The story appears on

Page A5

January 10, 2023

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion

Don’t be too quick to dismiss a moral compass as useless

Editor’s note: In this series on cross-cultural comparisons, we try to look at some Chinese manners, customs and concepts from a historical and cultural perspective, as distinct from their Western counterparts, with a view to arriving at an reappraisal of the Chinese outlook in the modern context.Some 2,000 years ago, Chinese sage and Taoist founder Zhuangzi told a parable that still has relevance today: A giant tree by a roadside grew for centuries because its wood was unsuitable in making boats, coffins or pillars. It lived to a ripe old age, providing shelter from rain and sun to passing travelers.

Zhuangzi moral? “People appreciate useful things, but not things deemed useless.”

We live in a complicated society where that observation still holds some truths, especially in education.

Consider how parents react to the arrival of a child. For some time, the baby’s every activity is posted with joy on social media accounts. But when that child enters preschool, the focus changes from celebrating the pure essence of life to plotting the path to a successful career and good salary.

The emphasis switches to “useful” test scores that determine access to the next level of education and open doors to the best schools.

But usefulness can be elusive and changeable over time.

In the 1990s, teaching was generally considered a lackluster job consigned to those who couldn’t achieve anything higher. But in recent years, the cutthroat job market and increasingly competitive pay have elevated the teaching profession to one of the most sought-after college majors.

An overriding obsession with “usefulness,” to the exclusion of nearly everything else, can be counterproductive.

In a recent interview, Troy Lui, education director at Yew Chung Yew Wah International Education, explained why education needs to take a holistic view of students. Lui himself holds a doctorate in philosophy from Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He adheres to the view that “a healthy education, rather than cultivating elites calibrated in a single dimension, should nurture talent along multiple dimensions.”

Lui noted that traditional Chinese education places a high premium on building character, based on the belief that a well-grounded self is important in attaining a fruitful life.

In the Confucian outlook, education is about a set of ideals, combined with the means of achieving them in an orderly fashion at the individual, community and state levels.

However, Lui noted, modern education is more focused on “turning out talent” to meet social demand rather than nurturing values.

“Given the deepening division of labor in society, education has adapted in lockstep by funneling talent according to the most economical metrics possible,” Lui said.

He cited this example.

“Over 10 years ago, a British colleague of mine observed that parents in Hong Kong preferred their children to specialize in pragmatic studies at college,” he said. “By contrast, the colleague’s own daughter was studying philosophy at a UK university — a subject most, if not all, Hong Kong parents viewed as ‘utterly useless’ in view of its bleak employment prospects.”

Ironically, Lui said, philosophy graduates easily find employment with big companies in the UK.

A narrow focus in specialization can paralyze a person’s ability to analyze and cope with the complexities and unexpected elements of modern life.

Take the coronavirus pandemic as an example. We were plunged into unprecedented disruptions and uncertainty, and we needed a moral compass to guide us through it.

“Unlike our ancestors,” Lui observed, “our sphere of activity is no longer confined to a few square kilometers but could be anywhere on this planet. We enter into relations with numerous people, often simultaneously, resulting in exponential growth in complexity,” he said.

With China’s recent policy changes on pandemic control, many people find themselves confused. That may be, in no small measure, the result of the cacophony of social media information we have to sift through and digest every day. If we are unable to do that, confusion can ensue.

We must discern what is misleading or superfluous, and what is timely and beneficial for our daily lives. What some may deem as the uselessness of philosophical thinking may be our most useful moral compass in dealing with the world we live in.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend