My Views on Education

The value or benefit of an education depends upon its content. If, for example, a certain kind of education conditioned its subjects to servitude, then I would call the uneducated better off than the educated. In general, I would never deem educated people to be necessarily smarter or better than uneducated ones.

At American liberal arts colleges, students are trained in abstract or associative reasoning. Therefore, graduates of American liberal arts colleges are capable of abstract thought, and non-graduates are not. The reality was made clear to me on the day that I, a liberally-educated history professor, began lecturing my class of first-generation college students about Genghis Khan. As I explained how Genghis broke up Mongol tribes and redistributed its members among military units called hundreds, I associated his policy with that of Cleisthenes, the Athenian reformer who broke up Athenian tribes and redistributed its members among political units called demes. I was pleased with myself for having established the linkage, yet when I turned to face my class, I saw only puzzlement. They could not fathom why my lecture on the Mongols had suddenly detoured to ancient Athens. It occurred to me that they could not follow the abstraction, that to them, x would always equal x and could never equal y.  Their approach to history is “Genghis Khan was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and was a Mongolian conqueror; Cleisthenes lived from 565 to 492 BC and was an Athenian statesman” and never the twain shall meet. I tried to sever Genghis and Cleisthenes from their particular contexts and to locate their policies on higher planes of abstraction, to persuade my students that although Genghis reorganized Mongol tribes into hundreds and Cleisthenes reorganized Athenian tribes into demes, both reoriented loyalty to higher social units, both sought to replace tribal association with political. My students were polite, but it was as though the football game they were watching had been interrupted by a commercial for a product they didn’t want.

Indeed, they don’t want it. No matter how many times I’ve returned to Genghis and Cleisthenes over the years (I never give up), my attempts to place them in the same abstract category always fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I have never been able to explain to my students the superiority or even the advantage of my abstract way of looking at history. It is not in me, however, to bewail my inability to enlighten the benighted history students of Mobile, Alabama. On the contrary, the more I’ve thought about my failure, the more I’ve come to accept the possibility that my abstract way of looking at history really isn’t superior to my students’ way and really doesn’t confer on them any advantage.

Is the abstract view necessarily the correct view? Is it possible that someone might become over-educated, so thoroughly skilled in making associations that he loses his ability to draw distinctions? Sometimes x is only equal to x. Sometimes concrete thinking is better than abstract.

Consider the intellectual Susan Sontag and her disapproval of the display of the American flag after 9/11. It seemed to me at the time that she was incapable of seeing the flag-flying as an expression of solidarity at a moment of national hurt and that she could only view it as symptomatic of a dangerous ultra-nationalism. Her perception, in other words, was determined, perhaps even limited, by her education, her ability to associate one reality with another and, perhaps, her inability to perceive the reality at hand more concretely. Many of the categorizations encouraged at our finer schools are somewhat predictable, as almost everything is associated with Nazism, sooner rather than later. If you were to show someone like Susan Sontag a Boy Scout picnic, she’d probably think she was looking at the Nuremberg rally.

My students, however, would know that it was a Boy Scout picnic, and they would be right, or at least more right than Susan Sontag. I find myself in a strange position, having more in common culturally with the Susan Sontags of the world but feeling far more trusting of my students’ common sense.

And so, for choosing a movie, a restaurant, or an Aram Khachaturian CD, I will consult someone like Susan Sontag. But for understanding what’s what, I’m going to ask my students. The intellectual doesn’t understand what’s what: He understands what something is like, because that is what he’s been trained to do. The liberally educated serve the function of alerting their fellow citizens to the unseen, but sometimes they distract their fellow citizens with visions of the unreal. There is no good reason to desire that more of our population become educated along these lines.

 

Passages: From The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”

*****

For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.

*****

At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.

And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.

That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.

*****

It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.

*****

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”

China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.