Philosophy of education

I come from a long line of uncommon teachers. An uncommon teacher is one who teaches or trains in the duties of an everyday work life, rather than in a classroom. My father was a videographer who far preferred explaining the intricate guts or the laborious editing process than the actual job of shooting a wedding or editing the event afterward. In his spare time, he would elaborate on the way a car engine was put together, why the clouds were cumulus before a storm, or the exact process of how to perfectly cook a soft boiled egg. My mother was celebrated as an encourager, a trainer, and a mentor. She relished in the act of taking a neophyte through what normally was an agonizing dance of making mistakes, and surpassed her peers in her ability to toss the neophyte into action while at the same time holding the learners’ hands. After 25 years of trying to operate a small sales business, she finally found her passion in mentoring and training missionaries for the field.

Background of new model. From these experiences of uncommon teachers, plus my ten years of teaching experience, I have developed a unique model of education for adult learners (specifically, above the age of 17). My model was inspired by classic theories of education (Bloom, 1956), combined with a Christological worldview and my own unique perspective. I have also used Jane Vella’s approach (2002), some ideas of Parker Palmer (1998), and some of Bruce Chilton’s research (2000) on the concept of the teacher during first century Jerusalem which paved the way for the unique style utilized by Jesus. In this paper, I will apply each of the ten areas of my model to a specific question relating to learning theory. The goal of this paper is to clearly illustrate and define a new model of education and learning that is both based on the transformation of the individual towards a Christ-like state, as well as instilling an ethical approach towards cross-cultural education (specifically in comparison with Chinese models of education, as I am a teacher in a Chinese university).

Based on apotheosis (or heroic transformation), my model should not be confused with Meizrow’s transformational model (1991), which focuses on the three meaning schemes of beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions. My model uses three core concepts of educational psychology in Bloom’s taxonomy (1956): cognitive (to know), affective (to change behavior), and psychomotor (to experience). I relate the concepts to 1st Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith (cognitive, to know), hope (psychomotor, to experience), love (affective, to change behavior).”

With the goal of apotheosis, each of the three concepts (faith, hope, love) expands into two paths. Faith (known in the model as enlightenment) opens into synthesis (ability to process knowledge) and intellect (ability to utilize knowledge), hope (known in the model as pilgrimage) opens into enculture (lifestyle) and expertise (skills), and love (known in the model as virtue) opens into eudaimonia (happiness) and discernment (critical thinking). Faith is dyadic, necessitating an acceptance of both belief in a creator and reason (see Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter on fides et ratio, September 14, 1998), hope is ultimately focused around the eschatology of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth through the return of Jesus Christ, and love is centered in the Second Commandment: “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 12:30-31). I will review each of the ten concepts in my model by answering a simple question about adult education and learning. I divided the questions into three categories: 1)What is learning?, 2)the adult learner, and 3)the teacher as learner.

Figure 1: Original educational model of transformation

educational transformation

What is learning?

1. What is the purpose of learning? The purpose of learning is heroic transformation, or what is known in Greek as apotheosis. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and accepted and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Paul was an educated man, studied in the classics, letters, and holy texts yet he continued to encourage transformation into the image of Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). For myself, education has always been an occupation of a hero-raiser, but as a Christian heroic qualities must always be drawn from the image of Christ.

Jesus was a teacher and leader, mentor and encourager. He was a recognized as a rabbi by other teachers of the law, and was a member of the highly celebrated chasid caste (rabbis who were anointed by God and could channel the ruach, or Holy Spirit), revered even among Jewish leaders such as Gamaliel (Chilton, 2000). He was a pupil of John the Baptist, and continued his master’s legacy through the practice of John’s mishnah (words and actions that conveyed one’s teachings), while making the mishnah totally his own. Just as Christ transformed his own talmid (disciples) through mastering halakhah (a rabbi whose actions were equal to his words), so a teacher must focus on transformation, specifically oriented towards teaching and training pupils so that they do adopt the same methods and capacity to think critically in their own lives. The purpose of learning, therefore, is to become transformed into a new creature in the image of Christ.

2. What is the definition of learning? To learn is to fundamentally process information in such a way that the information is coded and chunked for interpretation, also known as synthesis. According to Waitzin (2007), learning is accomplished when a series of tasks take place, much like a long journey: 1)intelligent preparation, 2)cultivated resilience, 3)informational naturalization through incremental practice so that 4)when one carefully assimilates information for pattern recognition (known as chunking), 5)the focus becomes enlarged, simplistic, defined, and ready for utilization. Synthesis is classically seen as the solution to the struggle between thesis and antithesis, where common truths are reconciled between the proposition and reaction to said proposition. In learning, synthesis is the ability to hear an intellectual concept, intuit the boundaries, and classify what is common for categorization.

As an aspect of faith, learning as a journey is intimately attached to the act of listening, watching, and practice. As Paul says: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). In many places in scripture, learning is equated with receiving the Holy Spirit, implying a humility that passes intellectual boundaries (Galatians 3:2), ending in a beautiful communion with the Creator of the universe.

3. What is the truth of adult learning? The truth of adult learning is that no matter how much one learns, learning can never be truly achieved without embracing enlightenment. For children, learning is a technique that allows them to pass through the expectations of society: test-skills, essay patterns, and reading abilities are important powers to achieve academic fluency. However for adults, learning must breathe on its own, just as Palmer states: “geologists are people who hear rocks speak, historians are people who hear the voices of the long dead, writers are people who hear the music of words” (p. 107, 1998). For children, the aspect of being learned is one’s educational status; for adults, the act of maturity in knowledge, where light is literally shone onto a dark space deepening insight through a delicate dance between spiritual truth and reason. In Palmer’s example, the act of listening to rocks doesn’t transform the geologist into a rock worshiper, the historian into a necromancer, or the writer into a mystic; rather, the enlightened adult is able to put the two disparate concepts in his mind, both the material and the immaterial and hear the knowledge within.

Learning, according to God, cannot be divided from the act of experience as experience is the best teacher. In the Old Testament, the word lamad is repeatedly used to describe the act of teaching (over 80 occurrences alone, with 16 references in the book of Deuteronomy, and 26 references in Psalms). However, lamad is also used interchangeably with the act of learning. When God tells the Israelites to learn something, He is telling them to teach it – when He tells them to teach something, He tells them to learn it. One cannot teach something without truly understanding the implications of what is taught. Lastly, lamad is also used to signify the word train, bridging the gap between the act of teaching and the act of learning through the process of incremental practice.

The adult learner

1. Why do adults learn? Adults learn because of the necessity of enculturation, the first aspect of pilgrimage (or hope). While education for children is mandatory in most countries, education for adults is optional, used as a catch-up enculturation mechanism to renew or introduce skills necessary for survival in a given context. Enculturation is the process to acquire value according to a set behavioral standard within a given culture through deliberate action, either on behalf of the student, the teacher, or both. Adult education takes many forms: universities, training programs, community colleges, Sunday school, even in-house corporate consultants and equipping classes.

