One of the presentations I was looking forward to most during my time in China was a "dialogue session" with Xuefu Wang on Nietzsche and the important Chinese scholar, LuXun. I was presenting on Nietzsche and Xuefu on LuXun. The presentation was well attended and went very well. However, one question asked during the dialogue session particularly stands out to me. A high school student from China who attended the Existential Conference stated that in high school she had been exposed to some Nietzsche quotes by her teacher to help inspire students in their education. Her question was how high school students in the United States respond to Nietzsche. In my answer, I stated that I wish high school students in the United States knew who Nietzsche was!
I am deeply worried about many of the trends in education today in the United States from high school to college to graduate education. Although acknowledging my bias as this is my profession, I strongly believe that education is one of the most critical aspects of the future of the United States. And I believe we are failing. Education is taken much more seriously in many other countries around the world. Our standards and ways of measuring success in education are quickly deteriorating. At its best, education in the United States focuses on learning content and measures attaining knowledge as success. However, content without the ability to think about it is useless, meaningless, and potentially dangerous. Yet, this seems to be our best. We have completely lost sight, it seems, of teaching individuals how to think. I know this is an overgenralization as there are some exceptions to this; however, it seems they are fewer and fewer.
The greatest minds in the intellectual history of the United States, such as Albert Einstein and William James, understood this problem well. They knew the limits of science, which too often focuses on the accumulation of facts, and recognized the importance of creativity and intuition in furthering science, theory, and scholarship. But today we see the arts cut from education. Fewer teachers, it seems, know how to teach critical thinking. Students often seem to think that critical thinking is just being critical.
One of the takeaway lessons for me from the First International Conference on Existential Psychology was that we in the United States have much that we can learn about education from the international community. As many of us from the United States were, I was so taken by these young students attending the conference. Not only did they choose to attend a high level intellectual conference, but they participated with great questions and contributions. Their excitement for learning and passion for the topic was quite inspiring.