“Education is not the means to an end”

Fields Medal winner says the Vietnamese youth has to change its attitude towards education and develop a thirst for knowledge

Professor Ngo Bao Chau receives the Fields Medal from India President Pratibha Patil at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Hyderabad on August 19.

Ngo Bao Chau, dual French and Vietnamese citizen, recipient of the 2010 Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize” of mathematics, is everywhere these days. After receiving his award at the International Congress of Mathematicians in India, Professor Chau traveled to Vietnam for a hero’s welcome before continuing on to The University of Chicago to assume a position as professor in the Department of Mathematics

During his visit, Professor Chau offered some refreshing advice to Vietnamese young people and their parents.  In a country in which many parents push their children to extremes in pursuit of academic success and where many young people suffer from excessive levels of study- and exam-related stress, education is too often a means to an end (getting a good job, material success) rather than a journey. 

Chau noted that while many Vietnamese students have won medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad, they failed to become famous scientists.  He intimated that what is needed is an educational system that values and nurtures creativity and innovation.  In the long run and on a macro-level this will likely mean the difference between “made in Vietnam” and “designed and made in Vietnam,” in the words of a colleague who studies continuous quality improvement (CQI) here. 

This is reminiscent of what Albert Einstein once said about the value of education in a liberal arts college:  “The value…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”  I’m also reminded of a saying from the Greek philosopher, Plutarch, which currently appears in my e-mail signature file:  “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

Chau’s parents were role models in this respect.  His mother never reminded him to do his homework and only encouraged him to sleep early and take care of his health.  His father helped to motivate his son to achieve new goals and realize his dreams but without any pressure.  Chau was born with an intellectual gift and his parents did what they could to help him actualize his potential.  If only all parents in Vietnam and elsewhere were so wise.

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