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.