China and its Discontents

Archive for March, 2013

Paul Clement’s SCOTUS Oral Argument Reframed to Support Marriage Equality

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Reposted from Facebook:

Here’s an idea: Paul Clement argued last week in Hollingsworth v Perry SCOTUS oral argument that the government’s rational interest in preserving hetero-only marriage is to further its fundamental procreative purpose. But in what alternate universe will gay marriage deter straight couples from making babies (“oh, I suddenly have the option to get gay-married! time to switch sides!”), or encourage LGBT folks to go straight and make more babies? Conversely, marriage equality (and this is a point that has been made before) only encourages more children to be raised in stable, loving family homes (surely a rational government interest if there ever was one). What happens to children after procreation is actually a greater government interest than the procreative act itself. The pro-marriage equality argument often focuses on defining marriage as primarily an expression of love and commitment, which is true and great; but how would this debate be different if we focused more on the ways in which marriage equality strengthens society, supports children, and is in the end a pretty conservative idea?

Note: I am not in favor of this case being decided under rational basis review.

Written by Will

March 31st, 2013 at 3:48 am

David Brooks’ Specious and Trite Op/Ed on Chinese Education

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David Brooks wrote an embarrassingly clueless New York Times op/ed a couple days ago comparing Chinese and American learning styles, making conclusions that wouldn’t line up if you had even spent a minimal amount of time in the Chinese educational system. Brooks seems to think that the Chinese educational system exists as some sort of Confucian utopia:

“Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

But in reality this doesn’t reflect modern Chinese education at all. Education in China today is more free than it used to be but it is still heavily influenced by Mao: education’s purpose is largely defined as fulfilling a set of political goals, not cultivating virtuous individuals. Kids grow up with explicit “values lessons” in elementary school, but instead of cultivating a love of learning and a sense of citizenship, they learn obedience to authority and rote memorization. Then when they get to high school and college they transition to political education emphasizing traditional Marxism-Leninism. I suppose this is one kind of moral outlook, but normatively it certainly isn’t one that I would establish in schools.

The structure of the system itself squelches creativity and independent moral thought: the gaokao (the national standardized college admissions test) is morality-free, largely cognitive/instrumental, and serves as the main admissions standard, thus eliminating more whimsical criteria like admissions essays. Once students get into college, they must choose a major (often in a technical field that they are not interested in) and are never allowed to switch majors. Furthermore, they face academic dishonesty at all levels: among students and among faculty (hardly encouraging of independent thought!). Finally, no actual Chinese student would define their learning goals the way Brooks does. Brooks likes to think Chinese students emulate the Confucian ideal:

The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

But in fact almost every Chinese student will tell you they work hard in order to a) Satisfy parental expectations, and b) If they’re a male, find a good job so they can buy an apartment and a car, get married, and support a family, or if they’re a female, attract a husband who will support them. This is but one more example of what Wang Hui calls “the de-politicization of politics”: “commercial logic is replacing political reasoning, a developmentalist discourse is replacing political participation, and a restructuring of interest relations of capital is replacing a debate on political values.” Framing education first as a method to drill in obedience and second as a way to create happy capitalist pawns strengthens the power of the CCP twice over.

A friend of mine describes what is most disappointing about this op/ed, however: “In the usual tunnel-vision view of the West as Wall Street and Hollywood, the whole tradition of moral learning going back to Aristotle and Aquinas is overlooked.” One would think that, even though David Brooks is no China expert, he might have a pretty good understanding of pedagogy and the philosophy of education in the West. The inculcation of virtue has been one of the principle pedagogical aims of education in the West all the way up until being deemphasized in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, while Confucianism has historically emphasized virtue, the virtues taught in the West have generally been normatively superior (this is especially true of the concepts of citizenship taught in Western public school systems–systems that are under attack in the U.S. by low funding and voucherization). I agree with Brooks that a moral impulse in education is good and that we should re-imagine what it means to teach citizenship today, and even that Confucianism might have something valuable to teach us in this regard. But he is completely wrong in looking to modern China for inspiration.