As I teach graduate students in the school of engineering, my classes focus on equipping students with the ability to communicate in the English language their specialized fields and common lives, so that they can increase their prestige as professionals and improve their socialization skills. However, my students are primarily studying English to be acculturated out of their cultural worldview and into a non-Chinese worldview. Enculturation and acculturation are similar; while enculturation teaches relevant skills in the native context, acculturation is the method for teaching relevant skills in a foreign context. Both enculturation and acculturation are relevant reasons for adult education, although enculturation is by far a more necessary component of society.

While an important aspect of society, enculturation is an even more important aspect of the Kingdom of God. One of the two aspects of hope, enculturation (or lifestyle) is the process of preparation as adopted children of God (Romans 8:23) into the holy Kingdom, and is significantly anchored in the future rather than the present. As a teacher, I seek to communicate the lifestyle and hope (elpis) that is sanctified by God through my actions and my words, while at the same time helping my students prepare for the lifestyle that awaits for them on this Earth. Therefore, teaching values such as love and respect for the sacredness in life is important to my teaching, with the hope I can inculcate those values within myself and my students as well.

2. What methods do adults use to learn? The three methods adults use to learn in my model are the intellect (faith aspect), expertise (hope aspect), and discernment (love aspect). The intellect is the ability to utilize knowledge, expertise is the skill needed in order to create change within a society, and discernment is the method to increase one’s capacity to critically assess either personal behavior or the behavior of another (such as a person, an idea, or a thing).

The intellect is the action aspect of enlightenment, where the learner not only utilizes the knowledge they processed through the act of synthesis but also reflects on how the knowledge was used (expertise and discernment). Expertise is the action aspect of pilgrimage, applying intellect in discernment to accomplish tasks using knowledge learned through synthesis and enculturation. Discernment is the action aspect of virtue, when judgment on the rightness or wrongness of intellect and expertise truly supports the end goal of education (apotheosis) or design methodology (eudaimonia). The three methods are entwined with each other, necessary for transformation to occur.

Praxis is an important tool in methodology for adult education as it acts as a gauge for whether the intellect, expertise, or discernment was used properly. According to Vella (2002), praxis is both a deductive and inductive activity used to foster an increase in intellect, expertise, or discernment (what Vella calls knowledge, skills, and attitudes). The act of praxis involves a close analysis of content, the act of re-creation in a different context, and a re-analysis through participatory examination. Applying Vella’s praxis to my model would mean taking a lesson for my engineering students and identifying the key truths (the intellect), re-purposing those truths for my business students (expertise) and critically assessing the value of those truths outside of a classroom of engineers (discernment).

More importantly, though, are the lasting values represented in the methods. The intellect without God is related by Solomon as “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26), because the purpose of obtaining intellect is vain rather than holy. Solomon also said that if skill is used in envy of one’s neighbor, the expertise obtained is “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4:). The spirit of God (also known as God’s ruach) was the physical manifestation of God’s love for his people, the presence of God in the Temple, the power which anointed kings, and the aspect which saved through physical manipulation of the earthly elements. Even in the New Testament, the Greek word pneuma was used in the same capacity as ruach, although the pneuma rather than presiding as a covenant between God and His people inhabited the disciples and anointed each of them with the legacy of the chasid; a truer testament of God’s love could not be found. However the key truth about the Holy Spirit is the gift of discernment: when Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he was led by the Holy Spirit and only after his experience did he truly begin his ministry as the answer to prophecy (Matthew 4:1-11), to bring the love of God to every person on the earth.

3. What is the importance of learning as an adult? The importance of learning for adults, according to my model, is to practice faith, hope, and love. In my model, faith, hope, and love are represented by the concepts of enlightenment, pilgrimage, and virtue. Paul compares the practice of faith, hope and love to the maturation from child to adult (1 Corinthians 13:11), and then draws a metaphor of a mirror to explain that in the practice of faith, hope, and love full knowledge of the self is realized. Therefore, the importance of learning for adults to for adults to learn about themselves and understand how to holistically practice the love of the pneuma.

Contemporary theories of education stress the importance of learning as a participatory activity helping society move from a more mechanistic worldview focused on materialism to a world focused on discovery, creation, integration, and peace-making. Vella (2002) stresses six quantum concepts regarding the current of learning: 1)relatedness, 2)holism, 3)duality, 4)energy, 5)uncertainty, and 6)participation. Her model is known as dialogue education and is empowered by quantum concepts, which like Palmer (1998), stresses the importance of learning as a community.

Paul in the book of Ephesians also stresses the importance of learning in community. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:8). Paul goes beyond quantum thinking, saying that the body is one creature, each part necessary for every other part.

The teacher as learner

1. What is the role of the teacher in adult education? The role of the teacher in adult education is to convey virtue through both words and actions. According to Dungy (2010), teaching must be oriented towards building lives of significance, creating a legacy of lasting value, and traveling together (student and teacher) so that integrity, character, and faith is strengthened for all involved. Education is about empowerment, which makes the teacher the one who empowers.

I connected virtue together with love because love without virtue is savage and lustful but love with virtue is pure, honor-bound, and noble. As a teacher, my job is to love my students in the same way that God loves his people or that Christ loves us. Paul was compelled to classify virtue apart from knowledge, given the popular sentiment that virtue (arete) was in itself knowledge. Paul says faith must be supplemented with virtue, but virtue with knowledge, showing that the two are not the same (2 Peter 1:5). The result of teaching must always be measured with a yardstick of virtue: were the students’ lives enhanced, did they grow in excellence, were they empowered because of the example their teacher set?

2. Personal design methodologies. As I grow as a teacher, I recognize that learning is intimately connected with happiness. If students are happy, they are more open-minded and willing when learning but if unhappy about a subject, more close-minded and skeptical. In his inspirational book about teaching, Burns describes a student referring to his teacher: “You helped me to realize that learning is the key to a full and happy life” (2011). He explains that the best teaching comes from the heart, not from a book, that excellence is about making a class fun, inspirational, and applying teaching methods of self-empowerment where worth is equal to possibilities of the future.

In my own experience, the concept of eudaimonia (happiness) is the core value in my design methodologies. Developing activities and assignments which not only increase value but confidence, love, virtue, hope, and enlightenment are key aspects to my design methodology. While I have struggled over the last ten years of finding a happy medium between encouraging the professional capacities of my students in taking charge of their own education to defining exactly what is necessary to pass a course, I have consistently tried to develop materials which have lasting, eternal value.

In an environment of stunning negativity, I feel the necessity to design courses that not only empower but educate. Tom Wolff, an educator in a Chinese university, wrote a book detailing 18 different kinds of complaints, with a collated 412 submitted allegations over a two-year period, indicating the level of dissatisfaction existing for many foreign teachers in China (2009). Given that learner autonomy is not stressed in the Asian classroom (Ma & Zhang, 2009), curriculum that is based on students needing to do self-evaluation, self-direction, and personal engagement with course material must be tempered to fit the unique model of education present in China: teacher-centered, test-based, and attitude promotion (Gao & Watkins, 2002). Inserting happiness into the utilitarian model present in many Chinese classrooms is a necessity for invigorating learners beyond the walls of the classroom.

3. Personal teaching methodologies. I have described teaching and learning as the same through the Hebraic lamad, with a beautiful example of Jesus as both teacher and learner. Hope is the cornerstone of my teaching methodologies as it is the act of pilgrimage towards the Kingdom. Jesus established the Kingdom through the granting of the Holy Spirit upon all, including the Gentiles.

Just like Jesus’ example, in Chinese tradition the word jiaoxue xiangzhang literally means “teach-learn each other-grow up,” a common phrase among teachers to explain the importance of learning what you teach. Confucius said: “He who is able to acquire new ideas while reviewing old knowledge is worthy of being a teacher” (The Analects, Book II:11). Zhang made a connection between the affective learning of the student and the competence of the teacher in a given subject, showing a relationship between the teacher’s mastery and passion of the subject taught (2011). Therefore, the need for me to not only be a continual learner in my field but a teacher is absolute.

Besides his occupation as a talmid of John the Baptist, the book of Matthew describes Jesus as both learner and teacher: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus would not have told others to emulate his example of gentleness and humbleness if He himself was also not on a journey of learning. As a student of John the Baptist, Jesus continually enhanced his kabbalah (spiritual technique), emphasizing the need for purity not from outward structures but from inside (Chilton, 2000).

Conclusion

Six years ago I began to teach Chinese students at the university level. Knowing what I know today and applying my philosophy back then, my teaching would have been dramatically different. Rather than delivering lectures to my students, personally investing in them for the purpose of apotheosis into the divine image of God. Rather than trying to change society through sweeping reform activities, focusing on mentorship. Rather than legitimizing myself as a scholar without peer, stooping beneath my students and deigning to believe that even they could teach me. Finally, seeking felt needs of my students first, rather than as a last resort. Applying these would have radically altered my teaching, and no doubt will radically alter my future as a teacher — no… a learner.

References

Bloom, B.S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook 1: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Burns, T. (2011). Thank you, teacher: An appreciation of a difficult job well done. London: Axis Publishing Limited.

Chilton, B. (2000). Rabbi Jesus: An intimate biography. New York: Doubleday.

Dungy, T. (2010). The mentor leader: Secrets to building people and teams that win consistently. Winter Park, FL: Tyndale.

Gao, L.B., & Watkins, D.A. (2002). Conceptions of teaching held by school science teachers in P.R. China: identification and cross-cultural comparisons. International Journal of Science Education, 24(1):61-79.

Meizrow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P.J. (1998). The courage to teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: John Wiley.

Vella, J. (2002). Learning to listen, learning to teach: the power of dialogue in educating adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Waitzin, J. (2007). The art of learning: An inner journey to optimal performance. New York: Free Press.

Wolff, T. (2009). Teaching EFL in China: What every foreign teacher should know before they go. New York: Nova.

Zhang, Q. (2011). Teacher immediacy, credibility, and clarify as predictors of student affective learning: a Chinese investigation. China Media Research, 7(2):95-103.

Holism and idealism: a different paradigm

Standing in front of a crowd of around 600 students seated in an auditorium, I held up my hand to silence them. In the quiet atmosphere of nervous silence, one of the girls sitting in the front row looked at the test and began to explain (in a rather loud voice) her displeasure at the nature of the test, speaking in a loud voice and prompting students behind her to peer over their desks like curious cranes at the little squawking bird flapping her wings. In all my years of teaching, that girl wasn’t the last outburst during a test I encountered – but never had I witnessed such an emotional reaction to an exam. Little did I know how important the test was in Chinese culture, even as I angrily told the girl she had to leave the auditorium (and therefore, I most likely sealed her fate). I probably should have realized the importance the next semester when one of my students (again, sitting in the front row) began crying over her test paper as she stared with huge weepy eyes at an abstract diagram of vocabulary and pictures, continuing her sad session until she had to pull out a handkerchief and wipe away her tears.

According to Gao and Watkins, student achievement is a public event in China, measured chiefly by the exam at the end of the year. Most teachers (according to Gao and Watkin’s research) view their job as teachers in five key areas (listed from student-centered to teacher-centered): Conduct guidance, attitude promotion, ability development, exam preparation, and knowledge delivery. To generate data, the authors used a mapping-plane as well as Kember’s “conception of teaching” as a guide (1997), then based on interviews and a questionnaire (School Physics Teachers’ Conceptions of Teaching, SPTCT) generated responses from student-centered to teacher-centered from keywords and phrases. Kember’s “conception of teaching” involves six separate categories: the essence of learning, the essence of teaching, the role of the teacher, outcomes, content, and teaching methodology.

While the authors are critical of China’s test-culture, they also recognize that the system has lasted for more than 1,000 years (from the Tang Dynasty), when the Kefu was used in order to promote scholars into positions of the government, and lasts to this day known as the gaokao (high school test). Gao and Watkins suggest two different orientations from their research: a cultivating orientation (composed of conduct guidance, attitude promotion, and ability development) and a moulding [sic] orientation (composed of exam preparation and knowledge delivery). While the authors do show comparisons between the variant orientations and western models of teaching, they also recognize the uniqueness of the five key areas, due to the complex context of China’s history and culture. However, while western models of teacher are generally centered around knowledge transmission, they do not contain the holism embedded in Chinese methods. Hence, for the teacher aiming to work in China a new paradigm of teaching must be recognized.

Teachers of Chinese students (even Chinese students abroad) would do well to remember Han Yu’s words from the Tang Dynasty: “What is a teacher? A teacher is the one who shows you the way of being human, teaches you the knowledge and enlightens you when you are confused” (Shi Shuo, published 1973). In China, the teacher is admired; this admiration does not come from vacant authoritarianism, but from the tradition of teaching as an Ideal. Confucius, China’s greatest teacher, considered the goal of teaching to achieve ren (or humaneness, a self-actualizing state that can only be achieved through holistic scholarship). Teachers from the western tradition look back on Socrates in admiration: a man constantly surrounded by eager learners, seeking to unravel the secrets of the universe who in his self-centered idealism caused so much disharmony in his society that he was forced to commit suicide; his pupils continued his tradition of critical scholarship, breaking down structures and unmooring their minds from the proverbial dock of history, into Aristotle’s dream. Confucius, on the other hand, relished in harmony, died an old man happily surrounded by his pupils who eagerly copied his words into what would become the most powerful continuation of culture on the planet.

Gao, L.B., & Watkins, A. (2002). Conceptions of teaching held by school science teachers in P.R. China: identification and cross-cultural comparisons. International Journal of Science Education, 24(1):61-79.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics’ conceptions of teaching; Learning and Instruction. Journal of EARLI, 7(3):255-275.

Liu, Z. (1973). The way of being a teacher in China – the way of teachers. Taipei: Chung Hwa Book Co. LTD.

 

 

The Teacher’s Identity: a review of Palmer’s “Courage to Teach”

My first “real” teaching experience was standing in front of a crowd of four year-old children, holding up cards of colors and numbers, and then dancing until my audience was giggling so hard that they forgot they were speaking a foreign language. While not all teachers may have had origin stories as kindergarten teachers, my journey into the teaching profession began quite unexpectedly. What you realize (even as a kindergarten teacher) is that teaching begins with relationship and only after a relationship has been established can learning take place. When the eyes of the teacher lock with the child and there is a spark of trust – then, only then – can learning begin.

As children grow older into adults, they fashion more poetic and artistic ways of learning, but in the end relationship continues to be the keystone, even in university and postgraduate studies. Parker Palmer recognizes this key fact, as the thesis to the book “The Courage To Teach” centers around the community that grows and is watered by the teacher. Even though I teach in a different country, culture, and sometimes language, the relationship between student and teacher is still tantamount, albeit interpreted and visualized differently. Even though expectations for what that relationship means may differ from culture to culture, the student and teacher can never be separated.

As a teacher, I have struggled with the concept of who I am as a teacher. Am I an instructor? Am I a friend? Am I a spiritual guide to help my students reach the next plateau in their lives? Am I the sage on the mountain, or the muse that whispers secrets into the hearts of learners while remaining at a distance to observe a transformed life? Palmer explains that the core of a teacher lies in his or her identity. “Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.” (p. 12) In other words, identity forms the central axis upon which teachers revolve around: how far they can grow, their possibilities of self-actualization, how they relate to their subject material, and the extent to which students can grow under their tutelage. However, teachers are not the impact mechanism which affects students, according to Palmer; rather, once the teacher identifies the work of teaching as a vocation where “deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet,” (p. 30) then the result is what Palmer describes as good teaching. Good teaching is the penultimate goal, because the beauty of education lies in the subject-based classroom, where ideas are met with passion from both teacher and student. While Palmer wouldn’t necessarily say that the content of the lesson is more important than the teacher, neither would he say that the teacher is deserving of authority because of privilege or status; rather, in the mashing of paradox and fulfillment, within that tempestuous storm lies the diligence of purity and true knowledge, keys to unlocking true learning.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to true learning is the atmosphere of the classroom. Teachers often complain of toxic environments, where students are uncompromisingly stalwart in erecting and rebuilding barriers to learning the teacher attempts to pursue. Sometimes these barriers are as simple as a consistently snide attitude toward the material of the class, and sometimes these barriers are as poisonous as repeated attempts to derail other students through an elaborately orchestrated coup. However, such grand dreams of Hell are merely illusions from the teacher’s fear, transformed into monsters and shadows that if not countered lead to a true malformation of bad teaching, where the teacher loses all credibility in not only the students but in himself or herself as a bearer of knowledge. Palmer classifies this barrier as “the teacher’s fearful heart” (p. 47), and reflects that the only true counter to fear is a change in attitude. Rather than combating the toxicity of the environment, the teacher should treat good teaching not as benefiting the student, but rather as benefiting the teacher. “Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest.” (p. 49) However, Palmer doesn’t say that the teacher shouldn’t attempt to care for the students, as “a good teacher is someone who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken – so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence” (p. 46). In other words, a teacher has priority, but if the teacher is at risk of falling to fear, confidence falters and only the strongest student survives, if survival can even be called a hope.

Wisdom is generally found in paradox. Many view this as the “wise man’s crutch,” with popular sentiments such as “during peace, prepare for war,” or “the wise man knows he is not wise.” Simplistic philosophical algorithms which propound great thoughts by abusing the existence of unspoken space are the sage’s artillery. As a teacher, I am held to account to the things I teach and often see myself on that distant high hill; what the wise man on the hill often fails to perceive however, is that while he chose solitude over community (as many scholars do), he stands out as he is the only one on that hill. According to Palmer, paradox is the key to good teaching; creating environments of tension in which learning can occur. He mentions six different kinds of environments of paradox: protected but open, inviting but dangerous, self-led in community, realistically archetypal, a community encouraging solitude, and a place of active discourse and quiet reflection (p. 76-78). Tension is the key to unlocking potential; tension for tension’s sake does not create potentials, but neither does tension for learning’s sake. Rather, exercising one’s abilities in the medium between light and dark, while aiming the mind at a goal allows one to critically assess the virtual environment, and through that assessment, self-knowledge is increased, which when utilized as a source of energy, helps create bridges over rivers of mystery and encourages us forward into the mist. In the end, the ability to learn can never come from any other but the self. However, the teacher must take full responsibility over the environmental design.

Palmer asserts strongly his Quaker identity, and perhaps nowhere stronger is his dedication to his faith in his preaching of the community of truth. As a teacher, I operate primarily in community but also outside of it – a class is a scheduled activity, required by the state, encouraged by the culture, and associated with shame and honor in the social spectrum. The student has no choice over the material studied, nor choice over the tasks assigned, and no choice over the time of the prescribed learning nor the length of that learning. In a true community the voice of the many act as one, but in a classroom, community cannot be understood in traditional terms; if purported as such, such definitions serve only to act as a rationalization for a more positive teacher and student relationship rather than a communal activity. For this reason, Palmer explores the concept of community not as a commune of individuals but rather as “the community of truth, the grace of great things, the transcendent subject, the ‘Secret that sits in the middle and knows,” and the sacredness of soil that Palmer believes community is rooted in not as physical and objective fact but as the numinous energy at the heart of reality, which binds all together, teacher and student alike. (p. 112) While this definition may seem obscure and philosophical, heis not claiming that community shouldn’t be held accountable as a collection of individuals working in harmony, but rather the spirit of community must be central to the reason why all parties are gathered. In other words – attitude. The classroom cannot be understood as a social requirement without the prescience of why and how that gathering of hearts and minds is necessary for personal growth. Even a person who hates learning must find an apple in a dry orchard if he seeks to become more than what he was; for this reason, community doesn’t spring out of the ground like a well of water; a teacher must, like a focusing iris pointing a laser of light at a spot on a wall, create an atmosphere of an “eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” (p. 105) For Palmer, that conversation deals with a particular subject, but I believe the teacher, as a leader, must also know how to wield the power of the iris wisely; a teacher does not exist in a vacuum.

