A very prominent theologian, Harvey Cox, of the Harvard Divinity School, has defined the current spiritual state of America in these words:
We are in a large, cultural malaise (illness), part of a large-scale degeneration of Western civilization toward profit and power...a debilitation in which we see the erosion of human community and the evaporation of genuine experience. It is a way of life based on money; commodification of people and of things...in short, the organization of a whole civilization around one concept: greed.
Thus, young Asian-Americans find themselves trying to fit in and excel in an environment riddled with contradictions and unhealthy tendencies. Moreover, just as they enter the most sexually-charged period of their development, they are confronted with advertising and marketing that both stimulates those desires and equates their pursuit and illusory satisfaction with success, with fitting in, with status, with acceptance. Yet, from parents and officials, they get the opposite message: restraint, even repression, fear of AIDS, and so forth. Here is added another level of tension and stress.
Equally conflicting is the emphasis on success, prosperity, getting rich, winning—almost at any cost. They are told, be practical. They are told, do what you have to do to get by. When they face moral crises, by what criteria do they choose? "Well, the world is like that. Get real! Welcome to the real world," we tell them. At the same time, they are being exhorted, "Be virtuous; be good; be up-right in character." Nobody seems to be noticing what is most painfully obvious to the child: one cannot, most of the time, do both. It is extremely difficult to be rich, successful, and famous while at the same time being good, virtuous, and kind. In rare instances it can be done, but most of the time it cannot. By what determining factors will they make their choices? Most often their choices will be determined by the values that are most strongly instilled in them: success, fitting in, advancement.
Many American youths—and especially Asian American youths—are in trouble, not because of neglect or exclusion, but because of success and the danger of not knowing when to stop. They suffer from too much, rather than from too little. Many are pushed and pressured by well-meaning parents who themselves fail to pause and consider the often contradictory values and expectations they instill in their children.
In conclusion, may I suggest some possible answers to these problems. Thomas Hobbes once said something to the effect that people enjoy listening to anything that does not oppose their profit or pleasure. I am afraid that today I have not been following that maxim. My words today do not necessarily go along with the ideas of profit and pleasure. Nevertheless, these words need to be said. As the old American adage asserts: "You can't have your cake and eat it too." We often must make choices between success and integrity; between wealth and virtue; between achievement and contentment. Sometimes we can obtain both, but most oftentimes we cannot. This is what I tell my students. Even Confucius maintained:
Virtue is the root; wealth, the branches.
For greed to be our sole driving force in life is to neglect the root and cause the whole plant to wither. And that root, Confucius said, is
ren—human goodness; the innate human capacity for understanding and benevolence.
Second, though this may fall on many deaf ears, I believe that education is concerned with
transformation, and not merely training. Confucius had an expression:
jun zi bu qi, "the superior person is not a tool," like a computer. To teach children to be like computers, to focus and isolate on making money and a career, is to teach not for transformation, but for training. We cannot view education only—or even primarily—as a vocational stepping-stone to success and material gain. Moreover, fitting in is only as good as what you are fitting into. If the culture itself is in opposition to the Way, as they say in the Asian tradition—that is, to the better qualities of humanity—then success actually amounts to failure.
A good education would empower young people to discriminate between what is truly beneficial and what is not, rather than simply to follow the crowd. It would empower them to choose wisely and to have the courage and convictions not simply to accommodate, but to facilitate change; not simply to follow, but to lead. Otherwise, humankind is doomed to perpetuate the errors of the present.
As a side-note to this, I have just learned that biotechnology has gotten to the point that parents can predetermine the gender of their offspring. In the context of Asia, this becomes particularly important, because to begin with it is highly likely this situation will produce a predominance of Asian males. Moreover, scientists predict that, and this is only a question of time, not only will parents be able to predetermine the gender of their offspring, but they will be able to determine all the qualities as well. What kind of child would you like to have? Do you want your child to be very compliant, intelligent, able to score high on the GRE's and the SAT's? My greatest fear is not that this prediction will become a reality, but that parents will actually use such technology to fulfill their personal desires. I fear this because the only hope we have for the future is that children would not come out as carbon-copies of their parents nor as models of their parents' fantasy. Once we lose the indeterminant factor in procreation, we will perpetuate a static society, and the errors of the present will be perpetuated into the future.
Finally, there is conditional versus unconditional love and affection. If you tie affection, approval, acceptance, and respect to a child's academic performance and other extrinsic factors, rather than to the internal or intrinsic qualities of a child, you are undermining that child's self-respect. Not everyone is meant to be a great scholar, to be rich, to be an engineer, to be famous, or to be a doctor. If children internalize an image, a notion, or an ideal that they cannot really accomplish, then they can only end up hating themselves and not believing in themselves, because what is expected of them is impossible. As a result, their self image would be: "I've failed. I'm no good."
This is far more serious than merely a loss of self confidence. This is a fundamental injury to the spirit. And this is what I believe the issue is today. Troubled youth often tell us more about the adults and the society surrounding them, than they do about themselves. I come back to a formula proposed well over 2,000 years ago by Confucius, China's most preeminent social philosopher:
If one wishes to make the world better, one must first put in order one's own state. To straighten out one's own state, first one must attend to one's own family. To put one's own family in order, one must first cultivate one's own person. This self-cultivation means straightening out one's own
xin, "heart/mind." To do that, one must be sincere; one must probe to the very root of what it means to be a person.
In a highly sophisticated and pluralistic society such as ours, reasonable people might disagree as to what being a real person ultimately is. Nevertheless, I doubt that any reasonable person would disagree that in a society where the second leading cause of death among fifteen to twenty-five-year-old people is suicide, we are a long way from being there.
Thank you for your patience and for inviting me.