), the analysis of the 1979 MOE report examines the underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable and necessary’ for the appearance and transformation of subject positions - a central concern in Foucault’s work (1982a, p. 777). This would provide initial evidence of how the objectification of subjects makes possible divergences in curriculum and opportunities that arose from policy discourse. Here, ‘arbitrary’’, in the sense of ‘no rational explanation’ refers to the binary' logic underlying categorical designations of learners that necessarily frames the basis for structural changes. By making ‘transparent’ discursive policy' processes, it is possible to trace how a national educational policy text strategically positions, defines, and classifies learners through dichotomous constructs, that is, what the report termed as ‘bright pupils’ and ‘slow learners’ (MOE, 1979a, p. 6-1). In doing so, the analysis makes transparent the discursive construction of identities, and how this relates to structural access.

In order to understand how a differentiated structural reform catering to different abilities has been given legitimacy, this chapter first examines how this historical policy works to recognise, define, and classify learners through binary' categorisations, that is, what the report termed as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ learners (MOE, 1979a, p. 1-3). In this sense, the truth of subjects is circumscribed into distinct opposites. In doing this the analysis provides an initial understanding of how discursive processes function to produce and locate ‘slow learners’ as requiring institutional segregation while the discursive strategies employed subsequently build the case for streaming which in turn make explicit the conditions necessary' for identifying particular types of learners.

Combining CDA with the philosophical discussion of truth can be a bridge between questions concerning identity and structural inequality. To develop a theoretical-analytical framework suitable for revealing the historically' situated construction of unequal learner identities, this chapter explores Foucault’s work that can be synthesised with critical discourse analysis (CDA) approaches. More particularly, the research examines by' what discursive processes did particular identities emerge, and how these identities were made ‘manifest, nameable, and describable’ (Foucault, 1972, p. 41). In particular, the aim of this stage of analysis is to examine the naming process and discover precisely’ how unequal learner

Conditions for human division 23 identities are constructed to legitimise streaming. Oriented towards these foci, Foucault’s archaeological method is used in combination with an amalgamation of CDA approaches to make explicit how power works through methods and techniques or historical conditions that regulate discursive policy formations of learner capability identities.

The theoretical-philosophical framework underpinning the analysis draws on Foucault’s perspectives because his insights provide the initial opportunity to understand how the historical constitution of subject is linked to the legitimisation of unequal practices. In order to understand how the problem is not with the subject but with institutions, Foucault’s engagement with historical work enables him to examine how the human subject is placed in complex relations of institutional power through modes of objectification in discourse (1982a, pp. 777-778). More importantly, in relation to this research, without a historical focus that examines a chronology' of policy discourses, how unequal educational practices for different categories of learners are produced, sustained, and legitimised throughout the years within a frame of meritocracy could not be adequately addressed. In order to scaffold the research’s central analytical examination on the relations between the notion of truth and the formation of subjects, the following section outlines archaeology as an analytical method.

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