Youthful Folly

“The teacher should wait for the student to approach”, stated Long, with certainty in his voice. He is one of my newest acquaintances, and I haven’t yet completely understood his personality. Probably because of the difference in culture between Vietnam and where I come from, I don’t always know when he is being serious or when he is making a joke, or being sarcastic.

I lived in Vietnam for a few years, and always felt like a foreigner. The language is complicated, and without the language it’s difficult to understand the culture too. I have managed teams, trying to do my best, not always successfully. In Vietnam I am forever a novice.

Long and I were meeting in a coffee shop near the central market of Ben Tanh, in Saigon. It’s a lovely coffee shop, with a hidden entrance, and once you open the door you find yourself surrounded by books. It’s a very quiet place, people go there to work or read, so if we want to chat we need to move to the balcony outside, facing the noisy market. The sound of motorbikes occasionally forces us to repeat what we are saying, and the heat takes some getting used to, but good company, interesting conversation, and iced peach, orange, and lemongrass tea help a lot.

I first met him in this very place. We happened to be reading the same book, Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, so we started chatting. He is a computer science teacher at the Natural Sciences University, and it happens that we know a lot of people in common, mostly his former students that went on to work with me.

We were talking about the difficulty of mentoring new graduates. Of course he has strong opinions about it, and so do I, so I want to learn more about what he has to say.

“I guess that makes sense in a traditional system”, I say, “but surely it’s the job of society to make sure that the next generation will be as well equipped to participate in society as possible, so the teacher should help the student whenever possible, even if they don’t know yet that they need instruction, no?”

“These are two things. Society has a duty with young people, but young people need to want to be taught, otherwise there is no respect, and with no respect for the teacher, there is no possibility of the student learning. You cannot force knowledge on young people.”

“How do you explain school then? I doubt that all the children going to school want to be there. I remember when I was a child I didn’t always enjoy going to school.”

“Ah, but children are different, they are not fully formed people yet. They need structure, discipline. Once you reach puberty though, the fire burns inside your skin, and you cannot be taught the same way anymore, unless you want to be taught. So the student needs to seek the teacher.”

I wasn’t convinced… that goes against what I know about modern pedagogy, but perhaps he has a perspective that is not yet completely clear to me. I decided to dig deeper. “It’s not the fault of young people to be inexperienced. How can they know what they need to know? Surely you have to offer them guidance, like career advice?”

“Nothing wrong with career advice. That’s support. What I mean is that the desire to learn needs to come from the student. You are right that there is nothing wrong with being inexperienced, but you need to want to overcome it, seek the teacher, and have respect for the teacher.”

“What do you mean respect?”

“In the old days it was too much, and still is in some places. I don’t mean traditional respect, like respect for their seniority, for the elders. I mean intellectual respect. Many students come to my class at first already with a lot of half-knowledge, and there’s nothing more dangerous. And it’s double the work for the teacher. We have to destroy the half-knowledge and build it up again, from good foundation.”

“Ah, I see, so they come already thinking they know the answer to everything.”

“Yes, they come with arrogance, many of them. They are bright students, but they are not ready to be taught. They want to show they have the half-knowledge, that they think is complete, and want some sort of validation. They need to build humility first. They ask once, and the teacher will answer, clearly and definitely. If the student then thinks they know more, they will present a second question, to get the validation from the teacher that they are bright. The teacher then should not bite the bait. Let them develop their humbleness.”

“Is that how you do it with your students?”

“Yes, I try. Not all teachers are good. Some are arrogant themselves, and will think themselves superior, unapproachable. It’s hard work for the student to learn, and it’s hard work for the teacher to teach. But if both persist in the instruction, with humbleness, mastering concepts one by one, they are successful.”

Youthful folly has success.

It is not I who seek the young fool;

The young fool seeks me.

At the first oracle I inform them.

If they ask two or three times, it is importunity.

If they importune, I give them no information.

Perseverance furthers.

It is almost lunch time so we leave the cafe and cross the road into the market and ask for a bowl of bún bò Huế. As I measure the chilli paste carefully into soup, I continue my enquiry.

“This is actually quite interesting, as I am recalling my time as a student, and also my time when I first arrived here in Vietnam. In both cases I was arrogant, thinking I knew more than I did”

Long laughs “Haha, so normal. We see ourselves in unfamiliar places, and think we know all because we read a book about it”.

“Yeah yeah, don’t need to rub it in.” I say, with fake hurt. “You said it’s not the fault of the inexperienced person to be inexperienced. But still, that can be dangerous, no?”

“Sure. To approach the edge of an abyss without knowledge is dangerous, but with a good guide you can be successful. That’s why you need to have a habit, in a new situation, to seek for a guide. Don’t trust your instinct alone.”

Long continues: “If you think of water gushing out from a spring. It knows nothing where it will go, all it has is this energy of being new. Then it goes into deep places, and can get lost there, its progress blocked. But if the deep place is bounded, like the edge of a pond or a lake, eventually the water will fill it up, and find its way out. The inexperienced person is the spring, the water is their exploration into the unknown, and the teacher, the guide, is the one who creates the boundary, so that the young one does not get lost, and eventually the inexperienced is not inexperienced anymore, and can go on to explore new ponds.”

That’s a great image, exactly what I would expect to hear from Long. I wish I had a teacher like him when I was younger. Maybe it’s not too late.

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The Book of Changes is a great source of insight. We explore each of the hexagrams in a modern context.

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Marco Zanchi

Marco Zanchi

Interested in mathematics, philosophy, and language. Head of engineering for BridgeU

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