In our modern society, we are inundated with data. Wikipedia boasts millions of pages of information, our liberal arts colleges offer hundreds of different majors, each major holding under its wings several different disciplines, even a field such as engineering must now be understood as mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, structural engineering, coastal engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and so on. The university has responded to this and does its best to offer as comprehensive an education as possible. Palmer asserts that what has happened in our society because of the rise of data collection is backward; rather than being more knowledgeable, we are less; rather than having more skill, we have trouble knowing how to actually process the data into action. Furthermore, in the university, classes often operate from one of two poles: where the teacher is a bastion of knowledge, or where the teacher workshops the students into pseudo-professors where every emotion or thought has value, regardless of the extrinsic value those ideas carry. Palmer’s solution then, is to offer less meaningless data, but data of value to the community. “The human brain works best with information presented not in the form of isolated data bits but in patterns of meaningful connection, in a community of data.” (p. 130) Hence, the responsibility lies on the teacher to carefully select information for a course that not only is aligned, but mindful that both the learners and the tutor are members of an intricate biological microcosm that grows and changes from the things touched, sensed, and experienced. Hence, the goal of education should neither be the holy hand grenade of knowledge from Heaven’s ambassador, nor should the goal of education be for students to play Battleship with their texts and hope to sink their opponent’s navy. In the center of everything lies the passionate subject, a bendable but intractable member of the learning society which is strategically selected by the teacher while at the same time open to interpretation. After all, the subject won’t go away if a student interprets it into oblivion, but that interpretation may reveal a deeper secret about the student previously unrealized, as long as the student is able to focus on the step-process of the latter obliviated idea.

Teaching is a personal art. Teachers draw from their lives stories, metaphors, experiences, emotions, and fears, in this complex interplay of personal elements a unique teaching methodology is practiced. Each teacher carries different variables into the classroom, and as such, rubrics, selection of curriculum, even priorities and time schedules differ from class to class. One teacher telling another teacher how to teach better can be explained by thinking of an image of a bird telling a beaver how to build a better home out of sticks. While both the bird and the beaver use the branches of a tree to build their homes, they are not the same creature and have different goals even though both are trying to provide for their families. Given these barriers to discussion, how can one teacher benefit from the experience of another teacher, without feeling the need to clone himself after that teacher? Palmer outlines a three-pronged process, which I will restate as preparedness, sacredness, and reflective paraphrasing. (p. 156-160). Preparedness concerns the full background of an issue, even data which might seem non-relevant. Sacredness is an attitude of pure exploration of situation and methodology. Reflective paraphrasing is the final step in the process where the listener tells the focus what she or he said, along with clarifying questions and non-confrontational observations. While these three methods may be useful in bridging the gap between teachers and allowing them a space in which to conceptualize themselves in a different environment, Palmer asserts the necessity for educational leaders to encourage dialogue. “Good talk about good teaching is unlikely to happen if presidents and principals, deans and department chairs, and others who have influence without position do not expect it and invite it into being.” (p. 160) Palmer’s premise, from the beginning of the book to the end, maintains a healthy accountability for those in power, whether those people are the teachers in charge of their classrooms or the leaders in charge of their teachers. As a person who has influence without position, I am encouraged by Palmer’s words.

The dread word for any teacher is invariably reform. It’s not that teachers are enemies of reform, but reform means change and forced systematic change is not a teacher’s bread and butter; much like the amputation of a limb, teachers view reform as a soldier might leer at a medic holding an axe in his hands. Teachers spend a lifetime developing strategies for use in the classrooms – elaborate rituals, choice texts, personal philosophies that others would find ludicrous outside of the tiny spec of wood, metal, and paper that comprises the classroom. Teachers spend countless hours pouring over evaluations, trying to come up with crazy theories in the sometimes haphazard goal of shaping lumps of teeny, naïve, and hormonal creatures into something their societies can be proud of on both an intellectual and a social level. So when words like “educational reform” get thrown around from other teachers (especially those outside the system) often the result is met with cold distance, apprehensiveness, or even outright rejection. Palmer recognizes the inherent weaknesses of reform, especially as reform tends more or less to be institutional rather than carrying intrinsic value. Hence, for Palmer the strategy is not to find ways of incorporating reform within the teacher’s life, but rather reforming the concept of the movement. To illustrate the reformed movement, Palmer uses four stages: institutional rejection in community, establishing support systems and a shared vision, opening goals and vision for public critique, and establishing a reward system outside of institutional values. (p. 172) Rather than working through the institution, Palmer asserts that a movement has value as “movements have the power to alter the logic of organizations because an organization is, at bottom, a system of social sanctions: do this and you will be punished; do that and you will be rewarded.” (p. 186) However, given the foundation of an institution lies in punishment and reward rather than passion and community, movements are to the institution what a shot of morphine is to a man bleeding on the battlefield: a second chance, a reawakening, and a re-purposing of “the power within each of us that in communion with powers beyond ourselves, co-creates the world, for better or worse.” (p. 189)

As a teacher in China, there are further challenges. I don’t have the space to talk in details, but there are five cardinal concepts of social intelligence of great importance in Chinese society: mianzi (face – impression management/self-presentation), wuxing/wulun (holism – social cognition/information identity), guanxi (relationship – attunement/interaction awareness), renqing (favor – influence/behavioral affectation), and yuan (fate – concern/interest management). Teaching in China affords me space; as a foreigner, I am not privy to the intrinsic culture, but I am aware that the culture where I live is far more attuned to social intelligence than my own and as a teacher I must train myself to be keenly aware or face the consequences. I bring this topic up because while Palmer’s model of teaching works well in a Judeo-Christian culture based in the sophistry of Plato, Aristotle, and Adam Smith, the Chinese worldview towards education is very different, founded in the entirely different philosophical petri dish of Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi. While Palmer identifies areas of improvement for the vocation of a teacher, most teachers would welcome his suggestions even though they might balk at their own responsibility to change; in China, I’m afraid many if not most teachers would find Palmer’s suggestions not only amazingly out-of-touch with the ideals of the teacher, but unusable except in particular situations where western ideas are more welcome and schools have been incentivized to test out alternate theories.

For myself as a scholar living in a foreign country, I have come to recognize that Palmer presents two significant challenges to me: firstly, that in order to function as a teacher in China, I must relearn basic concepts about human action. Not only does Palmer explain the inherent spirituality of the teaching profession, but he does so in a way that revitalizes old ideas in new colors. I must learn this language of human action, how to interpret what I see before me, and how to speak that language in such a way that I know who exactly I am, how my fears root me to inaction or backward thinking, how to approach the paradox of east and west and use that so that I can create a more positive learning environment. Concepts like mianzi and renqing are extraordinarily powerful as relationship modulators, while wuxing, guanxi, and yuan establish even the expectations of my own work. Mianzi and wulun alters/limits the extent to which I can affect change among my students, wuxing and yuan influences the amount of power I have as an influencer without position, and guanxi changes the nature of promotion, benefits, and even the concept of the movement.

