Monday, January 24, 2011

This Question of Education

In pondering the question of what education is and what constitutes an educated person, a gentle, humble servant of a man comes to mind. One of my many surrogate “uncles,” Julius Bergstrom was born in China to Swedish missionary parents before communism raised its head and expelled those willing to live in her slums and decode her ideographs.

Uncle Julius entered my life when I was two. I remember him and Aunt Thyra as a sweet childless couple who welcomed me into their home and fed me cookies and juice in my clueless, imperious years. Unable to return to China, the land of their childhood and dreams, they chose Korea as a springboard for sending the message of life and hope into China. Creating Chinese programs for the radio station to beam past the “bamboo curtain” was their legacy to tens of thousands of young people caught in communism’s brainwash.

Uncle Julius was modest concerning himself and lavish towards others. No one could have been prouder at my graduation from Trinity College--of course he came. And his gift to me was reflective of his confidence in me: a 20 volume copy of the OED, one he had used and cherished for years. He applauded my educational goals and believed in me, a shallow 70s child of my times. When he spoke to me, I believed I was nearly as bright as the pedestal he placed me on.

I loved him and Aunt Thyra through the years, visiting them in retirement, watching him cope as she withdrew into Alzheimer’s. I ached for him, missing the vibrant and gifted woman he married as she turned into a childlike girl. The only reminder of her delightful self was when she sat at the piano and played the hymns which seemed the mortar of a life built of sacrifice.

After Uncle Julius died, as I talked to Dad about what a dear “uncle” he was, I began to learn the depths of the man who set such store my by college education.

Uncle Julius had been homeschooled by his missionary parents and attended some Chinese schools. He was fluent in Confucian Chinese and read the classics in their originals. His accent and calligraphy were so perfect, he was highly honored by the Chinese. He was also fluent in Swedish, English was his third language (and later he would learn Korean, a fourth). When he finished high school, he applied to study at Moody Bible Institute. They rejected him because he had not attained their entrance requirements in a recognized high school. He never did make it to college, but committed himself to life-long learning.

I inherited many of the books from Uncle Julius’ self-learning library. His name is neatly penned in the front, with a small Chinese painting usually pasted near it. He read and marked the books, interacting with the authors. He didn’t fill his time with Grisham and Clancy. I have his Plato, his Aristotle, Homer, Augustine, Virgil, and countless others. He was truly an educated man. The academic community with its artificial standards could not recognize the light of learning in his soul. They were blind to his non-Western achievement. They were the losers.