Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On Education

A couple of things happened today that have brought me her to scribble down my thoughts on education, and if time and patience permit, perhaps even to sketch out what I feel is an ideal form of education. First of all, minutes ago I finished reading an editorial in the New York Times on the changing role of Latin (not the J-Lo kind) in an American education. The gyst of the article was rather predictable: the writer extolled the benefits of learning Latin while lamenting its reduced importance in a modern world concerned mostly with gadgets and positions. Politicians like Jefferson and Roosevelt who dedicated years to the study of the classics no longer exist. Modern-day public servants and their supporters (the general population) have traded in liberal educations for trades--for work. At that point, though, the article's rhetorical force fizzles out. It seems deliberately to shy away from making those grandeous claims about the positive psychological, intellectual and emotional impacts that studying Latin can have on an individual that might otherwise sway people to pause for a moment and ponder their own educations. He won't say it, so I will: Frankly put, studying Latin has an unbelievable capacity to make you a better person. Yes, that is right: you will think and even feel better and clearer. You will be superior because of it. And that result, the education of the whole human being, is what education should be. For some, that's precisely what it is.

Today, while reading the Mengzi (Mencius) together, my instructor, 徐老師, shared a personal experience with me that related to the text. He explained how as a young student he and a friend had read a certain passage in Mengzi and were deeply affected by it. The passage is a rather famous one (公孫丑上) and talks generally about how not to transgress your true nature. Mengzi, in fielding the questions of his student Gong Sun Chou, analyzes the system of expression and power and influence of the human mind. It sounds like quite a mouthful, but Mengzi has a knack for making complicated things quite simple: A single person's potential for power and influence is so immense that if he culivates himself properly, his spirit can fill the immensity of space. The maintenance of that power is based on the simple principle that a man's 志 (zhi)(his thoughts and intentions) drives his 氣 (qi)(the dispersion of his energies and influences--in short, his actions), and, of course, vice versa: 氣 greatly influences 志. To keep one's thoughts and actions healthy and growing, one naturally must be righteous and virtuous. If righteousness and virtue do not inform one's thought and actions, one's powers and influences will inevitably wane (其為氣也,配義與道;無是餒也). Beyond that, though, one must also practice a proper amount of self-control, that is not waste or expend too much thought and action (good or bad). One must contemplate reservation. At this point, my teacher told me how he took all this to heart. As a highschooler, he tried hard to be a good person, a good student. That attempt became a struggle and that struggle became a burden. Eventually, his mistakes disheartened him...and (I don't know, he didn't explicitly say, but I imagine) he put that task aside. This was his sort of half-hearted confession that Mengzi might have got something wrong. We sat for a couple of moments soaking in his experience. I then broke the silence: "Did you manage your pursuit of the goal? Did you manage your anxieties and frustrations?...Maybe Mengzi didn't get it wrong after all." The proposal sparked a little A-Ha! erlebnis (an "Oh, Yeah!" moment). The bell rang and we parted ways. We'll talk about it again tomorrow, no doubt.

Both of these experiences reminded me of what an education ought to be, the cultivation of the whole human being, not the least of which is his/her soul. They also brought to my mind the two indispensable modes of carrying that education out: the analysis of textual and human materials; the written and the spoken word; study and discussion/debate (dialectic, the Socratic method). Playing and struggling with words on paper and in the air help us work stuff out that has, is or will be happening in our lives. This process is education.

Now, pragmatically speaking, how does this translate into surviving or making a living? Quite frankly, the better, more intelligent and more mature a person you are, the more secure your occupation will be. But that isn't what a lot of people mean when they ask that question. They usually mean "getting ahead" or moving up the ladder of consumption of fine goods. Or, maybe they don't mean that all. Perhaps they just mean learning a useful trade so as to be useful to society. Well, why can't fixing a car, selling stocks or teaching be done on the side or even in conjunction with the education of the whole human? Why shouldn't an electrical engineer study both computer code and Latin? Why can't a plumber dabble in German or Enlightenment philosophy? A fine example of this kind of multilateral education is found in Chinese culture. In addition to the heavy emphasis on success in mathematics and the hard sciences, Chinese cultural requires their children to study English and their own classical language and history. While their execution of that form of education has its shortcomings, its emphasis of those materials, in my opinion, is spot on.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Un ángel desterrado (inspired by a recent event in Arizona)

Emmanuel shuffled his feet nervously over the gravel. The sound rang clear in the cold, desert air. Daniel gently lifted his eyes from his forearms and caught the light reflecting off of Emmanuel's worn boots. The leather in spots had popped free and was curling away from the soles. The air crackled again as Emmanuel shifted his weight. His lips fumbled over each other. He bobbed for a moment and then propped himself up.