Secondly, while I do believe that I have the spiritual gift of teaching, I don’t believe I am currently investing myself in it to the fullest extent.  While the culture is challenging, I am not naïve enough to believe the system would be any better in another place – so Palmer speaks directly to my attitude and the necessity for me to be a light to others, no matter how dark the island may be.

Releasing the anchor of self-perception

The first time I heard the word career was in a high school business class. “You want to make sure you choose the right career, something you are really passionate in,” she said. “If you choose the wrong career, you may later come to regret that decision.” At the time I was sixteen years old. For years, I had been traveling with my parents to Amway conventions; most of these adventures I spent a majority of my time in the hotel room watching movies, swimming in the pool, or exploring the hotel for any secrets it might hold, but in recent years I had begun to attend the actual seminars, and when I turned 16 I bought my first IBO Kit (Independent Business Owner) and then presented my “business opportunity” to my biology teacher, Mr. Cross.

Mr. Cross was known as one of the strictest teachers in the school… or perhaps even the universe. Never smiling, his brow always settled in a comfortable suspension-bridge shaped arc, his bright eyes behind a set of thick glasses, his tall spindly body hovering over students like an ominous shadow. So I decided that he would be my first, because I do enjoy a challenge. I didn’t know it then, but he was also my last. No, he didn’t dissuade me from becoming a millionaire, but he did allow me into his home, he spoke with me not as a teacher but took me seriously, and he wasn’t intimidating at all. He revealed to me something that would later become part of my ethos: that being a teacher didn’t mean that when you left school you carried your job on your back, but outside of the classroom, a teacher was as real as any other man, someone who sat on his couch in his pajamas and watched late night sitcoms, or someone who despite bringing piles of work back to grade, relaxed with some jazz and a cup of tea. The career doesn’t make the man, I learned. The man makes the career.

Fifteen years later I stopped struggling. I became a teacher.

Edgar Schein, more famous for his organizational opus, “Organizational Culture and Leadership” (1992), also was the author of a self-assessment called “Career Anchors” (2006). Schein begins by describing the inner career as a “self-image of competencies, motives, and values” (Loc 85), where competencies are defined as talents and skills, motives defined as aspirations and hopes, and values defined as character, beliefs, and priorities. For Schein, the anchor is a self-assessment which allows a person to understand the drives of his or her inner career (the self-image), and then once understood can more easily manipulate the external career (horizontal, vertical, or inward steps toward advancement) to better suit the purposes of that particular anchor (of which Schein lists eight). The anchor acts as a stable force which provides momentum and direction for movement in an organization or company and allows the worker self-direction and awareness of why he or she is drawn to particular types of work, or why the worker’s dissatisfaction erupts in overcompensating time spent in hobbies, second jobs, or leisure activities (Loc 160).

As confusing and fragmented as it is, experience more than any other power transforms our abilities and goals. Schein focuses on self-assessment and believes that by defining and clarifying one’s primary career anchors, he or she can become more fully developed. Schein lists eight career anchors: 1)technical/functional, 2)general managerial, 3)autonomy/independence, 4)security/stability, 5)entrepreneurial creativity, 6)service/dedication to a cause, 7)pure challenge, and 8)lifestyle. For an organization to be truly efficient and utilize their staff, they need to treat career anchors as strengths. 1)Specialists should be utilized in areas that requires concentration and focus, 2)problem-solvers should be given direct access to conflict, 3)agents should be the external arm of the organization, 4)pillars should be embedded deep in the organizational and offered opportunities to solidify and recognize loyalty and thereby keep the organizational solid, 5)creators should be given the freedom, incentive, and support to be innovative, 6)influencers should be placed at strategic locations in the organization to serve in capacities which drive organizational ethical standards, 7)warriors should be positioned in the hardest zones of disagreement with goals firmly communicated and rules of compromise fully explored, and 8)integrators should be the barometers of health in an organization, queried at periodic times to make sure the organization is healthy and thriving. By transforming the self-assessment of career anchors into action-oriented positioning, an organization can more fully appreciate the diversity present instead of using the self-assessment tool as a repatriation tool or mere encouragement for a single worker to take his or her career more seriously.

Our self-perceptions are the primarily limitation of the career anchor as a tool. Before I took the assessment I read through his book and came to the conclusion that my career anchors be service/dedication to a cause, entrepreneurial creativity, and autonomy/independence, as I identified strongly with those three in my personal belief system. However, after taking the assessment, I discovered something surprising: my three top career anchors were actually service/dedication to a cause, lifestyle, and technical/functional. Initially when reading through the descriptions of lifestyle and technical/functional, I scoffed at both but for different reasons. I believed that people who tested as lifestyle were more concerned with a life free of responsibility, and that people who tested as technical/functional were droll and boring. However, I realized that my own self-perception was flawed, and that my actions were a stronger reflection than my ideals.

For years I struggled with the concept of career, ever since I first heard the word in my high school business class. I was a bookseller, a secretary, an undertaker (yes, I was), a videographer, a poet, a columnist, a projectionist, a lobbyist, a security guard, and a day care counselor. Nothing seemed to fit. “The rest of your life,” my high school business teacher might have said, “is defined by your choice of career.” Of course, she was wrong. Our lives are not defined by our careers; rather, we define our careers. The day I realized this, I was standing in front of a mirror, and on the other side of the mirror I saw Mr. Cross staring back at me, but with one difference: I was smiling.

References

Schein, E. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. (2006). Career anchors: Participant workbook (Kindle version). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

Intercultural immersion: synthesis

There are certain moments of sublime clarity I remember from my childhood. Sitting at home at the dinner table, the wax from two red candles burning between a baked turkey and a Chinese rice dish, and the prayers of my mother before the meal asking that God would watch over not only my brother and I during the school vacation, but also the Chinese family that lived with us as they were adapting to life in the United States. I remember visiting my friend from Iran and eating dinner with his family, studying the golden-framed paintings all over the house and trying to understand why a family would place so many sculptures in so many places. I remember a missionary from Thailand coming through the front door of our home, handing me a ball woven of hard bark, and telling me that this ball was a soccer ball for the village children where they worked, and every time I kicked that ball I saw myself in dusty fields with other kids, sharing together in sore, reddened feet and the abounding laughter of enlightened joy my peers could never experience in their insular lives. These experienced were profoundly formed by my experience growing up in a family where foreign cultural values were embraced alongside the basic American values of expressed democracy, Christian service, and the manifest destiny of spreading the love of our faith to the corners of the Earth. There is both a sanctity and a blindness to manifest destiny though. Historically a masonic concept, over time manifest destiny has come to mean more than spreading a democratic faith to the far side of the dusty world, but has transformed into an American ethic that provides both our salvation as a nation as well as the seeds of our destruction as a people devoid of weakness and riddled with ethnocentric attitudes in the vain quest to bring light to the huddled masses of shades outside our borders.

