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By Graeme Lottering


The Montréal Review, May 2011




By order of magnitude, the Japanese phrase, ʻoshiète kudasaiʼ is the most humble, reverent, and powerful sentence I have ever come across in any language.

The meaning is simply ʻteach me,ʼ but within the simple two word utterance lies innumerable nuances and an exposé on cultural priorities.

The Japanese people are known for a variety of things, including miniaturization, robotics, hello kitty, and their Zen spirit. However, I feel that one of their greatest cultural facets comes from the Buddhist tradition of learning.

For centuries, priests taught Zen. Today it is still a way of doing ordinary tasks with intensity and purpose. In other words, it is a way of turning sweeping the floor into worship. Monks taught calligraphy, tea ceremony, archery, pottery, as well as meditation. They often took apprentices, who would study many years before being able to be Zen-like in their arts. You still see this practice behind the counters of sushi restaurants. It takes years to be able to slice the choicest cut of maguro, and decades to trim the poisonous meat off the fugu blowfish.

This devotion and respect for learning is evident in the phrase ʻoshiète kudasaiʼ It is simultaneously a request and demand. The subject of the sentence is the teacher, the sensei. It is a humble plea for help and a verbal contract all at the same time.

The relationship between sensei and student is unlike anything we have in the West. The sensei represents his own teacher and so forth, going backwards in time until all the is left is the essential teaching—the Zen method of accurate action without conscious effort.

Neurological, the repeatedly practiced tasks moves from the cerebellum to the motor-cortex. Studying in this way is like an athlete practicing until he can play the sport without thinking about technique.This takes time, patience, and a deep respect for learning. It requires that student enters into a contract with the teacher, respecting the sensei and the origins of the knowledge itself.

Pronouncing ʻoshiète kudasai,ʼ like a Buddhist mantra, naturally humbles the speaker. It illuminates that the speaker is aware of his lack of knowledge, and that he is devoted to learn until the knowledge becomes part of his very being. He will learn until
he understand the essence of his actions with no conscious effort—the intuitive understanding of the paradox at the heart of a Zen haiku.

I argue that we have lost the respect relationship in the Western school system.

Obviously, we focus on individuality, and our roots come from Ancient Rome and Greece. I have a great fondness of the concept of the academy, but from what I have experienced of the Canadian school system, we have started to run our schools like the Post Office. It is an outdated bureaucracy, hiding behind jargon updated from past decades, run on the same grid lines as the Romans: terribly practical yet superficial.

Our schools and universities are factories churning out entitled individuals with no understanding of the rituals and origins of their knowledge. And, consequently, no respect for their teachers.

Without getting into the politics of running universities like corporations or seeing teachers as clerks distributing curriculum, I argue that the mindset required to learn anything can only come from humility and respect.

A student needs to be humble to admit he doesnʼt know everything. He also needs to respect the channel of distribution of information. (Note that this does not mean learning without questioning! Critical thinking is very much part of learning.) In fact, all three of these factors are absolutely necessary for deep learning to take place.

Without humility, you get arrogance and reticence. Without respect, you get disdain. Without a critical mindset, you get indoctrination. None of these negative emotions foster an environment where true learning can take place.

In recent years, education had continuously moved towards being ʻlearner centered.ʼ Of course, a teacher must be aware of all her studentsʼ unique profiles, and she must teach using every skill in her toolkit in order to attain the maximum effectiveness, but to place so much value on only one party of a didactic relationship is wrong.

Teaching and learning is a relationship, and in any relationship, both parties should accept 100% of the responsibility. It is not 50% from the teacher, and 50% from the student. In our current system, the balance of responsibility lies heavily with the educator, who is charged with conforming to each individual studentʼs needs.

Having said this, ʻstudent centeredʼ teaching is better than a ʻteacher-centeredʼ method, but it still loses focus on the delicate relationship between the instructor and the learner.

It is not the relationship between a clerk and a customer, but a microcosm of the link between learner and society. It demands that the student respects the teacher, and that the teacher, in the words of Maya Angelou, “loves the students to understanding.”

Perhaps in treating education like a Licensing Office, we have lost the essence of this powerful teacher-student bond at the true center of all learning.


Graeme Lottering is living in Japan, where he teaches in the private school system.


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