¿sabes que?," he asked turning his gaze to the starry sky. Daniel straighted up and looked over at the stranger. Glancing fire light glistened on Emmanuel's widening eyes. "Aunque no te lo creas, hay príncipes en el desierto. A veces pierden el norte y se encuentran aquí. Príncipes, niños afortunados come tu....!," Emmanuel sputtered jabbing his finger in Daniel's direction. "Pero, hay serpientes también, ¿sabes?, ehh...," he stammered to a halt realizing he had no idea how to make this out in English. He puffed and then abruptly poked his finger in the ground. He shifted to his knees and shuffled along, dragging a long, winding line in the cold earth. Daniel watched on blankly. Seeing the boy's perplexity, Emmanuel began to hiss and wiggle his hands, intermittently gesturing to the drawing in the sand.

"Oh, SNAKE!," Daniel spouted.

í, esnake!," Emmanuel laughed. "En el desierto hay muchos serpientes, animales y personas peligrosos." Emmanuel paused and fixed his gaze directly at Daniel. "Pero aquí, conmigo estas a salvo. No hay serpientes. Aqui, todo está bien." Daniel squinted and finally shrugged. Emmanuel thrust his head down and smirked at himself. He stood up and stepped over to the boy's side. Daniel felt his hand drop on his head and kindly ruffle his golden hair about. "No te preocupes," Emanuel softly whispered. "Todo está bien." Daniel shyly lowered his gaze and smiled. It was the first time since the car accident earlier that morning that he felt safe. It was strange running into Emmanuel wandering in the middle of the desert, but Daniel knew now everything was ok.

Emmanuel's hand slid away from Daniel's head and back into his pocket. He gazed at the horizon.... Nothing yet. He grabbed some more dried brush and tossed it onto the bonfire. "Dentro de poco ver
án," he quietly lamented. He bit his lip and and shook his head in disappointment. He looked back over at Daniel. It was worth it, he told himself--it was worth it. Emmanuel turned his back to the fire and stepped out into the darkness. Away from the noise of the fire, he could hear the slow approach of vehicles on the desert road.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Le scuse d'un vagabondo moderno

Sono millenni che gli italiani vengono qui: Polo, Ricci, chiunque. Tutti venivano qui per aprofitare delle fiabe e delle mirabilia d’oriente. Avevano degli scopi grandiosi e la fortuna di mietere dei raccolti mitici. Però ora la situazione sembra essere cambiata. Siamo nel ventunesimo secolo. L'italia non è più come era a quell’epoca. Adesso veniamo qui per imparare la lingua cinese e non per poter poi esercitare il dominio culturale o religioso sull'Est. Anzi, la conoscenza che ora io ottengo durante questo soggiorno sarà dispersa a casa non quale una narrazione di mille storie fantastiche ma piuttosto come un libro di testo qualsiasi, informativo ma sempre un po' noioso. Imparo la lingua cinese per assicurare la mia validità nel prossimo futuro e per offrire la medesima opportunita` a migliaia di ragazzi italiani che non possono saperlo, che spesso si rinchiudono nelle fortezze immaginarie dei loro bei paesi. Perciò forse si dirà che il mio incarico sembra un poco platonico: portare la luce ai prigionieri--balle! Comunque, odio Platone. Si prendeva troppo sul serio. Quando mai oserei dire di distribuire conoscenza salvifica alle masse?! Sciocchezze. Stiamo parlando della realtà ragazzi, non dell'aldilà di un'esistenza astratta. Se vogliamo abbinare la nostra esistenza peninsulare con una realtà globale più ampia, bisogna digerire e diffondere una conoscenza Han. Per quanto mi riguarda, non voglio sminuire con un paese che rimpiccolisce sempre di più. Spero che tanto come ai tempi antichi, l'oriente ci sappia ispirare vita nuova. Altrimenti, quale valore avrà? Dico, per me—per noi!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Jenny at the Computer

Apologies for the graininess of the photo. Until we getter a better camera or a portable scanner, we'll just have to suffer with sub-par photo replication.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

(un)Inspired by recent events in Italy

"Rudy.... Rudy? You're shaking. What's wrong?...What the hell happened? WHERE'S MEREDITH?!"

Rudy instinctively thrust his hands behind his back and scrubbed them on his jeans. He opened his mouth to lie but the horror of his own guilt struck him dumb. Meredith stared at his gaping mouth and quivering tongue. His silence only enraged her suspicions. She bounded towards the door behind him crashing through his shoulder. The knock sent a surge of adrenaline though Rudy's limbs and instantly cleared his stupor. Before Amanda could lay a hand on the knob, Rudy had turned and crushed her chest against the door frame. He crashed to the floor and clutched Amanda's shoulders with his dark grip. She felt his body tighten into an steel cage. He pressed her into the floor, stammering threats and obscenities into her ear. The crushing weight prevented her from heaving in the breath she had lost seconds ago. Her eyes bulged and lungs burned. His caustic babble faded out. She could only sense now her own desperate gasps and the dull thud of her skull against the wooden floor.

When the air finally rushed back into Amanda's lungs, she rolled over and found that she was alone. Rudy had fled. Amanda on all fours tried for the door again. She fingered for the handle. "Meredith," she coughed. "MEREDITH!"