Gerrit Gong was born and raised in Palo Alto, California. He is the eldest of three siblings. Both of his parents were educators. His father was a university professor and his mother was an elementary school teacher. He has taught at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and and Brigham Young University. In the mid ‘80s, he worked for the U.S. government as special assistant to the Undersecretary of State at the State Department and special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, China. At the time of this interview, he was the assistant to the president of Brigham Young University in Utah, focusing on planning and assessment. He is now a general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How would you describe the household which you grew up in?
A close family. Very loving. We grew up in a home that valued education. It was a family interested in learning and teaching. My parents believed that we could learn from everyone that we met. Sometimes you learn by what you shared and sometimes you shared by what you learned.
How would you describe your parents’ style of child rearing?
They were hands-on in the sense that they wanted us to have different kinds of experiences. My mother, for example, said we should learn to eat all different kinds of foods. One of the great blessings is that as we’ve been able to go to various countries around the world, we always eat the local cuisine and we always like it. No matter where you are, you enjoy where you are.
How would you describe yourself as a child?
That’s a good question. (Laughs) I don’t know. I was probably a very average, normal child.
What were your interests? What did you like to do as a child?
I was interested in many things. I was a Boy Scout when I was younger. I enjoyed learning all the different things for merit badges. I became someone who really enjoyed camping. As I became a teenager, we would take friends and go backpacking in Yosemite sometimes for seven to ten days carrying nothing, but what we had on our backs. We’d have down sleeping bags, a surveyor stove and freeze dried food. We’d cover quite a few miles over the course of the trip and loved being outside and involved in those things.
We also traveled as a family. My parents were good to take us to Mexico and Canada. We went to Asia and Europe. One summer, they gave my sister, brother and me Eurail passes and said go and explore.
How old were you when you got the Eurail pass?
I must have been in graduate school. My brother and sister were probably late high school, or early college.
Did your family take annual trips?
I’m not sure they were annual, but with my parents both being involved in schools, we did have the summers off. We would sometimes go with my father to a professional conference that he had. We would go as a family to visit relatives, or sometimes we would just go see something we hadn’t seen before.
Who besides your parents were big influences in your life?
We had many people in our community. We met lots of people through scouting. We met many people in our church group. Some of our very close friends were those involved in our church community and neighborhood community. There were many people in our school that we were involved with. As I grew older, of course, I had leaders and classmates at university and graduate school.
Were you raised as a Mormon?
Yes. Let me add that I think everybody has to decide for themselves what their religious faith will be. Having been brought up in a particular faith tradition that doesn’t necessarily determine that’s the faith tradition that you will decide you yourself believe in. You may choose to believe in that or something else, or not have a faith tradition at all. In my own case, I am grateful to have that as part of my childhood, but I also made some individual, affirmative decisions that I have been grateful to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Did you read a lot as a child?
Yes, we were encouraged to read fairly broadly. My parents made it easy to have things in the home to read that were interesting. We would go frequently to the library. It wasn’t uncommon to come back with stacks of different kinds of books.
In high school, what kind of teenager were you?
I was involved in many different things. I was editor of the school paper. I played soccer and basketball. I was okay, not particularly good at either, but enjoyed very much the chance to be part of those teams. I was involved with our debate and public speaking team. I enjoyed classes. We had a very strong AP program. We had some very excellent teachers with Ph.D.’s who could have taught anywhere including any university in the country, but had chosen to teach in the Palo Alto school system.
Did you stand out in high school? Were you a top student?
I was asked to participate as one of the valedictory speakers and was given some honors when I graduated, but it’s fair to say that we had a very strong class. There were many students who were very outstanding in all kinds of different fields. I might have done well in some fields, but there were some others who did very, very well in other fields.
What do you think was the most challenging part of your childhood?
We all have opportunities and challenges as we grow to determine who we are and what we believe and to learn something about our possible talents or skill, to learn to relate to people from different kinds of backgrounds, and to learn to relate to ideas, thoughts and things from all kinds of places. I was grateful for that. We were in the 1960s in the Palo Alto, Berkley and San Francisco area and were very much involved in some of the 1960s kinds of issues and thinking. That was the environment in which I was in high school, so we got to think through many of those questions and meet many of the people involved in those things.
Did you experience a rebellious stage?
It depends on how you define rebellious stage. We all question and we all have to decide as we grow up, in particular as we are adolescents, where we will end up on certain questions. I don’t think you would have thought I was particularly rebellious, but I was always asking and questioning. I did end up being quite typical in the sense that every adolescent has to ask and determine who they are and what they believe.
Once you got to college, who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes Scholarship?
