25 October 2012

Still her true character

Over the ten-minute break between classes, I was having a conversation with a fellow teacher at Baotou Teachers’ College, Vivian, which managed to be quite broad-ranging. We started off discussing student behaviour in class: though a number of my classes are quite well-behaved and attentive, this one in particular is rather… shall we say, ‘active’. This being still basically my first month, we still need some time to get used to one another, though this certainly isn’t as fubared a situation as Peace Corps was for me. Vivian remarked that when she was a student, they would still treat the teacher with some measure of the deference due to age and status, but that that respect was slowly disappearing. I remember saying that it was a similar situation in the United States, where teachers were often, in spite of having a very difficult job (a fact which it took me entering and leaving Peace Corps to truly appreciate), blamed for all of their students’ failures and underappreciated for having supported those same students’ achievements.

We ended up talking about labour rights in both countries. Vivian remarked that although in China all teachers do have the benefit of union representation, the union system does not really work in favour of the teachers. I told her that the situation in the United States was better in some respects but not in others: teachers’ unions are under concerted siege in the popular press, and their legal rights are being steadily eroded. Moreover, the welfare of teachers, students and families varies widely from district to district – you can have a perfectly functional, healthy district situated right next to a district where the union, the administration and the parents are at each other’s throats. Vivian indicated that such a system might still be preferable, given that the unions actually do something, but was nonetheless appalled that teachers might be fired at the drop of a pin, despite having taught for most of their adult careers, on the basis of their students’ rote performance on a standardised test.

And then we talked about the nature of education, at which point I made a reference to how Confucius would not necessarily have endorsed the culture of standardised tests and rote learning, whether in China or in the US (the Analects has it that 「誦詩三百,授之以政,不達;使於四方,不能專對;雖多,亦奚以為?」 - ‘Though a man may recite three hundred Songs by heart, yet if when trusted with a task of governance he cannot achieve it; or if he is sent to any of the four corners of the world, but cannot reply without assistance; though his learning is great, what real good does it do?’ [13:5]), and she was surprised (as a number of my colleagues are) that I was familiar with the Analects. She noted that in spite of all of the recent changes, most Chinese people still respect and appreciate Confucius, and hold to traditional ways, particularly in Baotou. In Beijing or Shanghai or Guangdong, she said, people might be ‘a little more cosmopolitan, a little more “open-minded”’ (I could hear the quote-marks), but most of China still espoused (at least publicly) a far more traditionalist ethic. At that point our ten-minute break was over and we went back to class.

Much is made of how China is changing. Much more is made of how terrible the Cultural Revolution was. Let us not deceive ourselves – it was indeed a terrible tragedy for Chinese culture and education, let alone for the Chinese people. But as Mao himself acknowledged, he only managed to change Beijing and perhaps the areas around it through the Cultural Revolution – and Mao was nothing if not determined to change China’s institutions. So, indeed, were his successors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who were determined to ‘modernise’ China by adopting all of the norms and vices of gangster capitalism. But have they succeeded in winning minds and hearts, either the old laoban or the new? In Beijing and Shanghai and Guangdong, perhaps. But if what Vivian told me is to be credited, they have faced an uphill battle in China’s countryside these past sixty years – a battle which it seems has yet to be won or lost.

Confucianism promotes an ideal of education which produces virtuous people: in that, it is comparable to the classical Greek ideal of paideia, of liberal education; and stands opposed to the functionalist techne ideal which sees education as merely a toolbox of skills to be acquired (on the cheap, if necessary). Confucianism also promotes an ideal of moral economy: in that, it is comparable to the radicalism of Catholic social teaching when it insists upon fair wages, strong unions, just regulations and opposition to monopolistic business practices; and stands opposed both to Marxism and to neoclassical economics, both of which discount any role of moral behaviour in the marketplace, and both of which reduce the human being to homo oeconomicus. And the true character of the Chinese people in places like Baotou is apparently still very much sympathetic to these ideals, despite all that they are taught by their own media and by the behaviour in their own public spaces to believe otherwise. I do not deny that there are still massive hurdles to overcome in creating a civic space in China, but I am not an unshakeable pessimist about the moral state of Chinese society; far from it.

There is yet quite a good deal of room for hope.

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