RESPONSE TO AN ANONYMOUS CRITIC
By: Justin Shelby
Apparently one of my articles has been making the rounds and even drawn a rather long bit of criticism on Facebook! Very exciting.
First of all, if you disagree with me, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or send me an email. If your response is written properly and is sufficiently well thought out, I’ll even publish it here. But it feels gross, when online authors are so accessible, to write or see extensive criticisms of someone behind their back. Why, oh why, would you wish to deny me the ability to respond?
I’m going to respond briefly to some of the criticisms that I thought were most off-base. First I will describe the criticism and then I will give you my response. To maintain the anonymity of the critic, I will not include direct quotes unless they surface and give me permission to do so. Also, oh anonymous critic, adverbs aren’t arguments.
Criticism 1: I am confusing history, literature, knowledge, etc., with the Western humanities.
Answer: This is false and represents a misunderstanding of the argument, whether the source of that misunderstanding is my lack of clarity or my critic’s misreading. I am using the fact that Vietnamese students who have already expressed an interest in studying at American colleges and universities repeatedly refuse to engage with the education offered there except in ways and under conditions that are obviously connected to their status and material success.
Look at it like this: if you have a friend, you take care of them whether or not taking care of them gets you a promotion at work. If you only help someone transactionally, because you think it’s going to get you a promotion at work, we would not normally call this friendship. Idiomatically, we would say that you don’t “really care” about this person. The relationship between the subset of Vietnamese students I’ve observed and education is mostly like this, purely transactional. It is, with notable exceptions — shout out to you LD, LH, QA, HV, HA and other students of mine over the years to whom this most certainly does not apply, I’m unspeakably proud of you — not the relationship of lover to beloved, but of farmer to spade.
Moreover, methods of historical, literary, and other inquiry tend to be subject-matter neutral: you can apply them equally to the understanding of material drawn from Eastern sources. It’s like science that way – there is no “Western” science or “Eastern” science, there’s just science.
Criticism 2: I am engaged in a mission civilisatrice.
Answer: This is a country where teachers at the most “elite” high-schools in the country mostly refuse to write letters of recommendation for their students, where the students with the highest GPAs have institutionally sanctioned fake grades, and where there is a multi-million dollar industry devoted to creating fraudulent college applications.Yes, this must be improved. Does that constitute a mission civilisatrice? Only if you have a much lower opinion of Vietnamese society than I do. I think that I’m allowing the innate goodness of the culture and people to reassert itself — I’m certainly not inventing it out of thin air.
In many ways, it’s a shame that this discussion inevitably devolves to east v. west. It’s really modern v. backwards. True v. false. Cosmopolitan v. provincial. Cultured v. uncultured. A couple other things v. a couple of other things that I don’t want to get into because I don’t want to be deported. But I would only be deported because I would be misunderstood — I think quite highly of Vietnam, especially as a great counterbalance to the China — the expanding Empire of Slavery, if you will (you should be getting hints of Athens v. Persia here, amidst the lighter, more floral notes of Rome v. Carthage). There are elements of Vietnam that are quite modern, and elements of America that are quite backwards. I want the best of all worlds to be available to all those who seek it — this is modernity and this is culture (see Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy for this). It’s just that when it comes to education and intellectual freedom, America comes up trumps.
Criticism 3: I am promoting Western education because I am the CEO of a company that sends kids to the States.
Answer: This criticism indicates a lack of reading. Though I don’t blame my respondent too much, I have stuck my neck out publicly again, and again, and again, by publishing my thoughts on my blog. It’s annoying (though understandable) when someone makes an allegation that is easily refuted by other things I’ve written on the same page!
Read my other posts, Qualifications for Liberal Education and Defining the “liberal” in Liberal Arts. I say explicitly in these that fewer people should seek a liberal education. It’s a huge problem that too many unprepared and unengaged students are matriculating to these schools. For one, it’s a disservice to the students (and their parents, who normally foot the bill) who think that a liberal arts education is going to be some automatic career boon — it isn’t. It’s also a disservice to the Western educational system, since unengaged and ill-prepared students make the colleges they attend worse. It’s a lose-lose that occurs because of the tremendous prestige of the American system and the way that Vietnamese students and parents misinterpret that system. I want to stop that misinterpretation, even if it shrinks my market.
One of the first things I do in every single sales meeting is make sure students understand what a liberal education is, what it was historically, and why it exists in the first place. I talk about the problems it presents and the opportunities it creates throughout the application process so that students can make an informed choice. When students tell me they want to be accountants, or go to hotel management school, or get a degree in supply chain logistics, I often tell them to go somewhere other than the US, since the US is not usually economical for this kind of a degree. I could just take their money and then send them to overpriced schools, but I don’t. I only promote Western liberal education for a certain kind of student with a certain set of interests and beliefs because I believe that I have a duty to the overall good of the student.
We can talk about business ethics later, but I also tend to believe that the most ethical move is also always the best business move, long term. In other words, I believe that telling the truth is best for my bottom line and that there is no contradiction or conflict between right action and responsible business. One thing is true though: I am an entrepreneur, and as any good entrepreneur, I have other opportunities. I’m still here because I care about education, not because I can’t get a bigger paycheck with easier hours elsewhere. I don’t even pay myself the highest salary in my own company…eh, I get grumpy when people preach to me about business who know jack shit about business…
Criticism 4 (the weirdest of all): Because lots of people pursue the hard sciences in the US, rather than the humanities, they are not pursuing the life of the mind.
This boggles. Spend some more time with Americans who study the hard sciences and then tell me that they are primarily doing it because they want to be employed or that they aren’t doing it because of a love of the subject of their study. I almost don’t even know how to respond, except that to note this presumption makes my argument for me. If you told me that someone was studying physics, or math, or computer science, I would assume that their interest in their subject was based in the awe and wonder they have for it, not because of their employment prospects post-degree. The idea that Richard Feynman, Einstein, Stephen Hawking, my college physics instructors, my college ecology professors, the friends I had, or the various girls I dated in the hardsciences, etc., weren’t living “the life of the mind” makes me think that my critic doesn’t really know what “the life of the mind” means. My anonymous interlocutor assumes that because someone studies physics, they aren’t pursuing “the life of the mind.” The fact of that presumption tells you almost all you need to know about the different mindsets our pre-university educations have given us. I’m sorry that you were so wrongly done by; it seems as though prepped you to beef up you wallet and thin your soul.
There is more (the response was a reasonably dense 3 pages and it is always easier to commit an error than undo one — to multiply is easier than to factor), but I’ll stop there.
Again, if the critic wishes to make themselves public, I will edit this article to include their verbatim critiques and my responses to reflect a more minute consideration of them. But I’ll extend another invitation as well. If the author wishes to come to the Slab, we have a podcast room set up. We can have an in person discussion on the merits of the Vietnamese educational system, modernity, the West, and anything else you like. No need to stay anonymous. I’m not.
And lastly, no matter what disagreements we may have, and no matter how wrong you are, I thank you for your engagement and that you cared enough to respond. As I tell my students, engagement is better than agreement.
Frater ave atque vale, esse quam videri, Carthgo delenda est, etc., etc.