China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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.

Humor Break: 红军版江南Style/Gangnam Style the Red Army remix

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I could make a sociological comment on modern appropriation of socialist realist art and what it means for the Chinese national psyche, but why bother?

Written by Will

September 28th, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Last Train Home

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I just watched “Last Train Home,” a movie by Lixin Fan. It was incredible–encapsulating all of the themes of modern China into a simple story about a migrant couple working in Guangzhou and their children back at home in their rural village. This is a story about 留守儿童 (liushou ertong–left behind children) and their parents. First, there are the obvious themes of industrialization, globalization, and the ripping apart of traditional family norms in search of a better life. There’s also an indictment of American consumerism (represented by the ridiculous-looking stacks of jeans the parents and later their daughter make in Guangzhou–the factory manager also makes jokes about size-40 Americans). The movie goes one step further, however, in following through in the implications of a broken family life, which not only results in predictably rebellious and unstudious children, but also in its own form of mindless consumerism and despiritualization.

But what comes most clearly across is a sense of despair at being a cog in a giant machine. The movie’s most gripping scene is a depiction of the family struggling to get on the ‘last train home’ for the Chinese New Year, waiting for nearly a week amidst a crowd of thousands outside the train station. The paramilitary police step in to help the local police in riot control, erecting barricades and managing unrest in the crowd. At one point, a father attempts to climb the barricades, saying that his daughters are lost on the other side, but is stopped by the police. Upon being stopped, he tells the paramilitary policeman, “Today you work behind the fence. Tomorrow, you’ll be standing here in my shoes.”

Is there a better sentence that sums up modern Chinese life? The migrant workers fighting to get home and see their families are stuck in this machine that does little for them; the police officers are stuck in their positions and can likewise do little to affect the situation. One senses that there’s an invisible presence hovering over every scene of the movie–the Communist Party. The CCP isn’t mentioned once throughout the entire movie–not as the grandmother is describing her life during the Cultural Revolution, nor as the workers complain about the trains and their lot in life. This is probably a good thing, because the movie is after all really about the migrant worker family. But the CCP is there, standing behind that invisible fence.

Written by Will

August 18th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

The Challenge for All of Us, Not Just Presidents

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A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is “weak” and that the country’s leadership role is suspect. He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids.

Ideally he would be self-aware enough that, in the center of a system that treats him as emperor-god, he could still recognize his own defects and try to offset them.

From James Fallow’s latest cover story on Obama in The Atlantic.

Written by Will

February 10th, 2012 at 8:16 am

A Rant About Women? How About a Rant About Life.

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I am so glad Sheryl Sandberg recently shared via Facebook an old blog post of Clay Shirky’s from two years ago, “A Rant About Women.” The post is old in internet terms, but the content is classic. Some of the comments are even better than the original post. The gist is: women aren’t as good as men at being “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks… self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”

Shirky puts this starkly as a male-female divide, but I would hope any self-reflective person struggles with the delicate balance between being genuine and authentic vs. confident and successful. Ultimately though this is a false choice. We don’t have to sacrifice either, and quite often these qualities reinforce the others. If you find yourself becoming inauthentic as you rise professionally, “you’re doing it wrong.” But when you are authentically confident, people recognize both your authenticity and your confidence, and reward you for both (this might be an exaggeration solely supported by my personal experience). Maybe it’s hard to achieve that state. But that’s the point. It should be hard. There’s no point to it otherwise.

The two top comments were really superb. First this:

I recognize the unfairness when the societal differentiation is considered. But I have also noted the worth of taking for your own the strength of “not caring about” …so much. A good example is in your average male bonding: it’s not that men don’t have their limits, and certainly can trigger the threshold whereby an outright fighting response is provoked with another man, but that bonding almost universally includes a higher threshold for taking cracks, jabs, humorous insults, swipes, etc, and, when you learn how to give them well and in a good-spirited way (I cannot emphasize the second modifier enough), the joy shared by all. The essence of success in this comes from that differentiation learned over time from men’s interactions to develop in-sensitivity, “to not care so much”. Individuals can wisely adapt for themselves virtues learned from the stereotypical schools of women’s sensitivity and men’s insensitivity, suited to taste. In the above case, it’s about our feelings, but the callous of not-caring-so-much also becomes a tool of confidence for other things.

All this being said, hopefully the true difference between an asshole and an admirable person is prudence of application. Sadly, that too is an art not so easily learned, except by falling down, getting up, and reflecting.

In addition to the lesson of “not caring so much” (i.e., being above the criticisms/jokes), I would add it’s helpful to be below the compliments people give you.

The other great comment read along the lines of “known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, and unknown-unknowns” a la Rumsfeld. Or as a friend restated, “ignorant knowing and knowing ignorance.” The point being, we do well on both personal and professional levels when we operate in the realm of known-unknowns/knowing ignorance.

Written by Will

January 22nd, 2012 at 8:36 pm

“The Poverty of Experience”

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Published in the Trinity Tripod.

Martin Peretz, of Harvard University and editor of the magazine The New Republic, recently wrote, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

A month ago protests sparked over the construction of a Muslim community center, the Cordoba House, several blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. For two years, a vocal minority of Americans have posted on internet forums and passed on viral emails written loudly in all caps: “BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA IS A MUSLIM!”

Each of these controversies stem from a stereotypical representation of Islam and its adherents – stereotypes that are bigoted because they aren’t true. From my travels in Xinjiang, China and living amongst Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, I’ve found that bigoted beliefs can only arise out of a profound “poverty of experience.”

Last week I stayed for a few days in Hemu, a tiny village on the Kazakh, Russian, and Mongol borders. The natural scenery was beautiful, but more important to me were opportunities to speak with local Tuvans (a Mongolian tribe), Uyghurs, and Kazakhs. After spending an afternoon at a school cultural exchange, I learned that Kazakh teenagers are surprisingly good basketball players and admire Kobe Bryant. It’s probably because the basketball courts are the only fun thing in town.

After dinner with the family of the head schoolteacher, they taught us how to dance to the ethno-pop of Shahrizoda (three Uyghur girls who are all the rage in Xinjiang – their music is incessant). The dance was a traditional Kazakh line dance, and very similar to line dances in Texas. We were also served horse milk wine – think sake with a tinge of milk flavor.

The next night, we got to practice our newly-learned line-dancing skills at a dance party. In Hemu. Population: less than 2000.

After all that, how can I ever stereotype a population of one billion people – it’s futile!

I am an avid reader of James Fallows, correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, who in response to Mr. Peretz wrote, “The real secret of American inclusion through the generations is that when you grow up with, work with, live next to, intermarry with, and in all other ways get to know people from different categories, you have less patience for generalizations about ‘the blacks’ or ‘the Irish’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘the gays’ or ‘trailer trash’ etc.”

When you come into contact with those unlike yourself and expose yourself to the alien, “poverty of experience” is erased; you cannot be bigoted, because what was once alien you now recognize as familiar.

Not everyone can make the trek to one of the most remote places on earth to learn this lesson – but Americans need not to. My “wealth of experience” includes not just getting to know Kazakh teenagers in Xinjiang, but also growing up and going to school in a racially and socio-economically diverse community. I am sure the Tuvans, Kazakhs, and Uyghurs I’ve met are well-represented by others in the states (not to mention Muslim and Arab cultural groups on this campus). If you have the opportunity to study abroad, it is the best choice you can make, but it is certainly not the only path out of bigotry in this country.

Darth Vader Helps John Williams Compose Sith Theme, Conan the Barbarian: The Musical, and More

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That was so good. Conan the Barbarian: The Musical, Total Recall: The Musical, and 24 Season Two: The Musical, are equally humorous. Courtesy of Jon and Al. Great job, guys.

Written by Will

July 2nd, 2010 at 6:47 am