When I graduated from university, I had that same fire to reach the world for truth (perhaps I still do, albeit in a different way). Freshly christened with two shining degrees (and an online certificate) I took a plane to China, eager to embrace my destiny as an educated neophyte granted the wisdom only $200,000 could have bestowed. I believed in the fundamental goodness of the learning process, in the transformative power of Christian light to reach across national boundaries and yank people into a more pure outlook and even in the prospect that English could transfer that same manifest destiny from myself to my students. I had traveled to over sixteen different countries and been given a unique perspective on the world that most people would be envious of, and came from a cornbread American family that had the blessings of both urban and farmer philosophy, along with the revelatory message of Christ for the world. However, as Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996) both stipulate in their respective volumes, I carried my culture on my metaphorical back, with the intent to teach rather than learn, to bestow rather than grow, and to perform rather than reform. The most striking difference between Elmer’s servant model and the model I took abroad was that Elmer’s servant serves through lowering his face to the ground and submitting, while in my first couple of years in China I was a paragon of virtue who expected the natives to submit to my knowledge and grow into a new paradigm. In a word, I was a monster, albeit a gentle beast who preferred to embrace before consuming.

When I began to teach at the Chinese university, inwardly my desire was to serve the students. At the beginning and end of each class, I queried the students as to what they wanted to learn, as the administration “had no expectations” (outwardly, in any case) and my singular desire was to both communicate the love of Christ through my actions of intensely desiring to help the students perform their language abilities beyond even my highest expectations. I desired to serve, and still today I carry that same dream, although Elmer (2006) has taught me that to truly serve, I must carry no attitudes of greater-than but instead always approach foreign culture as a less-than, and Lewis (1996) has taught me that regardless of appearances, the people I am interfacing with have grown up in a reality so far beyond my understanding that I could well be on another planet trying to convince the natives that green was red. In order to really reach the other side of the gorge, I have to first give up my image of what I think the other side must look like, close my eyes, and once I reach the other side of the bridge, carry no expectations except for my own necessity to listen to the sounds and take in the colors.

Strange, though. I grew up in California, near San Francisco, a city that once upon a time was 90% Chinese. Asian culture is almost second nature to most people in California, but it is also different. Over the last hundred years, political upheavals, wars, famines, deaths, and the passing of generations have altered the landscape of culture, to the point where I wonder sometimes if two or three generations ago the culture was even relatively the same. Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar who wrote in the early 1900s during the first Republic of China, writes about Chinese culture in his book “My Country, My People,” and while many of his descriptions seem apt, they are also off-putting, bridging culture with words but separated by time. Lewis (1996) remarks about Chinese culture, expressing the power of taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism over people’s lives (Loc 9199), philosophies which are barely even recognized among today’s Chinese youth (due to Mao Zedong’s policy of using the volumes of Confucius from people’s homes as kindling during the Cultural Revolution); culture transforms over time and eventually fades, replaced by the shared experienced and trauma of a people (Loc 10068).

Many times I feel like Joseph, the Hebraic hero who found himself sold as a slave to a rich landowner in Egypt, and years later became the second highest-member of Pharoah’s court. Elmer (2006) provides a wonderful illustration of Joseph, encapsulating his cross-cultural work into a model: acceptance, trust, openness, and serving (Loc 1965). The divide is wide, but with perseverance, patience, and humility the divide can be crossed, even when culture changes faster than one might hope and the cross-cultural worker finds himself struggling against the tides of an ever-changing sea.

As a cross-cultural worker in China and an educator, I often find myself existing in the China Hand paradox. A China hand (Zhongguo Tong) is a foreigner who has lived in China so long, that many people (even Chinese people) are quick to acknowledge their vast experiences and wisdom of even Chinese culture; having lived in China for almost ten years, I most qualify for this illustrious title and the respect it engenders, even though my cultural awareness still lacks. How can I become a servant in a culture that desires to elevate me? I am reminded of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, kneeling down and wiping away the grime of dust, touching broken toenails, cleansing wounds and blisters, pushing the dirt-covered sweat from gnarled hair, perhaps even removing pebbles and rocks from between the toes. In a society of cleanliness and purity such as Israel, for a man of honor (a king, even) to step down and wash his servants’ feet must have been considered abominable, a breaking of custom and culture, much like what cross-cultural workers feel when they make the initial breach into an alien land and witness people doing things they had never even considered as proper behavior. My dream is to be like Christ, to be a servant first, and to truly respect the Chinese culture in a way that only Jesus could. To be a servant means to serve my family first, breaking out of the American perception of the man of the house and moving towards the Christ-like habit of serving others first without the expectation that my humility will engender my greatness, but rather humility for humility – a state of mind, and a pattern of living.

Postmodern Fantasy Literature: an overview of contemporary ideas

Lecture Goal: Give a broad view of contemporary American fantasy literature and where the ideas came from

 

1. Sword and sorcery in the 30s-60s, based on Weird Tales and Lord of the Rings

Weird Tales in the 1920s, born from Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu)

Fantasy, horror, myth, and swordplay – Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard

Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the idea of true adventure, from Conan

 

2. Heroic fantasy and dark magic in the 70s, 80s and 90s, based on Dungeons and Dragons (1975)

Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone, combination of heroic myth and popular fantasy

Roger Zelazny, the Chronicles of Amber, and castles, dungeons, monsters and sorcerors

Tanith Lee, emergence of dark fantasy based on authors like Mervyne Peake with Gormenghast

Emergence of allegory, deep symbolism and heavy themes with Ursula LeGuin (Earthsea) and Patricia McKillip (Riddle-Master)

 

3. The American-style journey novel in the 90s and 2000s, based on The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan and the journey novel “Wheel of Time”

Terry Goodkind and the emergence of Mass-produced epic fantasy

George R.R. Martin, the anti-Lord of the Rings, beginning of the New Weird with China Mieville

 

4. Urban fantasy novels in post-2000 era, based on Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and urban fantasy

Anne Rice to Laurell K. Hamilton, and contemporary urban vampires and faeries, Wiccan stories

The Fantastic City and the New Weird, with China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer

 

5. Literary fantasy

Breaking out of the genre, with Octavia Butler and Parable of the Sower, combining different forms

The movement of fantasy to break free from genre

 

Questions to ask at the end:

1) What was the first magazine to have sword and sorcery? 6) Where does Harry Potter take place?

2) Who created Fafhrd? 7) What is the religion about magic?

3) What was the game that inspired heroic fantasy? 8) What old idea does urban fantasy use?

4) The Wheel of Time was what kind of novel? 9) What did Octavia Butler break out of?

5) What happened to fantasy novels after Terry Goodkind? 10) What is current fantasy literature trying to do?

