The Cave
Image Credit: Mike Baird

The Cave


Let’s say you were sitting outside a Sydney bistro enjoying a lunch of chilled heirloom tomato soup and hummus with pita bread. Your life is good, but you’ve also noticed some odd things: The weather’s always warm and sunny, Sydney somehow manages to hold one billion people, and it’s been the year 1999 for the past 50 years. Then suddenly Keanu Reeves walks up to you, and says your life is a lie; he implores you to seek truth and freedom, and follow him into a world where there’s neither sunlight nor 'Seinfield,' and you’ll have to live under the earth and fight against omnipotent machines in a war in which your only hope is Keanu Reeves.

In Plato’s allegory of the cave, humans are chained inside a dark cave where they develop a 'false consciousness.' Some break free of their chains, venture outside into the light, discover the real world, and from then on humanity has a choice of whether to forever dwell in the darkness or venture out into the light. Plato himself was not optimistic about human nature: his own teacher Socrates had to drink hemlock for trying to enlighten the youth of Athens. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man may become a hermit or go crazy, but he’d never become king.

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In his book The End of Food, Paul Roberts tells us something we’ve always suspected: humans are lazy. In the days of hunter-gatherer societies, food was scarce, and that meant that humans had to adopt a speculative mentality: do the least work for the most calories. The game of evolution rewarded those clever hunters who somehow managed to slip away and sleep in the meadows as his team exhausted themselves hunting gazelles, and then quietly slipped back into formation as his team triumphantly brought back meat to the tribe. Better yet, let your neighboring village stockpile meat for the winter, and then go raid them.

In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, the psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains 'neuroplasticity,' how the brain is organic and malleable. There’s a paradox to neuroplasticity: exposing yourself to new stimuli can make the brain flexible, but choosing to stay within your comfort zone will make the brain rigid. Learning itself is slow, hard, and painful (the cementing of neural connections requires constant and strenuous practice, the 'use it or lose it' principle of neuroscience), and the changing of one’s already established neural connections is even slower, harder, and more painful. It’s much easier and convenient to merely rely on our current belief system.

Philosophy and psychology, history and experience, medicine and biology all agree: humans don't want to think, they don't want to work, and they don't want to change. That is essentially what went wrong with Principal Wang Zheng’s reforms: it ran up against human nature.

And this is the ultimate paradox about reform in China: people may not like their current state, but they also don't want to take the risk, do the work, and bear the pain that change requires. Memorizing textbooks from dawn until dusk may sound painful, but pain is subjective, and Chinese teenagers have adapted to this system, which is safe, predictable, and certain. Principal Wang Zheng’s reforms may free teenagers to be teenagers, but that means pain and pleasure, choice and consequence, triumph and tragedy – a new set of emotions and experiences for their teenage minds to struggle over, to be confused by and agonize over. Shenzhen Middle School students can testify: Learning to memorize textbooks is far easier and more enjoyable than learning to think for yourself, and make your own decisions.

And worst of all, some classmates will take advantage of this new freedom to enjoy life, annoying and angering the majority who choose to be chained to their textbooks. It's not there will be some who will live in the light and some will be live in the darkness: those who suffer from 'false consciousness' will instantly beat to death with their chains anyone who dares that there’s a “real world” outside, and Keanu Reeves won’t be karate kicking machines but other humans who refuse to leave the certainty and comfort that is the Matrix.

Consider Deng Xiaoping’s reforms that transformed China from a stagnant and xenophobic autarky into the world’s fastest-growing and most dynamic economy. There is now opportunity and openness, internationalization and progress, but there's also now cynicism and corruption, inequality and crime. There are winners, but that means there are losers; there are the rich, but that means there are the poor. The startling fact about China today is that the people are richer, more educated, and more enlightened than ever before, but the vast majority of Chinese are nostalgic for the Chairman Mao days when there was leveling of society and suppression of thinking. People back then were poor and ignorant, but they were also happy and fulfilled.

Shenzhen Middle School’s western campus also testifies to how much Chinese students seem to prefer 'imprisonment and slavery' to freedom and choice. When they entered the school for the first two years they were subjected to choice after choice, opportunity after opportunity. What class do they take? What activities do they join? Should they date? What should they do? How should they think? Two years go by, fast and furious, a haze of agony and exhilaration, confusion and excitement.

And for their senior three year, students are shipped to the school’s western campus where they have to cram for the national examination. The old ways are back in force: they have to study from dawn until dusk, with their head teacher and their parents watching and nagging them. They can’t think and they no longer have any choices to make, and never before have they been so happy and fulfilled.

'When I was back in the main campus, I was aimless and confused,' one senior three student Pi Qianting tells me. 'Now I’m focused and determined because the harder I work, the better I’ll perform.' Her classmate Zhang Yiwei adds: 'Tests everyday make life stressful but stress is a great motivator.'

After having seen the light and the 'real world,' students quickly and happily run back to the cave to put the chains back on.
Principal Wang Zheng understood the difficulty of his education vision, but also knew that there were many enlightened parents in China who agreed with his ideals and principles. The problem was the high school entrance examination ('zhongkao'), which determined which students could enroll in Shenzhen Middle School. By definition, those who had adapted well to China’s test-oriented system would do well on the 'zhongkao' and not so well at Shenzhen Middle School. In other words, Principal Wang Zheng had to educate those who were in fact most resistant to his pedagogy; Sisyphus had an easier job with that boulder.

Shenzhen is now a thriving city of seven million with China’s largest middle class base because reform permitted Chinese who believed in reform to come together to create a city from nothing. Principal Wang Zheng’s dream is to reform an education system that has been more or less in place for millennia, and neuroscience as well as simple commonsense tell us it’s easier for people to build new neural connections than to change existing neural connections.   

That’s why Principal Wang Zheng for the past four years has been lobbying the local education bureau for the power to select a quarter of the school’s incoming class, a power that would have made his experiment a success. And that’s why the local education bureau refused him. They also pointed to the school’s falling scores on both the national examination and the junior high school examination (even though he refused to accept the validity of statistics as indicators of his performance), and replaced him.

In the end, this visionary reformer failed because he was a visionary and because he was a reformer. Principal Wang Zheng preferred to drink milk tea with students than to drink baijiu with government officials. In a country where everyone was first a politician, Principal Wang was first an educator, and he saw his students as individuals to be encouraged and nurtured rather than as pawns on his chessboard or as statistics to boast his career. And what was truly astonishing about him, and what actually permitted him to be true to his ways, was his modesty, his patience, and his forbearance. He never sought praise or promotion. His teachers often made twice as much officially as he does (and maybe even much more unofficially), but Principal Wang always made sure to pay the dinner tab. An ascetic and a workaholic, he was selfless and made personal sacrifices in order to help those around him.

One of those individuals he helped was me. I myself had certain education ideals, and for a long time I’ve wanted to work with Principal Wang. I finally had the opportunity in September 2008 when he hired me to manage the school’s stream for study abroad students. Together Principal Wang and I would try to create an innovative education program called the Special Curriculum.

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