China Power

When Bad is Good in China

Shenzhen students may be difficult to deal with sometimes. But they’ll go a long way in life.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduces us to Chris Langan, an American with an exceptionally high IQ who dropped out of university because he couldn’t convince his professor to let him skip one class for work. Gladwell contrasts Langan with J. Robert Oppenheimer, who as a doctorate student at Cambridge once tried to poison his advisor. When he was caught, Oppenheimer convinced the university authorities to put him on probation instead of calling the police. Both men were decidedly brilliant, but whereas Chris Langan went on to become a nightclub bouncer J. Robert Oppenheimer went on to secure everlasting fame with the Manhattan Project.

The authors of Freakonomics explain that economists have long discovered that parents’ profession is a much better indicator of success for their child than either IQ or education. The existing data tells us that an individual neglected and abused by two divorced alcoholic doctors is likely to perform better economically in life than an individual raised in a loving household by two Wal-Mart clerks who read their child bedtime stories and who taketheir child to the opera.

This economic data seems to suggest the supremacy of genes, but Gladwell in Outliers suggests another explanation is social conditioning, confidence, and attitude.  Chris Langan grew up poor in a divorced household, whereas J. Robert Oppenheimer was born and bred on New York’s Upper East Side. From an early age, the over-achieving and brilliant Chris Langan had issues with power and authority: he fought his abusive stepfather and his college professors. From an early age, the overachieving and brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer was confident that he would one day become power and authority, a belief reinforced in him by his wealthy family and his Harvard professors.

For Gladwell, the class divide then is not just one of income,but one of attitude: America’s poor fatalistically submit to authority, whereas America’s middleclasses teach their children how to negotiate and cajole (even on a simple visit to the doctor, a middleclass mother will teach her six-year-old child to ask questions and to demand explanations). Poor children are can often be polite and obedient and well-behaved; they’re too ready to accept their lot in life. Middle class children can be grasping, selfish, and demanding; they set their expectations high, and they confidently and aggressively push the boundaries around them in order to achieve their goals. Gladwell argues that more than genes or money or education, confidence determines success.

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Now consider Chinese students, most of whom are conditioned to think and to behave like America’s poor. Principal Wang Zheng, however, has conditioned Shenzhen Middle School students to think and behave like the US middle class. This sort of education means that Shenzhen Middle School students probably will not do well on the national examination but they will do well in life.

Ordinary Chinese students are sponges, whereas Shenzhen Middle School students are self-learners. Ordinary Chinese students may know a lot, but they don’t communicate and ask questions, so their knowledge can neither be updated nor expanded—in our fast-changing world Shenzhen Middle School’s communication and curiosity are what works. Ordinary Chinese students may be focused and hardworking, but because they refuse to think for themselves and to challenge the world, they will muddle through life safe and obscure. Shenzhen Middle School students are confident risk-takers, and they’ll often achieve a great deal just by not fearing failure. (Many Shenzhen Middle School students will get into China’s top universities because they’re confident they’ll test in, whereas many better students lacking in confidence apply to second-tier universities.)  

But let’s be honest: Shenzhen Middle School students are a pain in the ass to deal with. They’re confident communicators, but they can also be arrogant. Having a principal who treats them like friends and equals means Shenzhen Middle School students neither understand nor respect social hierarchy and decorum. Having a principal who answers their phone calls right away while refusing to answer those from the mayor means that Shenzhen Middle School students feel empowered to skip class and use school resources for their own end. Shenzhen Middle School students criticize and are condescending; they like to give lectures, often on topics they don’t know anything about; they like to make unsolicited comments and ask provocative questions; they demand management and leadership roles although they possess neither the qualification nor the experience. In other words, Shenzhen Middle School students were probably like J. Robert Oppenheimer and many successful Americans when they were teenagers.

Both Chris Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer were geniuses, but in different ways. Chris Langan was a genius in the traditional Chinese sense, and so while he excelled at IQ tests he had issues managing personal emotions and social relationships. J. Robert Oppenheimer may have been an accomplished theoretical physicist, but what made him such a brilliant leader on the Manhattan Project was his ability to excite and to inspire, to prod and to cajole, to bring together and to contain all those hundreds of egos, many of whom thought they were God. Those remarkable qualities were somewhat borne out of his Upper East Side breeding and Harvard education, but mostly borne out of all the disappointments and tragedies, loss and pain of a man who had the courage to believe in his future greatness and who had the confidence to pursue it.

Shenzhen Middle School incubates students’ courage and confidence. They graduate from college, head out into life, survey what they see, and are dissatisfied and discontent with what’s before their eyes. They’ll seek what they believe to be rightfully theirs, and if the world does not give it to them then they will seek to change the world. They are schemers and dreamers, pirates and builders, speculators and visionaries. Having organized basketball tournaments and masquerade balls, having been the vanguard of Principal Wang’s education reforms, having re-made Shenzhen Middle School in their image they’ve received the best sort of education to become China’s next generation of managers and leaders, dreamers and thinkers.  Their lives will be rewarding and disappointing, exhilarating and depressing, triumphant and tragic. But it will be their lives and theirs alone. That is Principal Wang’s greatest accomplishment and legacy.   

Education is by definition and by necessity a long endeavour, and in twenty years’ time, as Shenzhen Middle School students come into wealth, power, and fame, Principal Wang’s reforms will be at long last proven right. But today, Shenzhen believes Principal Wang’s reforms at Shenzhen Middle School to be a dismal failure, fired him, and put in place an administrator who is bringing back the old ways. And the teachers and parents are cheering on this new principal, but so are many students.

Principal Wang Zheng had given freedom and choice to his students, and many of them refused it. Why? That will be the subject of my next and last article on Principal Wang Zheng’s legacy at Shenzhen Middle School.