February 23, 2021 Back to School on a Friday Night

“Call me biased,” smiled speaker Jay Howden, “but this is the BIGGEST idea in the whole series!” A long-time high school teacher in Ontario with five years instructing university students in China, Howden presented the January 22 episode of the Ottawa Bahá’ís’ “Big Ideas” program to a virtual audience of about 80.
Called “East is East, West is West: Education’s Where They Meet”, the talk began with a contrast: colonial British writer Rudyard Kipling’s discouraged prediction – “never the twain shall meet” – versus the “dearest wish” of Bahá’í Exemplar ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá – that “the friends of East and West [be] in close embrace”. Howden discussed some of the differences between the Canadian and Chinese education systems: the rigorous, teacher-centred system in China, epitomized by the famous gao kao high school leaving examination; and, the student-centred, cover-every-base Canadian curriculum, based on the uneasy fit between workplace preparation and the ideal of every student’s potential to achieve anything.

Eastern and Western approaches to schooling do have commonalities with each other. At times, they even echo the thrilling redefinition of education offered by Bahá’u’lláh in his prophetic 19th-century mission and elaborated by his son ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá into the 20th. All place education at or near the centre of human society. While it is tempting to think that merely adopting the best of existing models would result in the perfect synthesis, a global approach requires a higher order of thinking than that which created problematic existing systems.

Western teaching has evolved, for the past 50 years at least, past the conception of tabula rasa, that students are “blank slates”, empty vessels into which information is poured. During Howden’s career in Ontario, collaborative and interest-based approaches to education grew, as did the demands on teachers to provide guidance in areas formerly the job of family or religion: from anti-bullying to recycling, the “ever-expanding curriculum” that teachers are often blamed for not delivering adequately. Still, there was plenty of room for him to infuse language, literature and writing classes with a love for ideas and the search for truth, challenging and broadening his mainly small-town students.

A 2009 family move to Dalian brought Howden five years of cultural learning while teaching in two universities, and a close-up of Chinese education. The Chinese system with its gao kao (“high test”) fosters rigorous study both in and outside of the classroom. Students generally learn in a much more receptive mode than their Western counterparts, are masters of memorization and teachers are profoundly respected. Tens of millions have been educated out of poverty, and incredible scientific and technical prowess has rapidly been achieved, fuelling China’s global emergence. Howden shared poignant insights of student friends who broadened their education by studying the “Ruhi Institute” materials on Bahá’í wisdom, practices and avenues of service. They were hungry for knowledge, and their discipline was remarkable.

Howden’s conclusion was threefold. First, Bahá’í teachings on human nature, and the scope and purpose of education, are revolutionary. Human beings “are mines rich in gems of inestimable value”, in need of learning methods that not only respect material (subsistence needs) and human education (all the arts and sciences and crafts), but also divine education: spiritual awareness and deep morality. What’s more, the purpose of learning is to bring about progressively higher forms of unity; according to Bahá’u’lláh, this is also the purpose of justice. Universal education becomes not just a benevolent human right, but a planetary necessity.

Second – the biggest idea – is the sweeping Bahá’í view of history. Mankind’s social evolution has been guided by divine Educators, spiritually gifted souls that have always, and everywhere, impelled the advance of human civilization. Some we know; many we don’t. But from Abraham, Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, to the “Peacemaker” or the Seven Grandfathers of North American Indigenous traditions, every tribe and nation has been taught. Education is the very pattern of our collective advancement.

Finally, guided especially by the precepts of Bahá’u’lláh – whether we recognize it or not – humanity is learning how to unite itself. Create justice. Eliminate prejudices, economic extremes. Harmonize rationality and spirituality. Uplift everyone via a complete and coherent vision of education. These are the requirements as we conceive and achieve the oneness of humanity.

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