I chose to apply for graduate work at the School of Oriental and African Studies [in London]. I had a good scholarship to pursue a program there. Then one day I had a feeling, or sense that I ought to apply for the Rhodes. When I had the chance to choose between the two programs, I thought I would enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to be at Oxford, even though I initially had really wanted to go to London. I got to spend quite a bit of time doing things in London, but I was glad to be able to take the M.Phil. and the D.Phil. programs in International Relations at Oxford, because it really gave an international perspective on international relations and history.
I used to liken it to trying to triangulate where a forest fire was. You would need to have not one, not two, but three different siting places. If you’re going to triangulate, you’re going to need to look at it from different dimensions. When you try to understand the role of culture, or the role of certain kinds of politics, having a viewpoint of Britain and Europe, one from the United States and one from Asia was very helpful to me as I tried to analyze different questions. It’s been so in my professional career as well.
At what point did you know what you wanted to pursue international relations?
I had an early on interest in international issues. When I was at Oxford, I decided I would professionally be interested in doing that, but I was also interested from my church service where I had been involved in Taiwan. I thought international issues were going to be quite important for the future and that maybe in some small way be an area I could be involved.
Before you even got to BYU, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I was interested in many, different things as possibilities. I was interested in medicine for a period of time. In one of my seminars, we did open heart surgery on dogs and I got a chance to work with scalpels and learn how to do certain kinds of operations, but I fairly quickly thought I might be able to contribute something in the international area. I was also long interested in curriculum design. I double majored in international relations and curriculum design. I always thought you should have some content, but also understand how to organize the content and evaluate it. I’m currently involved in planning and assessment which is based on curriculum design and evaluation assessment questions. I worked for 20 years on the content side, trying to be practically involved in the field of international relations.
Did you feel any pressure to succeed even more, because you were a Rhodes Scholar?
Anyone who has the privilege of receiving a Rhodes Scholarship should feel some responsibility to give back in some way, because of the wonderful opportunity to be at Oxford and to have had those experiences. Share with others where you can, or in the work that you’re doing, and things that you were able to learn, because you were there.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
Yes, very much.
Is wasn’t too culturally shocking?
No, part of what I was hoping to understand was the academic and cultural framework that animate people at Oxford, in the UK, and more broadly in Europe. You learn them differently if you live there than if you’re visiting for shorter periods of time. I tried to be as immersed as possible in the academic culture and (if you can call it) the British culture through people and things I was involved with. Anyone who lives there does that.
What are the three things you love about what you do?
I get to work with great people that includes the students, faculty, administrators and staff on the campus. I get to work with great ideas. We’re involved in thinking about how education happens, how it can be improved, and ways to measure that improvement. I’ve had the great privilege to be involved with some issues, which at least for me have been highly interesting and valuable.
One is the idea that we can understand some aspects of international relations through a lens of what I call remembering and forgetting. You have to know when to remember, what to forget and why. So much of international relations hinges on things that happened in the past that affect the future. You want to know how the past and future should be mutually involved with those kinds of interactions. If there have been terrible tragedies, injustice and difficulties, what do you remember about them, so you don’t repeat history, but at what point and when and how do you forget certain things, so that a new history can move forward?
Another idea I’ve had the great privilege to be involved with is the idea of the standard of civilization in international society. There are standards that different people across different polities and cultures understand to be both practical and the aspirational–a level that people should be striving for. We have standards as it relates to war. We have standards as it relates to parts of international law. We have standards as it relates to trade and so on. It’s been very interesting to think and work across that question for many years with wonderful scholars around the world.
We’re working on a new question which is how you can have globally competitive education without having it fit into a zero-sum framework. That means: as we start to benchmark student achievement internationally, we want to find ways to do it that lifts all the boats. Don’t cause countries to feel that they have to be winners and losers in the educational area. Competition can be positive, in the sense that all students do better. It’s recognizing there are areas of collaboration, but that the areas of competition, which are very real need not be seen as zero-sum.
How did you handle failure growing up or what was your perspective on it?
Failure at the time is not always easy to deal with, but it is clearly true that failure is an opportunity to learn something. My parents and others around me were very constructive in saying, “Think of failure as an opportunity to learn something you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.” It’s true in many ways that we can often learn more from failure than we can from success.
Did you have any role models besides your parents either fictional or real?
Oh, many role models. I had wonderful role models in our religious community, church group and academic community. I had wonderful role models when I worked for the US government. I got to see and be with some of the great leaders in this country, either close up, or more distant. They really worked with people and really believed and helped this and other countries be the best they could be. I got to see people in think tanks, governments and corporations around the world. There really are many, many wonderful people that I thought one could learn from.
What would you say to anyone young or old about going beyond leading a mediocre life and leading a meaningful, useful life?
Life is much more fun if we all try our very best.