Day 20: My Cousin, Or on Education

I have been observing my little cousin over the past few days that we’d gotten to spend time together. She came over to spend a couple of nights with us, during which we swam, exercised, went shopping, ate together, and so on. It’s great to have these two days with her, which was mainly because her break coincided with my visit to Bangkok. Because ever since she was born almost a decade ago, I have always been abroad. So, we only got to spend less than a month every year together during my summer and/or my winter holidays which I always returned home. This time, because we had spent so much time together, from the morning all the way to the evening when I tucked her in, I began to realize that there’re so much I could learn about life from observing someone more than 23 years younger than me. It’s somewhat painful to observe her. I love her because I have seen her since she was zero-year-old, and that she has been a part of my life in the past decade. So, my “partiality” toward her is what makes me feel conflicted whenever I feel that I shouldn’t be giving her the preferential treatment just because she’s my cousin. But how can I not? She’s my cousin!

In a way, she represents an immature state of human being. We were all like her when we were her age (well, maybe not everyone, but, in general). Needless to say, for someone so young in a family, she constantly receives  all the attention from all of us. Both of her siblings are at least 13 years older than her. We’re all helicopter family members to her, so to speak. I didn’t have that privilege when I was young. It’s true that I called my parents from time to time, and thought of them also as my best friends on top of being my most revered role models, but when it came to decision-making I was left to do it alone. I did not grow up being hovered over by my parents suggesting to me what I should do. They were busy, and that was one of the reasons why they could not possibly be hovering over me. The real reason, however, I believe, is that my parents themselves were raised as mature decision-makers, therefore they saw the true merit in urging me to make my own decision — and, more importantly, be responsible for the consequences of my own decision. Looking back, I feel that which is pretty tough for a young (and cute) boy! Jokes aside, my parents were not hand-off, but they would help — and they did, countless times in fact — whenever they realized that I could no longer manage the situation by myself. But the lesson that I learned from being granted the complete freedom to make my own choice, and the complete responsibility to accept the mistake, admit the false, and come up with a way to solve my own problems when such decisions lead me astray, essentially made me an existentialist even before I knew of the term.

The cutest girl in my life is no one else but my own little cousin.

The cutest girl in my life is no one else but my own little cousin.

Back to my cousin again. Although all of our family members are now used to having this young little girl in the house with them, they still surrender to her drama whenever she wants it to portray her desire for us to buy her things. Long story short, we have been incessantly and brutally spoiling her (and I truly believe that, as much as I love her almost to death, she wouldn’t be spoiled at all if she’s living with me full-time) and that my cousin is, by any standards, is a spoiled kid. Again, back to my earlier point about the contradicting feeling that I have been having about whether or not I should love my cousin more than any other kids, or should I treat her as a special one because she’s my cousin and that I know her more than I know other people. This task is specially difficult for me since I am a teacher by profession, and therefore, on a daily basis, I encounter this sort of question regarding partiality: how shall I treat the students I know very well? I wholeheartedly believe that my little cousin is, deeply, a kindhearted person because she has been growing up among and with us who love her, but the modern world has trained her to be calculating, to know which roles to play in which situation, and to use other people’s sympathy to benefit her. Not only is she interested in playing games that she know she would win, but she also, quite often in fact, tampers the rules of the games, or makes her own rules so that she could make sure that she would win. This is, somehow, human nature. We calculate, and we make moves that not only would benefit us materially, but also make us feel that we have figured out the way to get more from the labor that we’ve put into the process. We strive to find a better way to live ourselves.

Evolutionally, this makes us calculating mammals, who see cheating, tricking, and tampering the system not much as a sin, but a product of our own ingenuity — the same way we cherish those who know the rules so well and therefore could break them in style. My little cousin was not interested in winning per se, but in winning and taking all, and being able to bully those who lose. I was like that too, to a degree, when I was her age because of my ignorance and because I didn’t know much about sympathy. I surely would not want my little cousin to be like me (although there’s so much I could do since I am not her parents). Growing up with the curious mindset, I wasn’t the most incident kid in town neither, and I knew how painful it was to be dismissed, hated, and outcasted by my classmates. My little cousin doesn’t know what she wants in life yet, and therefore she’s like a sponge who absorbs everything — to her, there’s no difference between good and bad influence, as they’re all things with the capacity to have an effect on her.

