One of the first Chinese phrases I learned was 看书 (kan shu) which literally translates as “to look at books.” I know this because sometimes my students, when asked what they do in their free time, say “I will look at the book.” It’s kind of a funny image, students cracking open the binding and staring at the pages. Not reading, but definitely looking.
I mean, I hope they do more than just look at books. But when I hear this, I’m reminded of students smiling as they recite something they found online, stricken when I ask them to tell me what it means. They were looking, all right, but not digesting.
“Chinese students, we study harder than anybody,” a student said. “But it’s others who has [sic] the ideas.”
In classes, students constantly surprise me with the things that come out of their mouths. As a result, I’m buzzing. I want to talk about creativity, even though it’s already been talked about and even though it’s more sensible to try and practice it rather than preach it. Because what my students have taught me is that creativity is not something reserved for humanities majors, but something that everyone can participate in if only they have the opportunity.
There’s a lot I want to say about creativity (who’s surprised?) but I think my students actually say it better than I do. I was their scribe as they talked and wrestled with the debate topic this week: Is creativity or knowledge more important in education?
“Creativity is putting knowledge into something alive,” an economics student said. “Knowledge is static. We need creativity to move.”
A student defending knowledge said “With knowledge, you can run.” Another responded “With creativity, you can run, bike, take a train, take a plane…anything!”
Knowledge argued that there needed to be substance to ideas, or a foundation. A student asked “How do you make ideas come true?” to which Creativity cried “You just do it!”
“We need to know things to be creative, so knowledge is more important.”
“Yes, but who wrote the book?”
I was floored by everything they were saying. Because they were, in my eyes, fighting the criticism that Chinese students cannot think for themselves. There’s a lot of “looking at books”, scraping the surface, mining them, and extracting whatever commodities are needed to pass over here. Likewise, there’s a lot of copies and fakes, which I’ve seen in person. It’s kan shu at its finest. Nothing to digest, just consume.
But I’m not so easy to give up on people, especially my peers. I believe that there are still ideas out there that cannot be faked, copied, or imitated. We as the youth of today have the power to put our knowledge into something alive and let it move—by train, by bus, by car, by anything we can get our hands on.
Because in the end, we can do so much more than kan shu. We can instead enter the world shining and downright verbal. All we need is the opportunity.