The Trouble With Teens


There’s an old joke that goes like this:  seven Chinese walk into a room, and ten political parties come out.  Everyone says that Chinese are terrible managers, and an ordinary Chinese office will have more political drama than Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Clinton household combined.  Western managers know that Chinese have issues co-operating, and have spent tens of millions of dollars in corporate training to attempt to rectify this issue.  But unlike the problem of process, co-operation is much harder to instil in Chinese because of a fundamental failing in China’s high schools.   

Consider the life of an American high school student.  He may play on a sports team, participate in student council, volunteer, date, and work part-time at McDonald’s.  School can be a popularity contest, a jungle, a prison or just a nuisance, depending on your social designation.  Teachers and parents, meanwhile, have resigned themselves to their minimal influence over these stubborn and rebellious teenagers, and will just seek to prevent pregnancies and drug abuse.  The teenage years are an endless drama:  fights with parents over curfew, acne, not making the football team or cheerleading squad, break-ups, depression, anorexia, Waiting for Godot anxiety, the prom.

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Now consider the life of a Chinese teenager.  He’ll study at his boarding school, and study when he’s locked at home on the weekends.  His parents’ apartment and a classroom that looks like a prison cell are the boundaries of his experience and imagination.  Chinese parents see their only child as a vessel for their aspirations and retirement plan; teachers see their students as test scores and possible financial rewards.  The meaning and purpose of life are clear and simple:  study hard, get a high score on the national examination, and become a mid-level bureaucrat. 

Parents may not like the American teenager’s rebelliousness, and teachers may not like his lack of focus, but psychologists will explain that for the teenager his most important task is to construct a self-narrative that will become the basis of his identity, and permit him to engage the world as an independent human being.  He ceases to yearn for the approval of his parents and teachers, and instead seeks the approval of his peers.  He takes unnecessary risks (betting he could eat 10 hamburgers at once) and places himself in constant danger (actually trying to eat 10 hamburgers at once).  He has exhilarating triumphs (getting a date with a cheerleader) and abysmal tragedies (the cheerleader cancels).  He faces impossible obstacles (his mother) and deadly challenges (calculus class).  He will seek allies (he’ll read The Fountainhead) and seek the meaning of life (he’ll re-read The Fountainhead).  His memory takes all this epic drama from his teenage years and writes his very own Aeneid (so please excuse him if his memory doesn’t have room to store the periodic table, and only gets a B+ in chemistry).

Yes, in the process of formulating his identity, the teenager may be a selfish jerk, but the same process equips him with ‘empathy’ and the growing self-awareness that he is a selfish jerk. 

By placing himself in different roles in different situations (a student, an employee, a friend, a collaborator, a lover) the teenager is exploring and pushing the boundaries and limits of the world, and developing the social consciousness and skills necessary to navigate this world.  He discovers he can’t make the world conform to his worldview (his employer is really going to fire him if he’s late again, and his girlfriend is really going to dump him if he doesn’t stop hitting on her best friend), and so compromises and slowly learns to adjust his worldview to conform with the world.  Pain and consequences force him to reflect on his self-centred stubborn ways.  As slowly but as surely as a glacier, he learns to accept the validity and legitimacy of other viewpoints:  his thinking will often become nuanced and tolerant, more open and welcoming of diversity and difference. And he stops recommending The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged  to all his friends.

This symbiotic development of identity and empathy are what educators call the ‘socialization’process:  a teenager’s passionate and vehement search for identity will be calmed and rounded-out by the development of empathy, which will allow him to enter society as a citizen and to co-operate with others.

The crucial first step in this process is that teenagers be permitted to take risks and make mistakes, be stubborn and unreasonable, and just be the anti-social misfits that they naturally are.  But Chinese families and schools don’t permit even make-up and dating, let alone risks and dangers, triumphs and tragedies, obstacles and challenges. 

Boys and girls are not permitted to be near one meter of each other on school grounds, there’s a regulation haircut and school uniform, and there’s no mobile phone service and Internet access.  All the students dress, look, act and think the same, and an administrator’s greatest pride is to see his 1000 students do calisthenics in synch on the soccer field.  Walls and gates limit the movement of students, security cameras and the eyes of teachers track students, and if it were possible administrators would implant a signalling device on each student.  If all this is still not enough to depress and stress out the Chinese teenager, then the head teacher and/or parent will now and then remind him that he’s worthless and useless.

The result of all this unreasonable and unnecessary repression is that Chinese students are remarkably polite and well-behaved.  But at the end of their schooling they won’t be able to write their own Aeneid, (thoughmaybe the more literary among them can write The Tale of Peter Rabbit).  They will matriculate at a top university, but they will lack sympathy and empathy, which will hinder them from developing and managing personal and professional relationships; they won’t understand trust and tolerance, only power and fear.  They may rise to a top management position, but lacking in self-understanding and self-reflection they’ll curse and criticize their subordinates, making the workplace a cold stagnant repressive regime. 

Having skipped the tumultuous teenage years, Chinese are forever doomed to live as teenagers all their lives.  Whereas Americans may be stubborn, moody, quick to anger, insecure, impetuous, condescending, extreme, and paranoid in their teenage years, Chinese may suffer from these psychological issues all their lives.  The psychologists who wrote Reviving Ophelia, Raising Cain, and Real Boys may not be happy with how American families and schools are distorting the emotional development of children, but if they came to China they’d faint inhorror and despair. 

In education, permitting high school students the space and time to develop their individuality so that they may learn empathy and become happy and healthy citizens is the highest and more urgent priority.  This is common sense among American educators, but in China, thinking along these lines—that students have the right to develop as human beings, and that this process is long, painful, traumatic, and ultimately necessary for everyone’s good—requires a visionary reformer.

In September 2008, I was fortunate enough to be hired by arguably China’s one and only visionary reformer in education, Principal Wang Zheng of Shenzhen Middle School.  When I arrived at the school’s large sprawling campus I couldn’t possibly suspect that for the past six years the tree-lined quiet campus was actually the site of a long, traumatic, intensifying battle for the soul and destiny of China’s youth.

Next I’d like to discuss Principal Wang Zheng’s reforms and efforts to turn his students into citizens, and the opposition to his education project.       

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