07 December 2017

In Hunan, the kids are alright

It’s a distinct pleasure to be able to teach high-school kids.

Not that it isn’t a pleasure to teach kids from all age groups. The most fun I had as an English teacher in China was in teaching grade-school students from the Fun Fun English books (a set of Korean English primers which, as a running joke, the Baotou Teachers’ College foreign teachers group turned into a soap opera between two of the protagonists, Sim-soon and Dol-dol). I considered my junior-high teaching to be the most rewarding, and got the most gratification from seeing my students progress in their English skills. But high-school kids are a challenge of an altogether different variety, and it’s interesting to see them tackle the ‘bigger picture’ questions.

Teaching AP Language and Composition is… let’s put this politely… a bit dull unless you can ‘massage’ the curriculum and spice it up a bit. (I’m on record saying how much I hate the entire idea of teaching to the test.) I’ve done my best to massage it, giving my students books that are either classics or head-scratchers or just plain fun (like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or interesting for other reasons (like Brave New World). But it’s also interesting to see them take on the synthetic and persuasive essay questions on what would, on this side of the Pacific, be considered ‘hot topics’. Let’s just say that my students have surprised me, pleasantly, with their thoughtfulness and their ability to ask tough questions.

It’s been slightly disconcerting to me, and at the same time refreshing, to have to defend – if only for the purposes of being a devil’s advocate and bringing out the strongest possible forms of my students’ arguments and lines of thinking – the standard ‘Western liberal’ position encouraged by these questions in how they’re formulated. Usually, I’m the one pushing back against the idea that individual liberty in the abstract is in most or all possible cases a desirable good. But in this case, it’s my students who are making that case for me.

For example, when the question of freedom of speech and political correctness on college and high school campuses came up, my students in Changsha overwhelmingly supported informal (that is to say, peer-enforced rather than administration-enforced) limitations on freedom of speech, to protect vulnerable groups. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at this, but it was a bit disconcerting to see it expressed openly. And I, of all people, was left taking up the cause for freedom of speech and arguing that even people with bad ideas should be allowed to express them. On the other hand, most of my students argued against political correctness when it was applied to comedy and comedians, even though they frowned, on the whole, on comedic routines that ‘punched down’ instead of ‘punching up’.

In another case, when the issue of school uniforms came up, most of the students defended school uniform policies for some surprising reasons. As a group, they were worried in particular about clothing becoming a status symbol, about student expenditures on clothing and about the possibilities of bullying. And on the positive side, they defended school uniforms as being a contributor to a positive esprit de corps in the school. One girl in one of my classes – a bit of a nonconformist herself in her dress – said she hated the school uniforms herself, but understood why the school implemented these policies and agreed with their reasoning. (Of course, I often will show up to class in heavy metal band T-shirts, so I kind of felt I had to agree with her there or else end up looking like a hypocrite.) This kind of reasoning was fairly typical in my classes – and it applied also to national esprit de corps. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy in my classes for protests of the national anthem (like Colin Kaepernick’s); they felt it wasn’t relevant or appropriate to express political dissent at a public commemoration of the country. At the same time, they again felt that public censure rather than legal action or punishment was the appropriate response.

As a whole, though, my students in Hunan tended to be concerned with œconomic equality and support for financially-disadvantaged groups. They gave fairly short shrift to neoliberal œconomic positions and arguments that would sacrifice the interests of the poorest members of society even if it meant supposedly achieving a greater utilitarian goal. Not only on the school uniforms debate but also on the ‘small change’ debate, they tended to show the greatest sympathy to the arguments that getting rid of denominations of small change (whether in China or in the United States) would adversely affect poorer consumers and reduce everyday contributions to charities.

This was, to me, quite telling. From my experiences in Baotou and Luoyang, too, it always seemed to be the young people who inclined toward the left-traditionalist tendency, and the older people of the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin generations who inclined toward the (neo)-liberal tendency, even if it was with some degree of personal inconsistency. My colleague Vivian praised the traditionalist viewpoint to a remarkably high degree, yet still deeply valued her own personal freedom and ability to choose her own romantic partner – to a degree which would likely have been inconceivable under the ‘old society’ and even to a degree that many of her older colleagues were uncomfortable with. On the other hand, one of my other colleagues there, Patrick, who was considerably older than either myself or Vivian, positively glowed with praises for America, our freedom of speech and entrepreneurial ingenuity and free enterprise, and on the other hand had nothing but disgust for, in particular, his own country’s alliance with North Korea. And yet he would swear by traditional Chinese medicinal remedies and dietary advice. But all that only goes so far as to say that actual people are people, embodied in their own personal situations and relationships, rather than ideological abstractions.

And this is all, of course, anecdotal on my part. I teach at a fairly high-end public school. And it isn’t meant to demonstrate anything broader than my own personal observations. But from what I can tell, the kids are alright. They already do, to a significant degree, engage on a deep level with the questions the test poses and that they encounter in Western literature, but they come to conclusions that the average American would be fairly uncomfortable with. The fact that they do appear to trend more collectivist in their approach to these kinds of issues – or at least more collectivist than the AP test or their Western readers expect them to – does not make them defective or incomplete thinkers. They can and do consider all sides and apply their own reasoning to the questions given to them.

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