March 6, 2020

My Fellow-Vietnamese Students, In You I Trust

March 6, 2020

Dear Students,

I am writing this letter to share with you my thoughts after our co-design-year journey.  In addition to explaining my decision to be part of Fulbright University Vietnam, I want to tell you how and why I sought to embed the crucial roles of education, public intellectual leadership, and critical thinking into the three full-length courses I co/taught during the past school year.

“Why did you join Fulbright?” is a question that I have been asked several times, but my answer always remains the same: because of my love and respect reserved for my fellow-Vietnamese students. Fulbright University Vietnam is unique in many aspects, and one of them lies in its outstanding students.  A Confucian classic teaches us that an exemplary person has three things in which he delights.  The last of these is to seek “from [across] the whole kingdom the most talented individuals, and teach them.”[1]   I have taken great delight in the opportunity to do exactly that at Fulbright.

At Fulbright, we learn to become public intellectuals through liberal education

Wise teachers advise us to dwell actively, productively, and peacefully in the here and now because the past is gone, and we cannot do anything to change it; since the future is not yet to arrive, we cannot shape it.  On the other hand, even though we cannot change what happened in the past, we still can study it, learn and teach its lessons in a new light.  By doing that, we are preparing for a better future right here in the present.  Of course, each of us can consciously and ethically change ourselves for the better, and those personal positive changes we’ve made already serve as our modest contributions to society.  But working together, we can contribute more significantly to the country and the world in which we live.

Describing education as a “slow-moving but powerful force,” Senator J. William Fulbright argued that, “It may not be fast enough or strong enough to save us from catastrophe, but it is the strongest force available for that purpose and in its proper place, therefore, is not at the periphery, but at the center of international relations.”  In this spirit, education can bridge the historical gap between Vietnam and the United States, helping us to reconcile with one another and to understand each other better.  In the same vein, education makes our full integration with the rest of the world possible.  Here at Fulbright, my students and I learn to become public intellectuals through liberal education.

The formation of a public intellectual must start with foundational changes in the heart-and-mind.  Senator Fulbright reminds us that, “Our future is not in the stars but in our own minds and hearts. Creative leadership and liberal education, which in fact go together, are the first requirements for a hopeful future for humankind.”[2]  In the liberal arts model, social sciences and the humanities play a key role in training students to become responsible citizens for the betterment of society.

This is exactly what Fulbright can offer.  As a Vietnamese university, Fulbright aims to be international in training a new generation of students who will represent the full regional, disciplinary, socio-economic and gender diversity of our country on the one hand, while helping to maintain and strengthen our students’ national and cultural identities through liberal arts education on the other hand.  Here at Fulbright, my students and I have tried to pursue this vision through critical thinking.

Cultivate critical thinking at Fulbright

Critical thinking is a part of liberal education that trains one to be a whole person by helping one to learn deeply about his/her own social environment, and about the possibilities for making it better.  In an antiwar speech titled “A Higher Patriotism” delivered at Storrs, Connecticut, in 1966, Senator Fulbright started with the following lines, “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing.”

Having said that, the Senator went on, emphasizing that, “Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism – a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.”[3]  Critical thinking requires us NOT to take anything for granted, but to question everything with a critical mind.  Students should question everything that I (or anyone else) have taught them and accept each claim only after subjecting it to careful examination and thoughtful judgment.

During the co-design year, I had the chance to offer the following three full-length courses, either independently taught or co-taught with colleagues: “Vietnamese Studies: An Introduction to Vietnamese Culture and History,” “Ethics in Context: East Asian Ethical Philosophy in Vietnam, the Region, and Beyond,” and “Sharing Commonality with Others: Contemporary Vietnam and East Asia in Films.”  Together, we mutually learned from one another with laughter, tears and silent moments of meditation, and I wish that all what I have shared with you above will stay with you after taking my courses.

When asked by students about what the co-design year means to me, I respond that, it brings me joy by encouraging the discovery of what the rising generation of Vietnamese can do and achieve.  It also gives me hope for a brighter future for our country in a globalized world.  This is why I joined the Fulbright, and what I have experienced so far has shown me that I made the right decision.

NGUYEN Nam, Founding Faculty

*****

[1]Mencius, “Jinxin 盡心”, 1:20: “’The superior man has three things in which he delights, and to be ruler over the kingdom is not one of them. That his father and mother are both alive, and that the condition of his brothers affords no cause for anxiety; this is one delight. That, when looking up, he has no occasion for shame before Heaven, and, below, he has no occasion to blush before men; this is a second delight. That he can get from the whole kingdom the most talented individuals, and teach and nourish them; this is the third delight.” (James Legge’s translation).

[2]Fulbright, J. W. (1989).The price of empire. New York, NY: Pantheon Press, p. xi.

[3]Fulbright, J. W. (2007). “The Higher Patriotism”, accessible at https://progressive.org/magazine/higher-patriotism/

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