Although I don’t completely believe in John Locke’s theory of “blank slate-ness,” I seem to see his point her. This “blank slate-ness” (latin, tabula rasa) is the idea that babies are born as though they are completely, clean, blank, and empty plains with no preconditions, no preconceptions, and/or pre-destinations. They “become” what the parents make them become. I tend to go with the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius (mengzi) that we may not be born with a lot of ideas, but we definitely ain’t blank slates. According to Mencius, we’re all born a set of “pre-ideas” about the world, which has been built into our system, our DNA, and our modular unit of being. Central to what is built into us, among other things, is the “sense of humanity,” which includes the paradoxical presets of self-interest versus sympathy for others, the desire for to be powerful versus the desire to be modest and live just adequately but not beyond, and so on.

An enlightenment thinker such as Adam Smith has shown us that self-interest and sympathy for others don’t have to always be staged at the two opposite sides of the ring, but can co-exist well under the pretext of the shared goal of “moral sentiments.” The best way to turn our sympathy into something meaningful to the whole community is for all of us to work hard, and simply let the products of our labor compete fiercely in the market, which would not only give the consumers the chance to decide which is a superior product, but also drive down the price, which would benefit the underprivileged in the society as a whole. In addition, this sense of self-interest is also about letting our goodwill materialize in forms of positive externalities to make the society a sympathetic terrain for human beings who have sentiments for each other, and for all. That is, what we’re trying our best to do is to make sure that our offsprings chose what is right for them.

I once found myself arguing with my little cousin over something, and it all happened was simply because she wanted to show that she could “engage in an argument” with someone older. For instance, her response to my question “who do you think live in that house?” as I was pointing my hand at a house across the street which looked a bit different from where we lived was, “who do you think? a dog, perhaps?” At first, it was interesting to see how her brain worked, but after a while, I got very annoyed, which was mainly because I thought we were having a conversation when we weren’t. Without a real sense of collective goal, our independent monologue seemed utterly pointless. Surely, she was not interested in engaging in a conversation, but to show that she could come up with something to argue with me. I later found out that she didn’t even come with those responses by herself. She heard them on television, from her classmates, and from people on the street. This particular incident reminds me of so many conversations I have had with so many people. Our conversations, though seemed fine on the surface, led us no where because while either one of us was hoping to arrive at some solutions of a problem we had agreed to be discussing, the other person’s goal was usually something else: to prove the point that he/she knew things, to deliver a statement that he/she was capable of maintaining a long conversation (in the case of my cousin), and sometimes simply to make a point that he/she wanted to make with or without the pretext of the conversation (aren’t these people so annoying?) The bottom line is, and this is how I have been living my life, I would never start a conversation with someone, let alone engaging in one, if I think we don’t share the same collective goal. It’s a total waste of time.

At the end of the day, the purpose of this post is to get myself to think about the role of education. The title of this post owes its origin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, Or On Education. My cousin follows her parents, her teachers, and whatever the media tell her. Because she’s born in this generation, she’s equipped with the knowledge of digital culture, information technology, and cutting-edge sensory understanding of the world around her. The drawback of all of these is that, especially ever since her parents gave her a green light on using the computer and tablet at home whenever she pleases, her attention span has been observably truncated. Online informational pages, games, and electronic media are aiming at delivering the data (and usually with some forms of entertainment) using the least amount of time as possible, and by doing so they need to internationally leave out some core ideas, which could be very important, as they make things to complicated. By the time the readers get to the core ideas, they would have lost their attention already. Online media, with its focus on arriving at the point they want to make as quick as possible, makes us feel that which are too complicated (when sometimes they aren’t complicated at all, it’s just that we need to see them, also, from a variety of perspectives to understand the clearer picture) are probably not worth reading. There’s been so many times that I encounter some negative comments on the internet made by people who have all the ability to understand complicated things, but make mindless comments simply because they lack the patience to think through using both of their emotional and reasoning sides of their brains. My cousin, born as a Generation-Z, is someone who can’t spend more than a few minutes on one thing. Constantly aroused by all forms of interactivities in the virtual reality provided to her by the massive spread of the internet, she feels the urge to want to move on to the next things once she finds out that what she is currently reading is too hard. Although I have tried to read it with her to give her some good ideas so that she wouldn’t think that the important contents that she’s reading is too hard, once her mind has set on the impression that it’s hard, she simply stops paying attention to anything — to me, to the information, and to everything around her.

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