Education is changing people

THNK taught me to think of education as a form of socio-emotional engineering in group context. The purpose is for each participant to transform. In other words, the goal of education is to change people. That change is more likely to come about through well-designed interaction among peers than through new knowledge, even weighing in the possible charism of an inspirational speaker, and the desire to emulate them.

Reflections on rote learning and creative education

There’s a common cliché going around. That Chinese education does not encourage creativity: Instead, it proposes antiquated models based on rote learning. ‘Western’ Universities, on the contrary, train critical thinking, creativity and collaborative problem solving – all the treasures of a balanced life.

I had direct experience of learning in a Chinese university, during a term at Nanjing Daxue, and was deeply dissatisfied  with it. Yet I would like to consider Chinese models of education under a different light.

In preparatory class, in the debrief of an oral presentation where I did averagely, my philosophy teacher pointed out I should find ways of better structuring my thoughts. ‘How can I do that?’ I asked. He winked: ‘There is a secret, but don’t tell anyone I’ve told you’ – I guess enough time has pass that I can get away with sharing this now – ‘You must copy. Take a book, a well-written book, like Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois, take a notebook, and simply copy. And I can guarantee that you will improve.’ With all this talk of originality, we tend to forget the value of copying. Not just to memorise and interiorise knowledge, but develop the capacity to reproduce a movement of thought. And then, if after proper understanding, we continue to disagree, then we might consider rejecting. And how much stronger, how much sharper, how much more valuable, this informed originality.

Corona thoughts: Wasting time

One person I used to work with was often talking about how ‘some people are just wasting his time’ and you should ‘not waste people’s time’. On Grindr, ‘time-wasters’ are certainly not liked. Social media may be just ‘a waste of time’.

Well, now we’re spending a lot of time at home, and on social media. I’m retreating away from ‘productive work’ to thinking and writing. Are we all wasting our time?

I never understood that expression. If I try to follow the underlying logic, time is wasted when the outcome doesn’t match expectations. But then, isn’t the outcome of any social interaction, in part at least, that interaction itself? And if that is so, how can time ever be wasted? Maybe I simply don’t believe in the capitalist motto that time is money? Or maybe, there is presumption in the expression ‘wasting time’ – pride, in the mistaken belief that we know what our goals are and should be, and that we can therefore assess, in the moment, what was and wasn’t valuable.

To try and understand wasting time better, we could look for its opposite, ‘saving time’. Here again, I don’t understand. ‘Saving time’ is about finding techniques and processes that allow you to do the same task, to the same level of quality, in less time. Years ago, I used to tutor high school students. One of the mothers always asked me to do things ‘quickly’. I never quite believed it was possible. You might get an essay ready more quickly – in fact, there have been times when I half wrote that student’s essays. But some was lost in the process: including, how much did that student actually learn?

When I worked on developing educational models, my goal was never to ‘save people time’. What I did focus on, though, was how to try and make learning somewhat easier to access. Save, not time, but effort. And more open-ended: instead of saving time towards a pre-defined goal, increase the potential goals, or benefits, or the time spent learning. Because goals may change, particularly when one learns, and what seemed like wasted time then, may end up highly profitable . Happy times are a sure gain. And maybe, so is learning to deal with a measure of frustration.

Teaching concentration

I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.

Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]

I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.

Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!

On cosmopolitan settings

Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.

This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?

More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.

When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?

Core beliefs: there’s more to the ‘real’ world than you think

One of the most important lessons I learnt was during a French lesson in preparatory class. Our teacher, a wise and erudite man, proposed that we should never listen to the statement that opposes ‘literature’ and ‘reality’. ‘Literature is real’, he said, ‘there’s forty five of us in this room together on its account, libraries are full of heavy books, taking up space, in valuable locations, people spend considerable amounts of time engaging with literature, there is a whole economy based on literature, and teachers are getting paid and recognised for helping understand it.’

Since then, every time anybody simplistically opposed ** insert context here ** and ‘the real world’, I remember the wise words of this teacher, and smile to myself.

Recently, at an Asialink function, I stumbled on one of these conversations. Three ‘project manager’ type leader-women were talking about academics, and how their teaching would not last students long in ‘the real world’.

One of them was working within a university, and heavily critical of academics around her. ‘They have no concept of reality. They just say, ‘we’ll do this project, funding won’t be a problem’, and they do, and they find the funding. But I’m here to help them clarify all this.’ In other words, a system that works perfectly – according to a logic different from hers – was about to be wrecked by her conception of how reality should operate. Surprising from a person who just completed a course on cross-cultural intelligence.

The world is a diverse place, and includes both corporate institutions, and universities; project managers and academics. Reality is polyphonic, and includes a broad range of attitudes and sets of values. Let’s not be deluded by this fake talk of ‘reality’. Culture, the arts, universities, are ‘real’. Real transactions, real emotions, real weight. If anything should be thought of as unreal, it is the strange dealings corporations recognised as persons by a legal fiction. But who will say that this is unreal?

Purple is for education, no culture

1.

In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.

I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.

On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.

I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.

2.

The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.

The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?

The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.

I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.

3.

In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.

I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.

4.

There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.