Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pedagogy in Liberal Arts Colleges – Ronald’s Response pt.3

I just wanted to thank Joshua and Hann for their encouragement and instigation. Otherwise, this third instalment would not have appeared so quickly. I’m not sure how to go about this instalment…but will try my best. For a start, I think this post is more relevant in relating how I grew as a person, not so much how I grew as an “architect.” (although the two are not mutually exclusive.)

As mentioned in my 2 previous posts, what I studied outside my major (Studio Art) covered up to (or possibly more than) 60% of my coursework at Wesleyan, and mattered as much to my education. During my time on campus, apart from Studio Art, I took classes in Japanese, Japanese literature (in translation), Psychology, Architectural History, Art History, Dance, Government, Economics, English, Sociology, Astronomy, Music, Mathematics, Classical Studies, etc.

The initial years spent at Wesleyan were just for me to figure out what I wanted to major in, since I actually liked quite a lot of stuff. Initially, I wanted to major in an inter-disciplinary social studies program (not unlike Politics,Philosophy&Econ at Oxford). Then I thought I would double major in Econ and something else I would potentially like, like East Asian Studies. (Econ to play safe, in true Asian style) Then I thought maybe Econ and Studio Art. And then I ditched Econ.

Oddly enough, I don’t remember the specifics of what I learnt in many classes. Some of the classes were hits (i.e. I learned so much from them), and some were misses (i.e. totally not what I expected, and totally did not enjoy. Like Astronomy). What endured however was a thirst for knowledge and thoughtful opinions. The more I learnt, the more I realise how little I knew. I spent time sifting the library for random stuff to read, like Francis Seow’s “To Catch a Tartar: a Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison,” or just knowledge in other fields personally related to me. (architecture, history & politics of Singapore, cultural studies stuff, etc) I only knew of the true extent of Singapore’s ugly side after I came here.

A few aspects of my educational experience were special. To begin with, there was no “box”. Most people talk about having to think “out of the box”, but I realised that when I was exposed to the critical/analytical modes of so many possible disciplines, I was not stuck in any approach of analysing an issue but free to borrow analytical methods from whichever discipline I wanted. Such freedom can be disconcerting at times. The only constant was the written word, in linking sentences, paragraphs, reasons, arguments. I finally came to realise why reading and writing is so important- for testing and exploring ideas, for crafting arguments, for expressing opinions.

Next, were my classmates. Every one had their own voice and their own opinions on issues related pertaining to the discussions in class. Some were logical, some were faulty. But I realise that it was when all the ideas were out there, interacting with other ideas, that a greater level of awareness would be reached. I also realised that the act of speaking out itself, and overcoming the fear that my idea may be not be good enough, raised me to a new level of awareness. (Maybe it’s because when you let an idea that is stuck in your head get out there, new ideas and observations flow in.) Most thankfully, I was free from a world of right answers vs. wrong answers. We inhabited the world of questions and opinions.

I felt fortunate to be amongst many thoughtful individuals who were on different paths to different places. (e.g. a Government major now working for an NGO, Art History major who is now a primary school teacher, an English major who is now a Tibetan Buddhism academic, research assistant at World Jewish Congress, biologist etc etc) We spent a lot of time discussing personally meaningful issues (the war, the world, personal aspirations, life, etc) outside the classroom, on dinner tables, on the field under the autumn leaves. We often agreed to disagree. That made a difference.

Same for most of you, teachers also make a great difference. Surprisingly, I did not cultivate that many close-knit relationships with all my professors. But there were the few who made a very big difference in the way I saw the world. Architectural historian Joe Siry was one. My studio instructors, Barrett and Martha were two others. Outside architecture, I grew intellectually/analytically under my classes with Sociology Professor, Jonathan Cutler, and linguistically under Takahashi-sensei. (though I would lose my Japanese all too quickly.)

The Latin root word for “education” is “educo”, which means to draw forth from within. In that sense, what I literally learnt from my classes did not matter as much as the personal insights I gained, the voice I found and the person I became. I think what my Wesleyan education fired up in me was a passion and desire: to learn, to know, to be, to live. Perhaps you may understand now why the professional/technical aspects of architecture still do not matter to me as much as its underlying meaning.

I realise that this raw desire motivates me in great ways and gives me my voice and my thought, so that I can pursue my architecture, and life for all its richness. This is just a personal hypothesis, but I believe that a strong personal voice is a pre-requisite for truly compelling architecture. And this personal voice can only grow stronger when fed with desire, and knowledge.

PS// Joshua: I hope this account made a difference.