Posts tagged Tianamen Square

Thoughts about China in the late 1980s

The following is a two part series, today and tomorrow. I had just come back from China and was enrolled in Dr. Robert Beck’s education class at the University of Minnesota on the Minneapolis campus.  I wrote this essay the winter of 1989. The Tiananmen Square incident was waiting to happen in the spring. I had two years of teaching in China and did not know what was going on under the surface for many of my university students as well as all throughout China.  See what you think might be similar or different from Kazakhstan and their teaching methodologies.

During my two years of teaching English in China, I learned a lot about my own teaching. Of course I had taken courses in college to learn “how” to teach as all good American teachers are taught to do.  However, when I went to China, it was not uncommon for American teachers to compare notes on “how” the Chinese teachers taught. So close yet to the years of the Cultural Revolution atrocities, these Chinese teachers had been programmed by the Communist party on “what” to teach. Many of the older teachers in my Foreign Language Department had taught Russian before. Now they had learned English as yet another foreign language and were expected to teach that. They were affectionately termed “Russian Retreads” by a fellow American teacher. I lived in Harbin, China which is close to Russia and had been pioneered and industrialized by the Russians less than 100 years ago. The White Russians who had fled from Russia after 1917 were very influential in Harbin.

My teaching experience in Harbin may be uncommon to most other parts of China in many ways, but the same Chinese method of teaching was used in all the classrooms. The following quote from one of my writing students last year will show that he noted a difference in methods of teaching. I do admit it is complimentary to me and that is why I copied it from his journal to mine. But I use his own words because the difference in teaching had not escaped him and I am sure he had not been taught that there was a difference in our methodologies.

“I feel happy and relaxed when we have foreign teacher’s class. I don’t know the reason; perhaps their method of teaching is success[ful]. I am used to the custom of Chinese; the total feeling is the serious, lack of humor. Maybe because of this, the young students lack an inventive ability. So I think we not only learn knowledge from foreign teachers but learn the bright and cheerful disposition.”

I will give a brief overview of the difference between the Chinese and American methodologies of teaching. First of all, instruction in the American classroom is student-centered. The teacher learns how to elicit thinking by asking the students questions and validating each response as a valuable contribution to the class. For the Chinese instructor, the me-centered responses and judgments made by the students are irrelevant. In China, education is teacher-centered and only the teacher has valid judgments. The teacher gives out pre-packaged information. According to John Dewey, supposedly the father of western education, he believed that teaching was a way of stimulating students to do their own thinking. The learners are encouraged to discover answers on their own after the teacher has facilitated in making the information available to them to process.

This was obvious to me after I would ask a series of questions about the material and have my Chinese students’ faces turned down, too afraid to respond. To try to get a discussion going was not easy, in fact, near impossible. They were so ready for me as the teacher to pour the information into their opened heads.

The second difference that I saw which goes along with my first point is that I would seek differing points of view only to get the prevailing party line. In China, the teacher has absolute authority, because in the States the teacher encourages a diversity of opinions. I would have my students give speeches on different subjects and soon I heard the same political statement over and over again. If I, as the American teacher, was not going to be the absolute authority, what came through in their speeches was pure, party doctrine. According to Clark Kerr and what he wrote in 1978, the Chinese government has taught them since they were in day care centers and kindergarten what to say and do.

The third view that I saw prevalent in the classroom which was different from what I was accustomed to was that any given body of knowledge is finite. The Chinese have had thousands of years’ experience holding to a very rigid and narrow scheme of scholasticism, according to Ho Yen Sun in a book printed in 1913.  The mark of the best educated man in China was the one who knew the classics inside and out. It was not theirs to question or analyze by practical application, but this finite body of knowledge was there to memorize. Memorize they did, the Chinese have memorized their culture.

My suspicion is that this memory of the classics dates back to 231-201 B.C. when Mencius and his philosophy had many schools of thought contending for power. It was when Emperor Shi Hwang Ti ordered that all the ancient books be burned, including those of Confucius, that the existing system of education was ended.  Supposedly this tyrannical ruler had also ordered 460 scholars be burned alive along with their books.

When Emperor Kao-Ti came into power during the Han dynasty, he realized the importance of education. As a reversal to the earlier order, he called for a search of the lost writings. Old scholars were prevailed upon to remember, old walls were razed to find old books concealed in them, according to Ho Yen Sun. Perhaps this can explain the source of how the textbook became so revered by the Chinese. It continues to be the central focus in the classroom setting.

In my teaching experience, I was assigned a textbook to teach from in my writing class. There were chapters that I chose and printed up in a syllabus. Knowing that skipping around in the textbook was going against the sensibilities of my Chinese students, I kept reminding them that we did not have time to cover all the points in the book, we were just going to hit the high points. I did not hear any objections directed to me about this but I did feel guilty because I knew of the importance of the WHOLE textbook.

The passion to learn the entire book according to the Chinese system results in some problems where the students amass a great deal of book knowledge but then they are not able to analyze and tackle problems. Practical application is what I kept driving home to my writing students; no amount of memorizing was going to help them to be better writers. I wanted them to keep writing in their journals so I could find out where they were. Learning everything by rote also inhibits the students from being creative. That is a necessary attribute when applying researching skills in the new areas of science and technology, according to Gu Mingyuan.”