 

words to put on the board:

contemporary fantasy

 

Edgar Allen Poe

H.P. Lovecraft

Cthulhu

Barbarian

Invented world

Sword and Sorcery

Weird Tales

Lord of the Rings

Michael Moorcock

Elric of Melnibone

Dungeons and Dragons

Amber

Tanith Lee

Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast

Ursula LeGuin

Patricia McKillip

Riddle-Master

 

Journey novel

The Wheel of Time

Mass-production

New Weird

China Mieville

 

Harry Potter

urban fantasy

Vampires

Fairy/faerie

Wicca

Otherworld

Jeff VanderMeer

 

Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

Literary fantasy

Genre

Xun, Dreaming of Lost Names

I admire Lu Xun. Not for his timidness, which he was not; not for his resolve, which faltered often; not for his calculating mind, which carried the burdens of a man blinded with inhibited sorrow; and not for his kindness, which crossed blades with his cruelty so often he might have been his own doppelganger; rather, I admire his perspicacity with words, his transparency of soul, and his exuberant passion in the movement of ideas through the vehicles of people and systems. Once a teacher myself at Peking University, Lu Xun exhibits ideals I wish I had but also showcases the dangers of adorning the armor of a hundred ideals, each engaged in civil strife.

“The present passes step by step,” Lu Xun states, meditating on the temporal, changing, and suffering nature of the world. Relaxing with my wife and son by Weiming Hu in the shadow of Ciji Temple, I am swept in the immediacy and evolution of moments, as if the passing of people through the reflection on the lake were a mirror to another world where time could be rewound and marched backwards. The remaining walls of Ciji Temple show that the present world is unrelenting; pockmarked and fading paint the only memories of her fabled past, when people would stoop by the stone altars and press flame and smoke into their hopes and dreams.

Overlooking a pond while standing on a lotus-pod bridge, I cannot agree with Lu Xun about the suffering of the world. Lily-pads float on the surface of the water, and tiny skittering waterhoppers bounce across the translucent surface, living in an impossible dream of speed and haze. The reflections of the terraced rocks and spaces of rippling blue skies to the small creatures are not the only constants; for a good portion of their life, my figure standing on the lotus-pod bridge becomes an anchor to them, much like watching a tree grow, strengthen against the wind, and shed yellow leaves in autumn. Suffering is inconsequential to the process of time, existing only as a cloud marking the passage of life from one evolution into the next.

If suffering is an inconstant spouse, of what use is education? Learning is the process of uncovering truths, not only about the world but about ourselves. Students are the phalanx of learning, charging forward bravely into the unknown with no expectations. Lu Xun described the brave students of Peking University as “tolling alone in the caverns of wind and dust deep at the bottom of the sea,” and in my mind looking at the surface of the lake from beneath, I begin to understand his meaning. The waterhoppers cause ripples in the water, and the image of Ciji Temple shudders, the red walls and carved altars shrugging as if held by a fierce wind. As I rise to the surface of the water, images between the past and the present shift into one: mendicants kneeling by curls of gray smoke and scholars in long robes are replaced by the sound of a bicycle bell and the flash of a camera.

Emerging from the lake, the world has changed: sky-tall construction cranes towering behind green mesh shielding shoot dust into the sky, students with golden cards rush by with apocalyptic fear pressed into their cheeks, multinational sandwich kiosks hide behind forgotten and overgrown gardens, and an electric buzz permeates the ether: the sound of oil burned into flame and lightning humming through crisscrossed optical pathways. And yet, although the future has arrived I find myself on the dry shore, smiling and viewing the landscape with pride and joy, much unlike the dismal parades of Lu Xun’s dread and phantasmagoria.

Lu Xun always believed that the goal of education was to be “properly adapted to the individual to develop each person’s personality,” and everyday our society seems to be moving closer and closer to this tenable dream. There are mountains to ascend and rivers to pass, but we are on our way. “I am living among men,” Lu Xun remarks when reflecting on his proud time at Peking University, as his students gave him the hope to press forward, even in the dismal hour of warlords and massacres. Our times are lighter and more hopeful today; let us remember that and dare to dream.

Towards a new categorization

In reviewing the New York Times “Notable Books of 2011” I started compiling what I hope to be a different kind of categorization of fiction and nonfiction. As a writing teacher, I find it imperative to teach how good writing can flow from the classroom into society, and so in this categorization I am looking towards a fundamental understanding beyond already established genre classifications.

While working at Barnes & Noble in the late 90s, I learned that classifications of books had become so ridiculous that fiction even had labels like “aviation fiction” and varying degrees of romantic fiction which I do not want to post here; nevertheless, as a teacher I find it impossible to teach good, solid forms with built foundations of theme and type without trying to come up with some kind of categorization.

Under fiction, I noted:

  • Historical – dealing with the past as subject and setting
  • Regional – dealing with a particular area as a main theme
  • Edge – fringe stories, with a focus on living outside accepted society
  • Political – focused on the interplay of structural power
  • Sorrow – any story with deals primary with how to cope with primary sadness
  • War – soldiers, generals, or citizens are the focus of experience
  • Relationship – tales which center on the interplay between sexual desire and shades of friendship
  • Finance – where the exchange of money is the primary concern, either with criminal or legal ramifications
  • Fantasy – stories which are painted in secondary belief
  • Science – stories which deal with the possible use and expansion of technology
  • Horror – stories that use death as a romantic notion
  • Culture – dealing with the interplay between national and ethnic worldviews
  • Religious – exploring human spirituality, especially in myth and the experience of invisible yet universal felt forces
  • Metaphysical – utilizing surreality and philosophical concepts made real in contemporary life
  • Occupational – where the theme is centered around the success of failure of work culture


Under nonfiction, I noted:

  •  Cultural studies – explaining current current
  • History – exploring the impact of the past on both past and present
  • Biography – describing the transformation of one human experience
  • Religion – defining the characteristics of the supernatural world in common life and the realistic impact
  • Economics – breaking down the relationship of money and culture
  • Technology – forecasting the future use and current impact of human invention
  • Linguistics – indicating how language, the structure of the written and spoken word, is related to both culture and identity
  • Poetry – exploring experience through line, rhythm, and image
  • Physics – capturing the essence of the natural world through formula, theory, and numerical consistency
  • Environment – understanding human relationship with the natural world, both through academic investigation and cultural implication
  • Political science – mapping out the relationship of culture and nation
  • Travel – exploring how new culture affects human experience
  • Art – describing the formulation and purpose of sensory imitations of life
  • Philosophy – explaining the categorization of the human mind regarding basic concepts and structures in the world logically

In teaching writing, it is always my goal to help students combine the skills of a researcher with the skills of a good writer.  I do believe that in the above categories great books have been written, utilizing all the skills of great writing, and that anyone in knowledge and practice of those skills can do the same.