A Changi education

July 3, 2011

Both the British and Australians established ‘universities’ at Changi but they represented only one aspect of the much larger educational enterprise in the camp.  Much it was informal with thousands of books in circulation and lectures on all manner of subjects from the most general to the most technical.

I don’t suppose my father ever read as much, or at least as widely, as he did at Changi.  He taught himself a working knowledge of Malay and attended numerous lectures on mathematics, literature and history as well as architecture, surveying and town planning.  Whether any of this was under the auspices of Changi ‘University’ I have no idea.  He never mentioned it in his notes nor in subsequent conversations.  But his book and lecture notes account for a substantial portion of the 1,500 or so pages that he brought home with him.

Most of the notes reflect his interests in biology, natural history and public health.  They ran the gamut of lecture series on bacteriology and horticulture to one-off talks such as Mr. Hutton’s  ‘Sheep Farming in Scotland’ and Mr. Gelliman’s ‘The Australian Wool Industry.’   Such was the thirst for knowledge and mental activity  that lectures on even the most arcane topics were often well-attended.  Still, I can’t help wondering how many showed up for Mr. Coleman’s four-part lecture series on ‘Manures.’  What I can say is that Mr. Coleman found at least one eager student in my father.  I have the notes to prove it.

Today of course we are accustomed to the commodification of knowledge and the notion that it must be packaged, priced and marketed but only to those who are deemed ‘qualified.’  There was no credential for a Changi education but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from it.