(to be continued)

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What ELSE Hillary said in Bishkek

Apparently when Hillary was in Astana there were about 200 people in her delegation.  I was just at the Radisson today where she and all others stayed for two days.  Some other guys and I brought in 15 boxes for the book sale tomorrow for the Charity Bazaar.  People are STILL talking about the summit, getting back to normal.  (If you call way below zero temps normal?) At least the wicked wind isn’t blowing as hard as it was during the summit.

I had an epiphany moment this morning when I woke up.  I had talked to my PDP class yesterday about people back in the U.S. not  hearing or knowing about this summit conference that involved up to 65 nations. I know that realization was insulting to some Kazakhs who saw all the money that was poured into this extravagant show in order to make it happen. Perhaps if a bomb or something had blown off somewhere, the media might have been all over it. Kind of like what happened at Tianamen Square back in 1989, that is when CNN and 24/7 news coverage really took off.  But no, this was a peaceful conference and it stayed that way because of all the extra precautions to keep everyone safe.

My epiphany is that journalists have their Mr. Bottomlines editors and publishers.  Too much expense would go into the airfares alone to get to this summit by the most earnest of journalists. Astana isn’t cheap once you try to find food and shelter either!  I know one blogger recently wrote she would have gladly come to Kazakhstan but it would have cost her $4,000 roundtrip.  That’s what we are talking about people, Kazakhstan is close to the “ends of the earth”  Through no fault of its own, and I know some Kazakh people would be greatly offended  by this statement, but it is NOT easy to get to Kazakhstan.

Hillary was here in Central Asia back in 1997, she kept referring to that last trip she took in her speeches, interviews and town hall meetings.  She could have come on other junkets a lot earlier but she got a lot of mileage out of this most recent trip to Astana and then to Bishkek.  Hillary seemed genuinely pleased to be in both places and I kept looking for her to emphasize even more strongly about human rights issues.

I was very interested in what Hillary said in Bishkek when she made a quick trip there after spending a few days in Astana.  She was answering someone’s question about the color revolutions.  I thought her answers were well-informed.  That is the kind of person we need in office right now, someone who knows their history and stands up and talks about hard issues.  Very difficult issues face Central Asia because it takes many years to untangle all the webs of deceit that went on during the Soviet period.

Apparently Hillary is not going to run for the President’s office in 2012, which I find hard to believe. But she made that announcement in the last few days.  I can’t imagine keeping up the pace she did in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. She has been doing just that for the last 20-30 years.  I think she wants to rest and maybe retire from public scrutiny.

That’s the thing about democracy, I can say or write if I don’t like her and people are okay with that. To each his own.  But there are places, even in Central Asia, where you would not DARE to say something against your elected official in office.  I found it very interesting to read through the Larry King interview of Putin.  Yes, now THERE’s an election to watch in the next few years. Read on what Hillary said to her Bishkek audience about democracy and elections and revolutions.  I got this off of this blog with the screen name of “Still4Hill.” Loyal Hillary supporter.

SECRETARY CLINTON: “Well, first, let me say we did not control or direct any of the Color Revolutions. The United States has always stood for democracy. We have always encouraged people to speak out for human rights. And we were very pleased when the former Soviet Union dissolved, and people were given a chance to go back to their own country, have their own governments, and chart their own futures. But that’s a relatively short period of time in human history, because, remember, it was 1989, 1990, 1991 when all of this happened. So 20 years is not a lot of time for countries to have a stable, functioning democracy.

But I think if you look at all of the countries that came out from under the Soviet Union – Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, all of these countries – they are functioning very well. They are members of the European Union, they have solid democracies, they have free market economies, they respect human rights. I think Georgia has economically developed very well…

Well, there is a lot to admire about what Georgia has accomplished. Georgia has accomplished economic growth, Georgia has accomplished some important reforms against corruption. Georgia has some challenges. And, of course, they have a real problem with Russia. They had a war in 2008, and they had lost two of their provinces, which Russia claims are not independent nations that they have recognized. So, Georgia, under very difficult circumstances, has accomplished quite a lot.

Ukraine, after the Orange Revolution, had an opportunity. But I will tell you, one of the problems in Ukraine is that the people in the government could not figure out how to cooperate, and they could not make decisions. And, as a result, they did not produce the kinds of changes that people expected after the Orange Revolution. They have a new government now. Their new president is trying a different approach, because, of course, they neighbor Russia. Russia was quite concerned about the Orange Revolution and about the elections that brought reformers to power. So now the new administration in Ukraine is trying to get along with Russia, Europe, and the United States, everybody. And they are trying to do a balancing act. We will see how it works. Not clear yet how it will work.

Kyrgyzstan, in my view, has a second chance with what you have just done. You had some real difficulties with coming out of the authoritarian regime imposed by the former Soviet Union. And many of the people who have come to power immediately out of the old Communist Party apparatus knew nothing about democracy. You can’t really expect someone whose only experience was in a totalitarian system, a command economy, to automatically understand everything about how complicated democracies are.

So, I think you are off to a good start, but it is just a start. Elections are just the beginning, they’re not the end of the democratic process. So you have a lot of work ahead. And the people have to hold the leaders accountable for getting together to solve problems, because that’s what democracies have to do. So, I hope next year, year after, in 5 and 10 years, we will look back and say that Kyrgyzstan is setting the model for this part of the world. And that’s what I would like to see.” (Applause.)

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