Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Many times when I read ancient texts I am struck by the similarity of concerns that they had and the ones we presently have. At the very least, encountering these sorts of historical continuities leads to make a person a bit less smug about the wisdom of his/her own generation, given that we (or at least I) tend to spout off (false) platitudes about how it was (better) “back in the day.” When you learn that back in the serious day the same problems existed that you claim didn’t exist so much for you and your peers — well, you start to entertain the notion that reconstructed memories can be an amazing thing. Anyway — in this case I’m thinking of Chu Hsi and his frequent complaints about education, below.
Chu Hsi (1130 – 1200) was a medieval period neo-Confucian who wrote a good deal about education. I’ll point out three points of similarity between what he complains about and what people tend to say today:
1. “Learning for Learning’s Sake”
Much of what bothered Hsi centered around pedagogy and education, specifically the worry that students “just don’t care” anymore about what they are learning, “only care about passing and with grades” and so on. Like most educators, Hsi felt that people should care deeply about the subject of their study, and that something almost “sacred” is lost when a person uses education merely as an instrumental means towards some end. As he notes:
Scholars must first distinguish between the examinations and studying — which is less important, which is more important. If 70 percent of their determination is given to study and 30 percent to the examinations, that’ll be fine. But if 70 percent is given to the examinations and 30 percent to study, they’re sure to be overcome by the 70 percent — how much more if their determinations is completely given to the examinations!
Ah, how many times have I uttered those words in class? I can’t count. Hsi was bothered here by the fact that the civil exams, which required knowledge of the classics, led people to “want the certification” (passing) without the actual knowledge of the classics themselves. As a person might put it today, students focused too much on “mastering school” and “letting school get in the way of their education.” Just as college is today the “gateway to the middle class” so too were the examinations in ancient China (well, perhaps not too much different in modern China either, they’ve just shifted the stress to the one exam that determines who gets to go to college).
2. “Publish or Perish”
Many academics today complain about the fact (as they see it) that (a) there are too many journals and that (b) those journals are mostly filled with articles of dubious quality. Moreover, I have heard the claim made that because “unorthodox” viewpoints tend to catch the eye of editors and readers, having a novel point of view is a quick way to get publications, which is fine on its own but not so good when the novelty masks a lack of substance. Ah, but that’s how it is, they say, because we live in a world of “publish or perish” (though I am not established at all in Chinese scholarship, this is a complaint I’ve heard in the field — that people too often strive for readings of texts that just “say something different” instead of focusing on getting the texts right in a historical sense).
Hsi says something similar about the civil examinations, suggesting that students didn’t really care much for the actual meaning of the texts themselves, but rather wrote in novel ways (coming up with idiosyncratic interpretations) just to catch the eye of the examiner, this itself leading (it was seen) to a higher chance of passing the exam.
3. Damn Technology Always Gets in the Way
Of course, readers of this blog are aware of my frequent complaints about how technology can often get in the way of “real learning” and “real relationships” and so on. Or so goes the story when I’m on my soapbox. One complaint I always raise is how the internet has, in many cases, served to distance students from a real sense of embodied engagement with their texts. They use the internet to become “efficient” at gaining data as opposed to really trying to figure out the substance of what it is that they are learning. They become, as it were, “Googologists” and “Wikiperts” with no real commitment to the content of their studies.
Hsi has a similar complaint, but it’s about the printed text. He says:
The reason people today read sloppily is that there are a great many printed texts…it would seem that the ancients had to written texts, so only if they had memorized a work from beginning to end would they get it. Those studying a text would memorize it completely and afterward receive instruction on it from a teacher…For people today even copying down a text has become bothersome. Therefore, their reading is sloppy.
Same complaint, different time and context. The printed page has led students to realize that the words are always “there in the book” so there’s no point in memorizing it, or becoming intimately familiar with what it says at that level. I can always go grab the “reference.” Similar with the internet — why even read the book? There’s a summary right there on Wikipedia. Or why think about what it means? There are great summaries of what five people think about it there in Google. Distance, distance and more distance.
As I said, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Much as things change, they remain the same!