American Professor on the Interaction
of Knowledge and Interest
Zhao Wei: September 10th is Chinese National Teachers’ Day, and October 5th is World Teachers’Day. We can understand the importance of the occupation of teacher. So what kind of role do you think a teacher should play?
Michael Pettis: Anyone can and should be a teacher, whether or not he works in a school. Teaching others the things we have learned is one of the most important services we can provide to society.
Zhao: Some parents believe that “quality education”means to be versatile.So they make their children take various extracurricular classes,learn such as piano,computer science, and foreign languages. Do you think this way of educating could attain the end of“quality education”?
Michael Pettis: I think it is great for kids to learn many things but sometimes I think we confuse learning and studying. Learning is a pleasure, whereas studying is something you do because you don’t want your parents to yell at you. If studying a topic leads you to love it, then it is worthwhile, but if it becomes just a chore, then I’m not sure it can serve much good. Obviously, we need to combine the creativity that comes from playing with the discipline that comes from studying, but a kid who spends all his time taking lessons may end up with few interests or passions. Kids need free time to think about what they have learned and to develop on their own.
Zhao: You have taught at the best universities in US and China. As an experienced professor, what do you think are the features of the students in these two countries that are worth learning from each other?
Michael Pettis: My students at Tsinghua remind me in many ways of my students at Columbia. They are very engaging, intellectually driven and have many of the same crazy dreams. Of course the Tsinghua students work much harder at their studies. And the Columbia students spend much more time on their outside projects--editing newspapers, writing novels, creating amusing software--but that is because they are given the time and are expected to do so.
My Tsinghua students believe that professors know everything about their subjects, and that education consists of our passing knowledge down to them. They are extremely respectful and eager to accept whatever I say. My Columbia students are much more critical and much more likely to question their professors. They are also eager to explore alternative viewpoints and love to prove their professors wrong. I, of course, am delighted to see that, and will always raise the grade of a student who can put up a good fight, even if he is wrong. But these differences reflect the differences in the educational systems, not in the students themselves. The students in these two schools are among the smartest in the world--much smarter than their professors, by the way--and smart people everywhere have a lot in common.
Zhao: You have said the most efficient learning comes from “playing.” Could you explain what you said?
Michael Pettis: I think this is a common sense. When you really like what you’re doing, you work very hard at it. So for example, students love computer games. Many people say that computer games are waste of time. But actually, people who play a lot of computer games tend to have much more advanced abilities to understand the information quickly. While the students love the games, they enjoy them. So they are pushing themselves as far as they can go.
Zhao: That’s true if the students love what they are learning. But to some aspect of knowledge that they don’t like, or even are bored with, how can you make them learn?
Michael Pettis: I believe that any student who doesn’t like an aspect of knowledge must have a very bad teacher, because all knowledge is interesting. I don’t believe there are people who naturally dislike any area of studies. And you learn to dislike knowledge because your mother and father make you study 12 hours a day. Your teachers yell at you. So we need a combination. We need enough discipline so that the students go forward. We also need enough openness and enough freedom so that the students can discover for themselves how interesting it is a type of knowledge. If you look at a kid who loves football, he knows every team in the world, he knows the top player of every team in the world, he knows how well they play. He has so much information, and this information is very similar to what you would learn if you study history. But students don’t know that much of history as they know about football. Why? Because they really love football. Now, if every student in China was forced to study football in school, the knowledge of football would go down and down tremendously1. So the job of teacher is really to help the students to love what they are doing.