In Chinese, there is a phrase, 富不过三代 “Fu bu guo san dai,” which translates to, “Wealth does not survive past three generations.” The first generation lives in poverty and suffers, the second generation builds wealth to escape from poverty, and the third generation spends that wealth before the cycle begins again. We’re watching the third generation spend the wealth right now in societies where privileged students are no longer struggling for access to education. We need to return to the work ethic of the previous generation when nothing was guaranteed before the imminent descent.
My educational philosophy grew from my struggles growing up with learning disabilities. My school placed me in special ed classes aimed at helping me become a better student. These classes were seldom successful and I realized the cold, hard truth that most people are smarter than me. The effort that I put into my classes rarely translated into good grades. I realized that I have to work a lot harder than other people to achieve mediocre results. I gave up on school. I rarely studied or read anything.
In 10th grade, after taking the PSATS and receiving a very low score, my dad gave me another harsh dose of reality when he said, “If you don’t start reading now, you are fucked. I don’t care what you read, just read something everyday.” And so my education began.
Baltasar Gracién wrote (as cited in Greene, 1998, p. xxii): “Many people spend time studying the properties of animals or herbs; how much more important it would be to study those of people, with whom we must live or die!” I decided to only read about practical things. I thought, with the slower processing speed of my brain, I should only download useful programs, programs that teach me how the world really works, and programs that allow for me to compete with other people in real life. While smarter people were wasting cognitive energy memorizing useless information that they would never use in the real world, I was using my limited mental ability to learn the vital skills that taught me how to succeed.
Mark Twain is attributed with the idea that he never let his schooling interfere with his education, a philosophy I’ve adopted wholeheartedly. When I entered Arizona State University, I picked the easiest possible major I could find. My goal at university was the path of least resistance, so that I had free time to learn what truly interested me, to avoid getting bogged down by tedious classwork and academic jargon. During my time in university, I continued to read according to my passions. I would go to the library or bookstore and read for hours everyday. I read graduate-level marketing and psychology textbooks out of personal interest and yet my GPA equated to that of a C-. I didn’t care about my low grades because I had 100 percent control over my education and I always remembered the words of Bruce Lee in his dedication to Tao of Jeet Kune Do: “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”
I became increasingly more interested in martial arts, a portal into philosophies and practices that helped shape my approach to life in all sectors — as a student, an athlete and later a teacher. Martial artist and UFC commentator Joe Rogan said “martial arts is a vehicle for developing your human potential.” Besides researching, I spent the majority of my life competing in martial arts. One could say that my major at Arizona State University was actually in martial arts. Martial arts taught me the value of preparation and hard work. Unlike written tests, in martial arts, I saw the return on my time investment. From my independent experiences, I learned how to handle physical, mental and emotional pain with Olympian-like composure.
From competing in martial arts, I learned how to fail forward. I developed a very effective recursive learning style. When I lost a competition, I would watch the video of the fight over and over again and analyze my mistakes in detail. I sought honest feedback from training partners on what I did wrong and sought alternative strategies. Finally, I would go to the dojo and practice the correct methods again and again. Martial arts taught me how to learn with depth and precision. Martial arts taught me mastery. My approach is one I see in the words of Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most celebrated Japanese Samurais of all time. “If you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything,” Mushasi said. Once I learned to master martial arts, I gained the confidence and ability to master anything.
The overarching aim of my work as a teacher is to maximize the human potential in my students. Bestselling author Robert Greene, in his book Mastery, wrote:
All of us are born unique. This uniqueness is marked genetically in our DNA. We are a one-time phenomenon in the universe — our exact genetic makeup has never occurred before nor will it ever be repeated. For all of us, this uniqueness first expresses itself in childhood through certain primal inclinations. (p. 25)
I do believe that students need to search within themselves and gain as many experiences as possible to maximize their own uniqueness. Connection with that human potential is of true benefit to society.
My idyllic strategy of individualized and student-led education is simple enough, however, roadblocks to its success exist. Were it adopted on a large scale today, two major modern problems would have to be tackled: the persistent coddling of youth and the seduction by mass media and corporations. Both social dysfunctions are so pervasive in our society that I’ve wittingly embedded their antidotes within my curriculum. Without untangling ourselves from this situation, it’ll be nearly impossible for our students to reach their human potential. I’m fighting for our future.
