Monday, September 8, 2008

On Education, Wizards, Failure & Imagination

I was reading my good friend Francis' blog (Life's SOS) today, and his entry entitled "What do you do with a BA in English?" reflected on how certain university degrees may not be as effective in preparing young people for the real world. While there may be some validity in that, the idealist in me wants to believe it is not necessarily so. Fundamentally I think that a good university degree should bestow on an undergraduate two key things: thinking skills and deeper understanding of self. The actual content of the degree, although important and useful, is only number 3 on the list.

This reminds me of a Commencement Address recently delivered by bestselling author J. K. Rowling to new Harvard graduates. I was quite taken by this address, which was entitled "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination". You can read or view Rowling's complete address here, but for now I'd like to highlight one small part of it where she talks about her university days:

"(My parents) had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom."

Yet this remarkable lady survived various life challenges and created one of the most successful book and movie series ever, about the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter. Who (apart from perhaps herself) could have predicted that her Classics undergraduate study would have provided such a fertile foundation for her future career? But it was quite a struggle before she attained success. Indeed her "rags to riches" story - going from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years - was almost as famous as her fictional works.

I urge you to read or listen to her inspiring speech as she gives very good advice on failure and imagination.

A few excerpts ... first on the benefits of failure ...
"... failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me ... rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

... and on the power of imagination ...
"If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

I think most parents tend to nudge their offspring towards traditionally safe, professional disciplines. When I was young (and I think to a large extent even today), the common response of Asian parents when asked by their offspring what course they should pursue at university went like "Ah boy/Ah girl, you can do anything you like as long as it's medicine, law, engineering or accountancy!" Parents invariably have their children's best interests at heart and believe this to be the path to stability, security and ultimately happiness. Yet I cannot help but feel that their children's futures might be better served if they were given the flexibility and support needed to pursue what they are really, really interested in and seem to have an inclination for. When one pursues one's passion, the results can be astounding ...


flightstick said...

One-eye giants, a wooden horse with soldiers hidden in its belly, a cruise into hell, an entire civilization fighting over a beautiful woman -- Homer's Trojan War and the wandering of Odysseus, as well as other Classics of the West are flights of the imagination.

Nothing in the modern world ever comes close, not even Tolkien's Lord of the Ring or Rowling's own Harry Potter series, all of which to me are cardboard figments.

There has always been a debate among parents, education pundits, and policy-makers, whether the study of the humanities (the Classics, philosophy, literature and history) is practical (to help you patch a roof leak or a Windows glitch) or productive (to help you find a high-paying job).

Frankly, liberal studies are not immediately useful to help you survive. Rowling herself, with her Classics education, spent years as a poverty-stricken mother, before her books make her a billionaire. As my father used to say, without cash, everything is hypothetical.

What such education does is to provide an intellectual foundation for impressionable young men and women as they move to the harsh working world. Note that the foundation is strictly intellectual, to help you in your thinking and understanding of human life and human affairs. It has nothing to do with building character or improving morals (the gods and heroes in the Classical works are often depicted as rapists and murderers).

An intellectual foundation -- the ability to think things through, to weigh arguments and to create new concepts and ideas -- is valuable in the long run. As I have said in my own blog, it must be supplemented with an additional practical skill. In other words, after a BA, you go on to get a graduate diploma or even an MBA in business studies or a technical subject.

A good example in the ancient world is St Paul, prolific writer of most of the New Testament Epistles (today we call it spamming). In between preaching and laying the doctrinal foundation of the new Christian faith, he earned money as a tent-maker. Spinoza, the greatest thinker of his days, was a lens grinder. It is only in modern times that we see indolent intellectuals who could only utter learned mumbo-jumbo in newspaper columns and passed themselves off as pundits.

By all means, get a good classical education (which also includes Confucian studies), but don't stop there. Grease your academic qualification with a specific technical skill (I recommend either Java programming or car servicing).

Life is short but the classical gods can make yours luminous:

We are creatures of a day. What is someone? What is he not?
A human being is a shadow in a dream.
But when a god grants a brightness
Then humans have a radiant splendour and their life is sweet.

[Pindar, Greek choral poet, 518-438BC]

James Yong said...

Well said. I agree with most of your points. The only part where my view diverges somewhat from yours is on morals and character building. I would hope that a balanced exposure to various areas of the humanities, augmented by parental guidance would teach the young to discern between right and wrong.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to speech by my favourite author, J K Rowling. It is great!
--- a Harry Potter fan