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.

THAT'S WHAT I CALL - EDUCATION.

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.

THAT'S WHAT I CALL - EDUCATION.

-----

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.

No?

梅ちゃん at 12:40:00 AM

5comments

5 Comments

at 9/9/11, 12:26 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear friend, will your current situation change if you work for another university where you could feel respected as well as enjoy your life? I know this is not an easy answer. just hope you can enjoy yourself a bit more even if academic life is certainly not easy. (ps Your articles are quite thought-provoking!

best wishes to you!
a visitor, Sarah
(a PhD in the final year, London)

 
at 9/14/11, 3:02 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

纽约时报:美国精英大学物非所值 告诉你十大真相

自1982年以来,美国大学学费以两倍于通胀率的速度增长,许多大学生刚毕业就得背上沉重学贷债务,家长和学生们开始质疑大学教育的价值。纽约时报记者Claudia Dreifus和纽约皇后学院政治学教授Andrew Hacker花近三年时间,走访大学教职员和行政管理人员、及毕业生,并解析有关统计数据后认为,多数美国大学特别是菁英大学物非所值,他们建议家长们在协助孩子申请大学时,应认清下列十大真相。

一、不让孩子负债上大学。2010年,近三分之二的大学生贷款付高昂学费,大学理事会估计大学生毕业时平均贷款2万4000元,实际上,加上利息、罚款和其它收费,大学生完成学业负债可能超过10万元,一旦拖欠联邦学生贷款,就业、退税甚至报考专业执照都将受影响,并且将失去申请政府工作和领取社安金的资格。Dreifus说,家长不要为因为低利率而让子女申请贷款。

二、避免就读研究型大学。大型研究型大学的教授承受出书和发表文章的压力,他们对科研和指导研究生投入较多,几乎无瑕顾及大学本科生。知名教授通常为本科生举办大型讲座,其它督导工作则推给助教。Dreifus分析哈佛大学的部分知名私校中,大学生与教授关系较淡薄,而小型文理学院重视教学,课堂人数限于15至20人,更有利于学生的学业发展。

三、大学行政人浮于事。1976年至2007年间全美大学行政管理人员与学生的比例翻倍,导致人浮于事,但费用却由学生们分摊。因此,择校时既要考虑学生和老师的比例,但也得了解学生与行政人员的比例。

四、名教授很少亲自授课。大学越来越多依靠兼职老师教授本科课程,包括兼职教授在内的代课老师目前占师资的70%,比1975年的43%大幅增长,菁英大学也不例外,耶鲁大学70%的本科课程由兼职教授代课,而许多兼职教授没有固定办公室,难以及时为学生答疑解难。

五、学生难与教授直接联系。多数大学鼓励终身教授休假(take sabbaticals),加上寒暑假,本科生可能无缘与名教授见面。哈佛大学资深教授每三年即可休假,在2010至2011学年,历史系48位教授即有 10位休假做研究,威廉学院(Williams College)宗教系有一年三分之一的教授在休假。

六、设备一流,教学质量打折。有部分大学具备豪华食堂、健身房,但这些费用都将转嫁至学生,家长应仔细查访,避免这类大学本末倒置,在教学方面反而多所疏忽。

七、校长高薪,资源浪费。部分大学校长为了追求高薪,少数能有真正教育远见,他们的表现关系到大学的发展前景,大学是公共服务机构,校长薪资不应超过总统。

八、大学球队是花钱机器。只有少数大学的体育球队能够自给自足,多数校队靠学生学费聘用优秀队员、教练和购买球队设施,譬如阿拉巴马州Birmingham-Southern学院历史系足球教练有七位,而教授仅有四位。

九、菁英大学非职业保障。根据针对900多名普林斯顿大学毕业生的调查得知,仅有少数人在事业上取得成功,多数美国人只要能够发挥所长,多数人到35、36岁左右,事业上的表现成功与否与所读大学是否名校基本无关。

十、公立大学教学水平不差。纽约市立大学的知名学院(honors colleges)、亚利桑纳州大、密西西比大学等,提供本州学生低廉学费,但其教学水平堪比长春藤名校。

 
at 9/14/11, 9:48 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

需要多少个哈佛生来换一个灯泡?
1个。
而且他手握灯泡站着不动,
然后整个世界都会围着他转。

哈佛校训:与真理唯友。
貌似哈佛人就是真理的代表,
其实讽刺哈佛人心高气傲,
目空一切的狂妄。

 
at 9/18/11, 6:29 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

态度谦虚点。
才刚毕业说活口气比大学校长还大。
中国和美国的发展阶段不同,
推动改革需要技巧和耐性。
对中国大学不满的话当初就别来搅和。
中国不需要自吹自擂的传教士。

 
at 9/27/11, 5:24 PM Blogger Cat and Fish said...

I am not in the education industry, but based on my education experiences in China and oversea, agree that we do have lots of area need to be improved in China...But bear in mind that China is still a country lack of resources, existing model might be more suitable for current China...While when we become stronger, the model proposed by you will come true someday...所以需要很多人的努力 to make it happen...
Try to think positive...

 

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