Some Back-to-School Thoughts

b2sOne day I was on the NYC subway, and an advertisement for a local college caught my attention. It showed stories of individuals who turned around their lives through education. With personal photos and short phrases, it conveyed some inspiring stories. And at the bottom of the ad, it said:

“For more consumer information about this program, go to…”.

So we are now “consumers” of education, just like we consume food, drinks, entertainment and clothes? The term consumer is also used in the area of health services these days. I  wonder if it is how we want to view ourselves – a mere existence who consumes material goods and services? (I was of course not the first to question this, and I stumbled upon this TIME article. The article sheds light on how simply using the word “consumer” to identify ourselves may have a powerful influence on our behavior.)

I think it is reflective of the lost purpose of education. Many – if not majority of – people view education as a mere tool to get a higher paying job or to advance in their career. Not to deny the importance of providing for family and having greater financial stability, I think it is a very limited understanding of what education really is.

This week I start an MS program in Global Affairs at Rutgers. When I say that I am planning on eventually pursuing a PhD, with a focus on nonviolence and civil resistance, people often ask me: “Where would the degree lead you in your career?” Then when I say that though I have some ideas about it, I am not too worried because I have several years to figure out the details, most seem unsatisfied with the response. To them, my not knowing what exactly I would use my degree for at the end of the five-year process, is silly, naive or unrealistic. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have goals and aspirations – I’m just open to discovering how the process would unfold.

Once someone said, “Oh so you are pursuing this degree just for your personal fulfillment.” But isn’t it the purpose of education, to inquire what fascinates you, to learn, to grow?

Similarly, I cannot help but get turned off when I hear students say “I am taking this class because I hear it is an easy A.” During an orientation I had a similar conversation with a fellow student. Suppressing my judgment (and really, he was a nice, brilliant student), I said: “If a course doesn’t stimulate or challenge me intellectually, I consider it a waste of my time and tuition.” Getting good grades do not mean much, if you do not learn anything. He looked at me, and said: “True. It is more exciting to go to a class when you find it interesting.” I hope he meant it.

Buddhist philosopher and my spiritual mentor Daisaku Ikeda proposed a “paradigm shift from the idea of education serving the needs of society to that of a society that serves the essential needs of education” (For more, learn about his education proposal). When I first heard this as a high school student, it really struck me. We often see education as a means to the end, but it should be the end in itself.  In his speech at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Ikeda also said:

“Education is a uniquely human privilege. It is the source of inspiration that enables us to become fully and truly human, to fulfill a constructive mission in life with composure and confidence.”

In both statements, one can see Ikeda’s view which is centered around the dignity of human beings and their fulfillment.

Now is the time to reinstate the true goal of education. Fellow students, let’s see each class as an opportunity to enjoy this “human privilege.” I can honestly say that I never found any class too boring or meaningless, once I attended it with the mindset that I’d learn as much as I could from the professor and my classmates.  I believe that as students we share an equal responsibility as the professor to contribute to the class, to make it interesting.

For those that are not in formal schooling, I believe we can be lifelong learners. And beyond a skill or knowledge we acquire, there should be a sense of fulfillment and inspiration.

Whether or not we can experience that is, up to us.

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