We often determine our identity according to what we are not, rather than what we are. Even the latter is frequently determined according to ideas about "what we are not." The existence of things from which we can distance ourselves is a necessary condition for the formation of our identity. To this end, it is important that one should find an object for such distancing. This point should not be understood as if such obstacles do not exist in reality and that we need to invent them.
Obstacles do exist and through the act of distancing we more vividly emphasize them and more vividly express ourselves.
Chinese scholar Jin Li performs such distancing in her book Cultural foundations of learning: East and West, published in 2012.
However, she does not undertake such distancing with the aim of identifying "herself," but does so with a purely analytical aim. Jin Li, in fact, describes her own experience: she was born and raised in China, but left to obtain an education in Germany at the time of the Cultural Revolution. That period became a turning point in her life. It was during her studies in Germany that she discovered clear cut cultural differences between the West and East. In particular, she noticed differences in one area of specific interest to her at that time: differences between the educational methods and philosophy of the West and East.
We must primarily consider the aim that schools and universities serve. Why is the education system of the type it is? What is the reason of that? The aim of education is to develop people into personalities, but into such personalities that correspond to a given culture. If differences exist between Western and Eastern methods of education, this indicates that the two cultures differently understand what a personality means. Culture determines what the teaching method should be, whilst the teaching method determines what the culture is. The two are interlinked – this is the key point of Jin Li.
We could have borrowed the diligence of the Eastern education system and the creativity of the Western one. However, we did the opposite. We took the components from these systems that represent their greatest weaknesses: laziness and the lack of individuality. Through a synthesis of these weaknesses we have obtained what we have today.
The reason for the difference between the traditions of Western and Eastern education lies in the fact that these traditions are built upon ideals that fundamentally differ from each other. Western education rests on the experience of ancient Greece, the traditions of Socrates and Plato, whilst Eastern education springs from Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The main ideal of the Western system is individualism, whilst the ideal in the East is collectivism. Even this single fact indicates a huge difference between these two cultures.
The process of Western education is active and interactive. It is important that it is not centered on the teacher. It implies group discussions in which anyone can freely express their opinions, no matter how absurd they might be. The process is like a constant quest: of mistakes, revision, and establishing links.
The literal translation of the Sanskrit term Upanisad is "sitting down near," referring to a student sitting down near a teacher, listening to him/her and thus receiving esoteric knowledge. Practically the same relationship still exists between teacher and student in Eastern culture. The Eastern philosophy of education opposes that of West in every component. The teacher is at the center, their students listen to him/her and accept everything that their teacher says as given.
Jin Li describes her mother's recollections about how, in the 1930s, the latter saw a copy of Goethe's Faust translated into Chinese in her school's library. Although she did dare open this book with a strange title, she soon closed it because she could not understand anything.
Jin Li then goes on to recall her own experience when she studied Faust in Germany. There were many things that she could not understand either, especially in the first part where the Faustian bargain took place. She and her peers who had also been raised under the Eastern education system were puzzled and had lots of questions. But initially they did not raise those questions with their German teacher in fear that they might make fools of themselves.
I think it is symbolic that Jin Li mentions Faust in the very first chapter of her book. One can say that in many regards the protagonist of this medieval legend proved decisive for Western civilization. The entire Western culture can be characterized as an expression of the Faustian soul: ever questioning and constantly striving towards perception.
Education is based on perception; culture, in this case, does not matter. We encounter differences only when the vector of perception needs to be determined: in the case of Western culture, this vector is directed from the inside towards the outside; whilst in the case of Eastern culture, it is directed from the outside towards the inside.
In one of his articles, American journalist David Brooks compares the mottos of American universities with those Chinese universities. "Truth," "Light and Truth," "Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched" are the mottos of Harvard, Yale and Chicago universities, respectively. Chinese universities, however, basically use Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. For example, "Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world" and "Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly" are the mottos of the universities of Tsinghua and Nanjing, respectively.
These mottos clearly emphasize the different Western and Eastern approaches to learning. Western education is geared towards the acquisition of objective knowledge, attributing a cognitive role to education, and is oriented on understanding and mastering the external world. Eastern education, however, apart from acquiring knowledge, sees learning as an important tool for moral development, it is part of a lifelong and arduous process to cultivate virtues inside the self.
Both Eastern and Western models have their weaknesses. Students raised under the Eastern education system are, as a rule, very hardworking and, compared to Westerners, spend much more time on learning, both inside and outside classes. This is proven in Robert Compton's documentary film "Two Million Minutes," which explores and contrasts the learning methods of schoolchildren in the United States, India, and China. Compared to American students, Asian students get higher marks at universities, but only when performing assignments in which they do not need to reveal any creativity or individualism. Jin Li says that a common complaint of teachers working in Asia is that students lack individuality.
In contrast, individualism is not a main problem for Western students, but they are less diligent. They are waiting for a Eureka moment that may never occur.
We have thus outlined two main weaknesses: the problem of diligence for the West and that of individualism for the East.
In Georgian schools, in a classroom that has no map, a geography teacher makes students memorize that Georgia is located at the junction of Europe and Asia, that it is surrounded by this and that, that our country has always been a route connecting North with South and West with East, and so on and so forth.
Through a synthesis of these weaknesses we have obtained what we have today. I am not speaking about what the idea behind the system is, I am talking about what it is like in reality. In reality, schools are good places to learn reading and writing. However, past this stage a more ambiguous period begins. We cannot call the sort of knowledge that a secondary school student obtains a form of systematized knowledge, rather it is a heap of facts that children find difficult to link together. Similar to the Eastern system, the teacher is at the center. It is the teacher who puts questions to the class.
Whatever is written in a textbook or a teacher's manual is one thing, how a teacher delivers this information to students is quite another. Why do we skip the first chapter of a textbook as being unimportant – is it because it speaks about evolutionism and creationism? Why do we talk superficially and shyly about those chapters in the biology textbook that concern reproduction? Why does a literature teacher accidentally "overlook" Franz Kafka's Letter to His Father in the textbook?
Perhaps these things happen by accident, but, as a result, children are left without anything to nudge them towards thinking and questioning. They are merely asked to memorize ready-made materials. Fear of interpretation is perhaps the biggest problem facing Georgian schools and this problem is not only confined to schools.
Despite all this, teachers will not break the hearts of parents and tell them that their children are talented but lazy. The issue of laziness is also questioned, but perhaps it is not laziness as much as the existing method of education that should be blamed for the indifference of students towards any issue concerning school. Perhaps, the method itself ensured the absence of stimulus, which is now called laziness.
Let's go back to Jin Li's book once again. One of its most important chapters is called "Finding ourselves through the other." This chapter is a sort of summary: Jin Li spent the first half of her life in China. It was during that period that her distancing from the West took place. She then describes how, when she first arrived in Germany, she was ashamed of being Chinese. In that period Jin Li was distancing herself from China. However, thereafter, when she was teaching in the United States, she turned back to ancient Chinese texts and rediscovered what was valuable. In this period, I think she did a form of double distancing, which is what enabled her to what was original and important. She found and created her own self by going through the paths of others. Perhaps Jin Li is correct. Perhaps we also need to go through such a path in order to create "our own self." In this case, in terms of learning method, we should first distance ourselves from what is alien, then from our own identity, and then from both.