Columnists > Voices

Walking backwards

Relishing tradition is a sure way to face what's ahead

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

We have been taking my eldest son, Ty (17), on college tours of late, traveling mostly up and down the East Coast. The climate of college selection has changed since I went through it in the '70s. Back then, we toured the libraries and soaked it all in very seriously, but somewhat casually. College tours today have evolved now into individual performances worthy of rating and timing, much like a skating competition, and student tour guides are now trained to walk backwards and project their voices at the same time.

Aside from the technical requirements of such a performance-projection of voice, not falling into the cracks in the sidewalks, getting back in time for the "informational meeting" (to answer how we can possibly afford this education)-excellent college tour guides need to cultivate a human, artistic element. The best combined humor with the ability to pull out questions from prospective students. But if the college presentation had excessive marketing-say, a video piece showing many athletes and the "diverse" body of students all smiling in their successes-that was a huge deduction in Ty's mind.

So as we toured campuses, naturally I began to ponder not just what makes a good tour guide, but a good education in general. After having a discussion of this issue with my son at one school's "Asian" cafeteria in Baltimore (yes, having good sushi in the cafeteria earns a few points), we decided that a good education is learning to walk backwards into the future. Perhaps these college tour guides do have something to teach us, after all.

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My wife and I have raised our three children to indeed look back, to respect the tradition and history that they have come from. Rather than promising them an unlimited future, I found myself teaching them to steward carefully the gift mix they have. I wanted them to know the best of our traditions, from Shakespeare and Bach to Hemingway. I want them also to know how much their own time echoes in the various chambers of history, and how they are relevant to post-9/11 experience. I want them to understand that in our mixed-race-and-culture marriage between Judy (Irish/English/Scottish) and me (Japanese and God knows what else), they represent in their mixed blood the very promise of reconciliation of nations that once were at war.

But we also do not want them to dwell there, but to walk confidently toward a goal on their own path. We have tried to teach them that success is not worldly success of money and fame, but being faithful to the unique journey God has called them to. Education must be past-focused and future-focused at the same time. Our job is to help our children discover the uniqueness of their callings that only they can walk in.

As I negotiated I-95 to get us home, and as Ty recited Hamlet in the passenger seat for his senior literature class, I pondered how much of our education is about the past, and how much is about the future. Of course, it is about both. I then realized that he has been walking backwards already without much fanfare. Whenever a student decides to stay true to his faith as a Christian in a public school in New York City as he has, he is walking backwards. When a student today is committed to keeping himself sexually pure, as he has endeavored to do with his girlfriend, he is walking backwards into the currents of cultural norms. When a student decides, on his own, to start a conservative club in his liberal school (with his Jewish buddy), he is definitely walking backwards.

His teachers and fellow students may not agree with him, but he, with humor, manages. The key, I realized for him as for me, is walking backwards and paying attention to what comes ahead, at the same time. That takes a kind of zany, awkward commitment not normally encouraged in schools nor in the world. Whether we buy into the hype of college admissions or not, one thing is for sure: The 21st century will be led by creative children who boldly dare to lead, backwards.

-Makoto Fujimura is a painter, member of the National Council on the Arts, founder and director of the International Arts Movement, and WORLD's Daniel of the Year. For extended thoughts on walking backwards and other subjects, go to


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