China Power

Mind Triathlon vs Jersey Shore

Understanding a different perspective is like a mental triathlon. Sadly, too many students can’t be bothered to try.

This summer, the staff and students of Peking University High School International Division travelled to the northeast of the United States for three weeks of language learning, two weeks of hiking and canoeing, and a week of touring American colleges and universities.  I spent 10 days at an education conference in Africa and a week in Paris before joining everyone in Boston.

My staff and I had organized six weeks in the United States because we believed opening new vistas for our students would be transformational.  What we didn’t expect when we sent our students to experience the US is for some of our students to start behaving like Americans, which is what happened.      

My smile at seeing everyone dissipated once I saw the frowns of the faces of my three staff. One of the staff was a former student of mine now studying at the University of Wisconsin who had spent her summer organizing the college visits, and who was mortified when the students fell asleep at a college information session.

The remaining two had started with me at Shenzhen High School, and went with me to Peking University High School because of our shared ideals. Instead of spending the summer with their families in Shenzhen, the two were chaperoning our 28 students.  Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ our students wouldn’t sleep at night, and were so rowdy that they kept my staff up. For the week-long canoeing trip, my staff, as per my instruction, divided the best friends and couples; in response, some students complained angrily.  One of my teachers, the one closest to the students, broke down in tears.         

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I had forbidden the students from taking mobile phones and electronic devices to America so that they would be fully immersed in the experience. When I first arrived and saw one of my students listening to music on his iPhone, I sternly asked, ‘Did I not tell you not to bring your iPhone to America?’ He responded matter-of-factly, ‘I bought a new one here.’ And he was far from alone:  many students view their college visits as a shopping expedition for the newest Apple products, my staff had told me.    

Seeing how lazy, indifferent, and disrespectful our students had become in six weeks, my staff and I had to question why we would want to send them to the US for four years. Our programme’s purpose is to educate bicultural students who have the best qualities of East and West: a strong work ethic and a love of learning, as well as individuality and a passion for life. What we were seeing in Boston was the worst qualities of East and West festering in our students: group-think and materialism, as well as selfishness and callowness. 

It was silly of me to place so much faith in US education because I really should know better. At Yale, I was upset by how seminar discussions were hijacked by classmates who didn’t do the reading (and who didn’t do much reading at all) but who insisted on expressing their uninformed opinion anyway.  Yalies modestly asked questions to show how they knew it all, and thought they were at Yale to enlighten it. 

Previously, I had thought it was just Yale that nurtured the solipsism and narcissism of its students, but six months ago I discovered that this ‘education’ is all too commonplace in the United States. When I was in Austin, Texas teaching a classroom of fifth-graders beginners’ Mandarin, the students peppered me with random questions, and seeing my frustration simmer, one of the fifth-graders blurted out, ‘We need to ask you questions because our teacher would fail us otherwise.’

At Peking University High School International Division, our students constantly challenge me because that’s what teenagers do. There’s always a cacophony of complaints:  there’s not enough classes and homework, there’s too much; math class is too hard, it’s too easy; there isn’t enough vocabulary drilling, there’s not enough reading.  And in response, we challenge our students to think beyond their entitled and selfish teenage selves, and consider our perspective and limitations as a new programme: that we must, with limited resources and experience, educate to the best of our ability students of varying competence and motivation, and that we aim to be open and transparent, but that we must also be strict and fair. We want our students to understand choice and consequence, yet we must walk a fine balance because neither their parents nor Chinese society has much tolerance for individuality and mistakes. Above all, we teach our students that to be free individuals they must appreciate and cherish the social bonds that make us all human.  

So it was with great dismay and alarm that in Boston I discovered our students had left understanding and empathy back in Beijing with their mobile phones, and had refused to buy American versions. Our American partners had nothing but praise for our students, and I could see how this praise, mixed with American permissiveness, had made the students complacent while undermining the authority of my staff. 

American teachers believe their mandate is two-fold: to educate creative thinkers, and to prepare their students to function in a liberal democracy. But learning to understand a different perspective is the intellectual equivalent of participating in a triathlon, whereas expressing your own is like watching ‘Jersey Shore.’ And, as the recent American political debate over the debt ceiling revealed, it’s exactly those who cling the most selfishly to their ideological purity (the Tea Party republicans) who are the greatest threat to the functioning of a liberal democracy.   

Teaching teenagers to challenge authority and to think highly of themselves is to appeal to their basest instincts. American popular culture is so dangerously addictive because it appeals to the 16 year-old in all of us: Michael Bay movies, Tom Clancy novels, and Fox TV shows do nothing but confirm and make concrete our prejudice and paranoia that we are right, and it’s only by defying the entire world that can we save it. What’s murderously dangerous is when this juvenile thinking spills from the silver screen into the hallowed halls of the United States Congress. 

Adult human beings are so because they fight against their worst instincts, and those of teenagers. Our student couples and best friends were angry about being broken up for the canoeing trip, but in the end they did see that we teachers had their best interest at heart, and that by doing so they could meet and bond with others. Yes, some students spent their time in the United States listening to their Chinese pop music, updating their account on (China’s Facebook), and calling their parents every night. But there were also some students who cherished every moment of their time in America, and told me how happy they were with the arrangements.  It was something that they’ll remember forever, they told me.   

Not quite a ‘thank you.’ But it’s a start.