Sheltering our children, coddling them to the extreme, can be an uncomfortable issue to broach — and it only grows more so the longer we ignore it. Children need to be taught truths about the greater world and shown their own unique skillsets to best thrive within it. We live in an age of trigger warnings and hypersensitive men and women. While some people are hiding in their safe spaces, allowing themselves to be offended by micro-aggressions, about the semantics of gender pronouns or all-inclusive bathrooms, ISIS is plotting another attack and the Chinese are becoming more advanced in science and technology. Meanwhile, I often see elementary school students with more body fat than any one person should ever have in their lifetime.
Korea, America and most of the western world are becoming nations of weaklings. Instead of failing forward, students are seeing themselves as victims in the narratives of their own choosing. This is a dangerous and disempowering way of thinking because it allows for you to blame others for your own battles or shortcomings. If you don’t succeed, someone else is to blame. The reality is that we live in a hyper-competitive global environment of scarce resources. A culture concerned too much with feelings and political correctness will fail to prepare its youth for the future.
My solution to this problem is Stoic philosophy, a school of thought based on using self-control and mental fortitude to overcome obstacles or negative emotions. I live it each and every day. To me, philosophy is an operating system for the mind and Stoicism is an operating system that works on all devices, in all circumstances, to improve one’s general happiness and strengthen one’s character. Our society desperately needs to return to the teachings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Last century, American philosopher John Dewey said “conflict is the gadfly of thought” and modern-day Stoic philosopher Ryan Holiday updated the sentiment when he wrote the book: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Both men had ideas borne of the same core beliefs. Students need to break free of the protective bubbles within which they’ve grown accustomed. They need to shed their egos, toughen up and embrace discomfort in exchange for self-reliance and true strength. Life is unpredictable. Stoic philosophy enables great emotional control in stressful situations.
My students are introduced subtly to Stoic philosophy through a backdoor method, through stories and themes that the great Stoics once told. I often remind my Korean students that they’re lucky they weren’t born in North Korea and I’ll admit that I do shame them for complaining. My students are well-aware of my motto, a quote I learned from my coach Roman Wroclawski, the 1983 world champion Greco Roman wrestler. “You can be a bitch,” Wroclawski used to say, “but not on my time.” We’ll forgive the sexist language and focus on the message: stop whining and rise to the challenge. I encourage my students to strengthen themselves physically and mentally with periodic challenges: take a cold shower in the middle of the winter or try skipping meals as I’ll often do, just to test my mental fortitude.
For many of my classroom assignments, I push students out of their comfort zones into a place where they may be able to learn more about themselves in addition to learning English. I make all students speak publicly in every class. My school projects require them to perform uncomfortable tasks, to do things like approach strangers and engage in English. Competitions are also a part of my M.O., with the winners of said events receiving something delicious to eat — in front of their classmates. While the winner is devouring the food in front of the losers, I tell them to smell what’s like to win. It may be a bit harsh, but so is life. In the real world, the winner takes all.
The kind of Stoicism I teach my students operates on a higher level than their more traditional, commonplace teachings. Day in and day out, information is added, deleted, and distorted in their minds during the learning process, but the Stoic attitude rises above the noise. This kind of philosophy transfers unnoticed to all aspects of their lives with positive results. Students prepare for the real world as they develop a tougher attitude and more confidence in their abilities.
Yet the mental strength developed through Stoicism will only take us so far. We must awaken and disengage from our dysfunctional relationship with mass media if we’d like to see true change in education for the generations ahead. We live in a world where corporations know you better than you know yourself. They know what you Google; they know what you watch on TV; they know how to push your buttons and manipulate you to buy this and believe that. Corporations and the executives at the helm have more intimate access to individuals than ever before thanks to the proliferation of the Internet in our lives and its precise catalogue of our personal needs, desires and fears. This dangerous aspect of modern culture has grown unchecked at an exponential rate and needs to be tackled. The way forward is through media literacy. I believe that being media literate is just as important as being able to read in this modern age and it’s a cornerstone of my own lesson plans.
