Thursday, September 08, 2011

That's What I Call Education

Since early this year, I've been tutoring 2 teenagers who attend one of the international schools in Shanghai on English writing. It started off as a side job that supplemented the 8-month income absence from the university. But now, I'm keeping it because it's been such an enlightening experience on how young kids grow and develop their selves, and an important reminder of the kind of education that I once had and made me who I am today.

For example, tonight, M and I had a great conversation about what may be the "attributes" of a Greek hero.

"A Greek hero is someone who's willing to seek death as a way to take responsibility for the crimes that he's committed," M said.

He was referring to Oedipus the King who is fated to murder his father and marry his mother, and later gouges out his eyes and asks for banishment from his kingdom for the "unintentional" - yet alas "fated" - crimes that he's committed.

"Even though he 'unintentionally' does so or is completely 'unaware' of his committed crimes at the moment of doing so?" I asked.

"True, but ... (pausing for thoughts) that's what makes him heroic!" M said.

"So what you're saying is that what makes Oedipus 'heroic' is not because he actually salvages the citizens from the spell of Sphinx but because he's willing to be punished for the crimes that he didn't have the intention of committing?" I asked M to clarify.

"Right, it's his 'honesty' and 'shame' that propel him to seek such a tragic ending," M defended his position.

"You said 'shame' ... Tell me more about what do you mean by that. Why should someone who asks for punishment out of shame be considered a 'hero'? If he's asking for punishment not out of complete self-conscience but simply out of 'obligation' to rid himself of other people's ridicule, could he still be considered 'heroic'?" I probed further.

After a few seconds of silence, M answered again - "Well, I guess what I mean by 'shame' isn't 'shame' seen through other people's eyes but through his very own ... The fact that he couldn't stand the sense of shame that he feels after realizing the horrible things that he's done, he has no choice but to gouge his eyes out and banish himself from the kingdom. It's his way of finding peace and being responsible for what he's done," M responded.

I gave him a smile and a look that hinted at the fact that he was getting somewhere intelligent.

"I think I've got my thesis!" M yelled out, with an exhilarating smile on his face.


This kind of conversations - discussions on human love, hate, shame, guilt, feelings of sorriness, loneliness, iniquity, and triumph - dominants my tutoring experiences with these 2 kids. With M's sister this semester transferring from a local public middle school to the same international school that her brother attends, she too is beginning such conversations with me. Tonight, for instance, she's asked to choose a photo of her own preference and write up a short paragraph that describes the elements and mood of the picture without actually "naming" all the objects in the photo (e.g. instead of writing, 'There is a big cloud in the blue sky', one writes, 'I see a puffy, white cotton candy set against a landscape of blue'.)

"So why do you think your teacher is asking you to complete this creative assignment of describing a picture without using concrete words/phrases?" I was curious.

"'Cuz we are going to Yangshuo during the Oct 1st holiday, and I guess he'd like us to practice expressing our feelings and emotions about this beautiful place with creativity and authenticity," P the little sister said.

Ah-hah, an assignment that develops the creative side of the student's mind!

"And you guys are going to Yangshuo because?" I was even more curious now.

"We have this thing called the 'interim' period at school where students are taken on trips to participate in all sorts of projects - history projects, arts projects, service projects, etc. One project, for example, is to take students to Hiroshima in Japan and Nanjing in China to discuss 'war atrocities' from two different points of view."

Yes, the philosophy to educate kids not just through books and classroom learning but actual touching, feeling, experiencing, tasting different things in life that books sometimes fail to capture.


Every time I look at their essay topics of the week, the books they are devouring, the novels and memoirs and short stories that they have to read through the semester, I am brought to total, total awe.

An education of quality even for an 8th grader, yes. An 8th grader whom most teachers in Asian educational system consider too young, too immature, too mischievous to handle a complex question on what is an attribute of a hero or what makes a noble person flawed.

An education that already begins to treat kids as "little adults" and trust in their capability to think (and think on their own), to wonder (with much greater imagination and creativity than us jaded adults), to raise questions (because they are entitled to not know so much), and to speak for their own, defend for their thoughts, receive a challenging probe and learn to respond to that probe with courage, grace, and wisdom.

And such solid guidance by diligent teachers who provide a long yet well-thought-out reading list for the students WHILE allow for such spirit of freedom and individuality to shine in each assignment. The passions of the teachers and their own creativity are impossible to miss if one just takes a look at the class websites that they create for the kids, with all sorts of detailed instructions, sharing, and posting of further reading lists and book recommendations.



Having undergone an educational system like the one I just described above, last week, I was at the brink of shooting myself to death (multiple times) when I was "required" to attend a 7-day new teacher's training program at the university.

7-day of plain non-sense and BS, period.

I literally thought I could end my misery faster if I shoot myself to death rather than sit through the 7-day program because I came to realize that NEVER, EVER for once since I transferred to the American educational system at age 15 that I'd been forced to take a class, sit in a lecture, or go through complete meaningless academic exercises AGAINST MY WILL. Yes, I did have required courses that I had to fulfill, but there was always some kind of choice presented to me (e.g. picking one class out of 3 offered courses to fulfill my quantitative reasoning requirement). Or the school would at least make sure that they don't assign the most incompetent teacher to teach the most propaganda-filled curriculum that wastes not only the teacher's time but the students' as well.

As such, my little "privileged" upbringing led to such plain misery last week when such non-sense requirement was thrust upon me. But because of that, my little naive, way-too-privileged soul began to contemplate on whether or not my privileged education came strictly because of a privileged stroke of good luck of having parents who had the vision and the financial means to support me through such privileged education.

In other words, is it possible to offer such privileged education (that is mostly private and affordable only for those on the top 5% (if not less) of the social/economic strata) FREE if not at a very minimal charge to the public at large?

(Yes, and that's what we called "public schools", I know. But I also know that on average, a public school education just isn't gonna compare with the standard, quality, and style of an ivy-league, elitist education that costs 30,000-50,000 USD a year.)

And that has slowly yet steadily become one of my distant dreams or lifelong mission if you could call it after a whole year of working in and struggling with a soul/ethnics-lacking university - to be able to provide some kind of ivy-league-quality education to students who are just as intelligent, hard-working, and dying to learn at a minimal and affordable charge.

Because in the end, I may not have the money to afford an air-considered classroom equipped with multimedia fancy that ensures that every lecture may be done in PowerPoint or other state-of-the-art technology. But I do know that my brain, mind, and soul enlightened by such privileged educational experiences do go wherever I go and stay wherever I am.

Wherever I go, with a book, a piece of paper, and a pencil for my students, I can always discuss the heroic attributes of Oedipus the King, the flaws of even the most noble king, or how to turn a photo of beach serenity into a creative piece of writing on a chocolate cake with white frosting.


梅ちゃん at 12:40:00 AM