July 17, Baotou

Hello again.

    So. The semester is over and I’ve got almost two months to kill. I originally planned to travel as much of China as possible in the summer, but for various reasons I’ll cut the traveling down to about a month or so.

    But that’s for a future letter. This one will be dedicated to my experiences with the Chinese educational system and Chinese students as I’ve experienced them in the past semester. That means that most of you will probably find this letter a little less interesting than usual, unless of course you have some inexplicable desire to learn more about the study habits of Chinese Teenagers…

    First let me say that some of the myths about Chinese students are not quite true. I had seen some footage of Chinese classrooms before coming here, in which every single student would raise his or her hand at every single question from the teacher. I also had some misguided expectations of exaggerated politeness and humility. Now it’s true that there’s a bit more respect coming from the students than most teachers in Denmark are accustomed to, but at the end of the day boys will be boys and thankfully most of my students have a relaxed attitude towards me. This means that they are just as likely to be late for class, that some will come unprepared and that there will be an occasional parody of the teacher as well.

    There are many differences though between Chinese and Danish students. Both in the way they prepare for class and in the way they participate. The Chinese educational philosophy is based almost completely on repetition and memorization. In class, the teacher will say something and the students all repeat in one voice, often two or three times. Before and after class the students are supposed to ‘review’ the lesson, meaning memorizing every page of the textbook on the lexical level with emphasis on pronunciation. When I go to class in the morning, I see students walking around with their books, each one attempting to memorize some obscure passage. This means that they are all extremely good at remembering facts but are having a very hard time understanding those facts and using them to create original thoughts and arguments.

    In class most Chinese students are extremely shy. This is probably the character trait that is confused as humility by some observers. When I ask a question in class I consider myself lucky to get an answer at once. Even if it is a simple answer that most of them will know, no one dares speak in class. The reason is, I think, based in a fear of “sticking out” from the crowd. They are the happiest if everyone knows the answer to a question and everyone can say it in a kind of community-chorus. This presents problems as I find it extremely difficult to get a class discussion going. It’s like there are only two people in the room; me and the “collective student body” (I have one class that I privately refer to as “The Borg”).

    At one point I was giving a lecture on Emerson and Thoreau’s theories of individualism and I asked a simple question about what their texts considered important. One out of many acceptable answers to this question (as evident from the lecture so far) was “independence of mind”. All of my students knew this, but as usual no one would volunteer the answer. Resigning I started to write the answer on the blackboard but I as I was writing “i.n.d.e.p.e…” I could hear one student starting to say the answer, and once she had started the whole class kind of chimed in until everyone had said it at least once. I turned around not knowing if I should laugh or cry and asked them if they could appreciate the irony given the context. They couldn’t.

    The fact is that China is a land were individuality is not valued very highly. The Government, the family structure, the professional environment are all based on the community. The individual is not supposed to express original thoughts. This means that even when someone is stating an opinion of their own they do it by using a phrase like: ”we all know that [something] is true”. In that way they make it clear that this is something everyone could have said, and that the speaker was just acting on behalf of the community. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have found that among other things it does result in a huge number of meetings were everyone speaks, but since everyone says the same nothing really changes. And since no one is willing to take charge nothing is ever really decided.

    The main problem is that there’s so little room for discussion in class. I often ask an open question trying to get some debate going, but as I said the students are VERY reluctant to answer any question that they don’t know the answer to. I tell them that there are no rights or wrongs in these questions but it’s almost like they don’t believe me and I’m often pressed to ‘tell them the answer’. If I do, they all write it down making my own one-sided opinion the gospel truth of the matter in question.

    It is of course no surprise that Chinese students are different from Danish ones. The educational system has schooled them to believe the textbook, believe the teacher, and believe that there is one answer to every question, and if you can memorize them all you’re going to go places in life. They are getting the message though and have started to realize that I don’t really care if they can memorize the entire Declaration of Independence. I therefore have a higher expectation for next semester’s class discussions.

    What else… Well, they like happy endings! Some of the stories we’ve read have had sad or even tragic endings producing essays of anger and outrage from my student. One student thought that Edgar Allen Poe should have written poems about love in stead of guilt, another felt that is was ridiculous that Uncas should die in the Last of the Mohicans, and most agreed that The Scarlet Letter would have been a much better story if Arthur and Hester could have had each other in the end. I don’t know if traditional Chinese literature has more happy endings but I have noticed that all, and I do mean ALL, the popular songs that they listen to are love songs – of the “inoffensive sugar-pop” variety… Next semester I’ll be teaching British literature as well as American, and I fully anticipate a student uprising when we get to Shakespeare’s tragedies.

    So that’s my two cents on Chinese education and that’s all for this time. Tomorrow I’m off to Beijing so I’ll probably be incommunicado for about a month (I’ll try to find an internet café from time to time, so I might still read my e-mail). I’ll be sure to update the website when I get home but until then I’ll leave you with a redesign of my old Road-tripping 2004 website from America.

Here’s to a happy summer,