Learning how to seduce inoculates you from receiving such seduction. You can’t hustle a hustler, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, and once you become aware of how persuasion works, of how and when it appears, its power diminishes. I teach my students to be charismatic and powerful in their communication. I teach them how to debate and tell powerful stories in English. I play a Donald Trump speech and make them aware of his powerful techniques. This isn’t a lesson in politics; this is about the psychology of seduction. Students watch as Trump repeats himself three times, a simple yet powerful way to deliver his message. We discuss how the muzzling force of political correctness has set the stage for Donald Trump and his brutally politically incorrect words to cast a seductive spell on many Americans. Such lessons are carried forward as students approach their primary class projects: producing persuasive videos using their new command of the English language’s power. Students are evaluated on their ability to communicate with strength and charisma, requiring both verbal and nonverbal finesse.
We take this new knowledge about the art of media seduction and together we delve into some of the driving forces behind our massive advertising industries. Nearly all consumerism is driven by female disapproval, built on our insecurities about fitting in. Students often come to the realization that most of the products they purchase are completely unnecessary, essentially feelings of comfort bought to compensate for a lack of comfort in their lives. Such lessons lead the way to a perspective shift in the ESL classroom and beyond.
While our study of the greater society accounts for a substantial segment of our curriculum, just as integral to their education is our self-reflection and research into the psychology behind individual personalities. There is nothing more crucial to our success than understanding the people with whom we live and work daily. This knowledge enables us to become more effective leaders and followers. We look into Myers-Briggs personality tests, and other such methods of deconstructing and categorizing our individual communication styles and approaches to the world. Science aside, the opportunity to reflect in detail on our own behavior and that of the people closest to us, empowers us with the knowledge to work together more effectively and to fulfill our own needs more successfully. With a better understanding of human psychology alongside their newly-honed skills of persuasion and charisma, my students can “go Freire” if they one day wanted to.
The final element of success in my classroom is the creation of a playful environment. The tough Stoic attitude is juxtaposed with a lighthearted and fun environment for my students to explore. Each class has to be entertaining and engaging because I know I’m competing with the seduction of the smartphone. When students can just as easily tune out and play video games, look at Facebook news feeds or send SMS, my role drawing in and engaging the students is as critical as ever. If I’m not entertaining as a teacher, I am not going to make an impact on my students. I make the class entertaining by choosing interesting topics that are related to their real lives. Marshall McLuhan summed it up best when he wrote, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”
In the language learning classroom, the relationship between student and teacher has to be lateral. I tell my students “In the classroom, I am not your friend, but I am LIKE your friend.” I make this distinction because often when we completely melt away authority in the Korean classroom, a class can lose its structure and the teacher may become less effective. Yet still, a good teacher realizes his or her own biases and meets the students where they are able. As teachers, we have a tendency to teach the way we learn, so we favor learners similar to us. I am always looking for ways to improve communication with my students through the same recursive analysis that I learned from martial arts when first discovering my own path to education. In the classroom, I try to be mindful of different styles and make my lesson plans flexible so that I can revise on the fly at anytime.
We can dream and strategize all we want about the tenets of practical education: of Stoicism, charisma, media literacy, personality types and how to create a positive classroom environment, but a good education always begins at home. In an ideal scenario, both parents are present to teach their children the ways of the world. Unfortunately, the constraints of modern society don’t allow for deep learning to be transferred in the most natural way. When a father spends more time at the office than he does at home, his son doesn’t receive lessons in how to be a man, how to express his emotions in a healthy, respectful manner. When a father isn’t around, his daughter isn’t exposed to healthy masculine energy and we see the results of the dysfunction surface in her retail and relationship choices. An absent mother can foster the growth of a similar, but different kind of incomplete person. A modern day teacher is able to bridge the gap between what may be missing from a student’s past and what they’ll need for the future. A great teacher helps boys become strong men and girls, smart women. Without motivated teachers to bring forth a cultural shift in attitudes, 富不过三代 Fu bu guo san dai.
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