Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: October, 2014

Education and tradition in Asia and Europe

Westerners have long criticised education in Asia as being too traditional and not oriented towards developing the power of independent thought. The idea is that the pupils or students have an exaggerated respect for and deference towards the teacher, and that what they are expected to do is to learn off by heart what the teacher tells them and regurgitate this faithfully in exercises and exams.

Recently, Asian voices have been added to this critical chorus, especially at the university level. Professors have said that their students are not active and assertive enough when they go to study in the West. There seems to be something in this.

Looking back in history, one must admit, on the other hand, that traditional European teaching was a bit like that. There used to be a lot of rote learning. This went back to the Middle Ages, when printed books were in short supply. What’s more, the teacher got a lot more respect than he or she does now. This is actually something to be regretted. Respect for the teacher is very necessary for young learners, because he or she knows more than they do, and they need to take the teacher’s word for it as to what they are to learn. Why should they bother learning something difficult they have never heard of before – unless someone they accept as an authority tells them they should? It is helpful for learning that the teacher be an authority figure, a “lao shi” as the Chinese say.

In the West the main problem now seems to be lack of discipline. Pupils or students do not learn enough skill and technique before they start “doing research” and “expressing themselves”. No wonder young Asians, raised under more traditional assumptions, find themselves at sea in such a learning environment.

The best thing for education would be to combine the good points of East and West. Let the teacher be an authority figure for as long as the young people need, but then let him let them go, saying “I have brought you thus far, now it is time for you to go on alone.”



Contract management and added value

Contracting out work or services to outside companies and individuals has become usual both in business and government in the Western world since the 1980s. Originally, it was due to downsizing and lean-and-mean budgets. Organisations could not maintain enough staff on the payroll to carry out their business, so they hired contractors to pick up the slack. It may have been a matter of making a virtue of necessity, but the diversification of the people doing the work has sometimes resulted in interesting and creative contractual arrangements.

Contract management is an opportunity for an organisation to get a new perspective on particular issues and problems. Yet all too often managers still think of outside contractors as no more than “temp staff” or “extra help”, and the main thing they worry about is control – being able to control what the contractors are doing and getting the specified result. This is understandable, as there is anxiety involved in depending on outsiders to get part of your business done, which is what contracting means. But this kind of defensive thinking excludes the all-important factor of “value added”.

When a product or a service on the way to the customer or the consumer passes through the hands of different people, they should be adding value every time. This value will come from their particular perspective and their particular expertise, which others in the chain do not have. The more diverse the people in the chain are, the more value is likely to be added. Contractors are no exception here. Whenever you contract a job or part of it out to anybody, they should be adding value.

Yet the counter-phobic desire for control more often than not prevents this from happening. When a contractor offers new perspectives on the task that the organisation simply hasn’t thought of, the response is likely to be: “our committee has already decided how this is to be done. It’s too late to make changes. You just have to implement what was decided.” Again, the contractor finds themselves working in isolation, not part of the team, not invited to meetings, not kept informed of what other people on the project are doing. The counter-phobic desire for control is matched by a contradictory but also counter-phobic desire to keep the contractor at arm’s length.

This is definitely not the way to go. Looking back on situations where I as a contractor was able to strike up a good working relationship with a manager on the inside of an organisation who was open and communicative, I can say that really the only point in contracting out is to have value added. The organisation doing the contracting out should expect value to be added, and should allow and indeed encourage the contractor to do so.

The traveller, then and now

The other day I was in Munich. Nothing too unusual about that; it is not far from Switzerland where I live. But it was an unusual experience, because I had been there forty years before and never since. What is it like to visit a place you saw once only briefly, the better part of a lifetime ago? Well, you find you have just about forgotten everything. Just here and there you may have a feeling that you recall a façade or a streetscape.

This time when I arrived, it was a summer’s day in Munich – exceptionally in October. I walked through the downtown from the Karlstor to the Marienplatz, then up the Residenzstrasse to the gate of the Hofgarten. I marvelled at the classical beauty and elegance of the place, and then the wild cool landscape of the English Garden on further.

Yet I felt an unavoidable sadness too. You see, I could appreciate the city as a mature person, and have an eye for all the details. But as a youth I was too unsure of myself to make the most of it. It was my first experience of language travel abroad, and it was such a waste, really, such a missed opportunity. I was so unequal to the task, unable to cope with the strange new environment. Perhaps that is why I stayed away for forty years afterwards, in spite of the fact that in the course of my adult life I have travelled to so many other places on three continents.

I came away from the new experience of Munich with a great desire. It is a desire to be of help to young people going abroad on language study trips. There is so much to do, so much richness to be got out of the experience, but they need to be guided and helped. That is what I want to do now. I resolved that if there is any way I can help young people make the most of language travel, I will.

On Romanization (3)

To conclude this discussion, it is instructive to go back a few years to the thinking of Walter Ong, who contributed so much to the understanding of the importance of writing and print in the Western world. In his book Orality and literacy (1982), in which he talked about writing traditions East and West, the tough-minded American Jesuit was in no doubt that the Chinese would eventually have to romanize. This was because Chinese had over 40,000 characters, and he couldn’t get his mind around it.

“Such a script is basically time-consuming and elitist” he began by declaring. This is true. The system was developed by the nobles, the mandarins and the monks for their own purposes, not for the ordinary Chinese, who never got the chance to acquire it. Yet the same could be said about any writing system, including the Western alphabet.

Nothing daunted, Ong goes on: “There can be no doubt that the characters will be replaced by the roman alphabet as soon as all the people in the People’s Republic of China master the same Chinese language (‘dialect’), the Mandarin now being taught everywhere. The loss to literature will be enormous, but not so enormous as a Chinese typewriter using over 40,000 characters.”

So Chinese writing had to go. It seems unfair of him to judge and condemn an Asian writing system because it didn’t fit in with a technology that was designed for Western languages. Especially in retrospect, now that the typewriter has become obsolete and we know how expert the Chinese have becoming in writing on computers. It also seems unfair to forget that the Chinese invented printing in the first place.

“The loss to literature will be enormous, but”…it’s just too bad. Ong’s critique is based on the Western assumption that the alphabetic writing system is superior to all others and must win out in the end. A highly questionable assumption, which is oddly similar to his stance on orality. He realized that people in oral, non-literate societies lost their whole traditional culture by acquiring literacy, but thought this was just too bad, too. Progress had to happen. Progress, of course, means: becoming more like us.