Are we raising a generation of leaders, or of followers?

April 12, 2024 22:42

The essence of education is defined not by the facts it imparts, but the potential knowledge it inspires students to individually pursue on their own. Put it this way – the ideal form of education acts less as a forced pouring of tea from a teapot into a teacup; it is instead akin to bringing as many tea pots as possible to the individual, for them to fill their own teacups. Guidance and advice should of course be given in ensuring that the right mixture of tea is featured, but beyond setting guardrails and issuing general instructions that are easy to follow, educators need not – and should not – take on the added role of steering and molding the minds of their students to exactly resemble their own.

Difference, divergence, and – indeed, what Jacques Derrida terms différance, the defining of terms through the identification and pronouncement of distinctions – lie at the core of not only sound pedagogy, but also sound personal development and cultivation within schools. If we teach our students that conformity, uniformity, and risk-averse adherence to the norm (and so-called normality) are to be fetishised, they will duly comply. If we teach them that difference is not a vice, but in fact a virtue, an asset that can enable one to stand out and persevere for longer, they will also duly follow suit. In some ways, the malleability of our youth generates all the more pressing moral obligations on our part to liberate – not constrain – their minds. Only when given sufficient room to explore and trial and error, can they truly ‘seek truth from facts’ – which is a most Dewesian proposition of pragmatism.

The world we inhabit is afflicted by a plurality of crises. From the onslaught of artificial intelligence with the potential to systematically dismantle and destabilise the role of labour within human societies, to geopolitical tensions and conflicts that have become increasingly inescapable and personal – in the impacts dealt upon ordinary civilians, it is clear that crisis is no longer the exception, but the default. The question is, how can we keep a phlegmatic outlook in face of these calamities?

My worry is that we are not raising a generation of leaders, but a generation of followers. Students are told that there are clear recipes and pathways towards success, and that all they have to do is to engage in mimicry. Mimicry at an early age, when learning all kinds of activities – perhaps against the wishes or interests of the students, no less – is seen as the golden ideal; mimicry at school, where those who succeed in receiving praise and checking the boxes for ‘following the rules’ are affirmed for their ability to ‘dodge risks’ and ‘avoid making mistakes’. Mimicry over college choices, where students apply for subjects and pursue courses and modules in order to impress prospective employers and their peers, but also to reduce exposure to ‘unconventional subjects’. It is no wonder then that from many in the civil service to the private sector, the end products are individuals who follow – as opposed to lead.

Follower-ship has its crucial role. We could ill afford to live in societies dominated by alphas who suffer from the delusion of grandeur. Well-idealised plans require well-thought-through execution and implementation. Individuals who are sincerely adept at implementing are very much needed in order for ideas to take off. Yet even in following, it is imperative that we learn to question, challenge, and push back, so as to serve as the sounding boards for leaders. Docile and submissive servants are not particularly valuable, in virtue of their inability to contemplate and ‘commonsense-gatekeep’ the decisions of leaders – indeed, the tendency to place one’s self-worth on praise and affirmation from ‘higher-ups’ is precisely the kind of mindset that has given rise to many a banal episode of total, mass evil in the 20th century.

Leadership is even more critical than follower-ship. Leaders are needed to generate new directions, initiate paradigm shifts, and problematicise long-standing conventions that are taken for granted. True leaders must step up to unite, as opposed to divide; to empower, as opposed to silence, and ultimately to lift all boats up at once, through harnessing and facilitating the creative potential in those surrounding them. Few historical changes and transformations in the past have occurred without the overt or subtle involvement of great leaders – who realise that at some point, the tides must turn in order for real change to come.

A prime example of a brilliant leader is a statesman who has shaped the trajectory of China in such fundamental, structural, and enduring ways – Deng Xiaoping. Deng persevered through the madness and rancorous zealotry that had characterised some of the most turbulent and darkest days in contemporary Chinese history. He did not give into those who urged him to become an unquestioning, ideals-compromising, sycophantic follower of what they construed to be orthodox Maoism; instead, he offered a nascent, refreshing, and ends-driven vision of Maoism – one that enabled China to be steered back on track as it emerged from the shadows and scars of the Cultural Revolution.

Deng never took ‘No’ for an answer. Nor did he take ‘Rules say so’ as a legitimate excuse. In seeking outcomes from actions, he embodied the seeking of truth from facts – and was hence a leader who remade China, and made the attainment of prosperity and economic strength possible for this country of 1.4 billion.

Assistant Professor, HKU