Purpose of education: To build moral values

The best of West and East wisdom more or less concurs. Ralph Waldo Emerson,for instance,while discussing education, pointed to 'the power of beauty, the power of books, of poetry.'

OVER the weekend I heard an interesting story on a local radio.

Zhang Xiaoyong, a biology graduate from Tsinghua University, had worked himself up to a well-paying senior management job at a joint-venture company in Guangzhou. A few years ago he gave up his successful career to look after his bedridden father.

He returned to his hometown in Changsha and got himself a job as a security guard in a neighborhood.

Doing a little bit of investigation on the story, I found it was first reported four years ago. Strangely, in this age of instant communication, our information purveyors are often hyper-insensitive to the dateline. Once something is published, it gained a sort of eternity online, biding their time to be resuscitated. This ensures a steady supply, at minimal cost, of sensational bits to be admired, consumed, and shared momentarily.

In the earlier report, Zhang allegedly gave up his job because he had been assigned to a field unrelated to his specialty. Battling professional disappointment and his father’s illness, he decided to go back to Changsha to be near his family. He was quoted in ifeng.com as saying: “After dangling in Guangzhou for years, I had neither married, nor embarked on a career. I might as well return home.”

Whichever version is accurate, it still compelled me to draw a moral from the story. It concerns some popular assumptions we entertain about what constitutes a successful education, as defined by metrics about acquisition of marketable skills and job placement. In the case of Zhang, who graduated from a prestigious university, he possibly was seen as a letdown for not shining on these two counts.

Popular perception

This popular perception of success is reflected by our obsession with college rankings which are, more or less, about the starting salary of graduates, or the amount of academic papers churned out. If we stop being blinded by these metrics, we would find Zhang probably stands out among the more mundane multitudes in one of the two ways: He is still capable of the luxury of scrutinizing a job in terms of “meaningfulness,” or better still, he thinks his obligation to an ailing father overrides the imperatives of a lucrative employment.

It reminded me of another report.

A Tsinghua graduate surnamed Liang, who was studying for his Doctorate in Journalism (after a BA in law and an MA in finance), was at a loss as to what employment option he should pursue. He solicited the opinion of a panel on a TV show.

He was chastised by Gao Xiaosong, a star panelist and also a graduate from Tsinghua. “Shouldn’t you feel ashamed for having to solicit our advice as to your employment, after more than 10 years at Tsinghua?” Gao fumed.

Gao observed that today there are very few college students who are still capable of idealistic sentiments. “There should not be just concern for the here and now. There should be some room for poetry and a distant look,” Gao added.

Unfortunately, “successful” students lean naturally toward a rational order of financial success and respectability.

Recently, I was a spectator at Yuanshen Stadium for the annual sports meet of my son’s school. It was cold and windy, but I was somewhat moved by a distant view of the neatly onward movement of those young athletes.

I realized suddenly that what we call successful education is not unlike helping our children to the starter’s point. When they are outrunning their peers, we cheer them on. When they cast a sidelong glance, we become a little worried. If they stop, asking inconvenient questions like where the race leads to, we fear things are getting out of hand and panic.

If we abstain from talking about the larger purpose, like social responsibility, we would be in for more graduates whose only intention is to deepen the difference between himself/herself and the rest of the world.

Hence the need to review our mission statement. As our education authority has reiterated time and again, at the core of our education is “building moral values and cultivating talent.”

Confucius believed filial piety is at the root of morality, from which education grows. For the Chinese sage, this piety actually encompasses, in addition to love of parents and then of mankind, a reverence for Heaven. Confucius believed knowledge and talents are instruments at the service of the higher purposes of piety, thus a truly educated man should rise above being an instrument.

Judging against such measure, Zhang does exemplify a higher purpose of education by subjecting his employment to the test of purpose, or better still, subjugating his employment needs to the care of a parent.

And in this point of education, the best of West and East wisdom more or less concurs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, while discussing education, pointed to “the power of beauty, the power of books, of poetry.”

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