Friday, May 14, 2010

Humanism in China

There may be hope yet. The ideas and language of humanism are slowly gaining purchase in Chinese society today. (Again. The first time was in the early 20th century.)

It seems like this mode of thought ought to be a natural fit -- after all, Confucianism has at its roots a deep sense of humanity. Not all aspects of it are the same as in "Western-style humanism," but there are elements that seem compatible. (However, it may be problematic to claim that China remains "Confucian" today. sigh)

According to an article in the New York Times:
"Western-style humanism flourished in China a century ago, brought over by the Chinese students of Irving Babbitt, a professor of French at Harvard University," who advocated "retaining the good things from the past. He insisted on the importance of the individual, and the study of the humanities."
"Humanism’s gentle, evolutionary approach clashed with the make-it-new passion of many students, intellectuals and politicians grouped around China’s early 20th-century May Fourth Movement. [If only they had known what was coming -- they might have chosen differently.] In 1949, the revolutionaries won the argument when the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China. For over three decades, humanism vanished from Chinese thinking. 
And no wonder. Humanism directly challenged the Communist system by valuing the individual over the collective. It rejected blind obedience to authority, whether religious or political. 
Secular, it opposed deification of any kind, including of a leader like Mao Zedong. Its emphasis on human well-being, freedom and dignity threatened the party’s control over its citizens. It was, orthodox Communists said, a bourgeois theory of human nature. 
Today, it’s back, spreading among intellectuals, writers and ordinary people alike in a process that began 30 years ago, following Mao’s death in 1976. Still controversial, it is periodically subject to attacks from a state that fears that it may become the basis of an alternative ethical system that will challenge Communist Party rule. The bumpiness of humanism’s road reflects the challenge in bringing about intellectual and political change in China."
-- "In Search of Modern Humanism in China" (May 14, 2010)
In the article, Gloria Davies, a scholar of Chinese intellectual history at Monash University, observes that “Humanism has quite a lot of purchase now. It’s used in public culture as a way of maintaining some form of integrity in relation to corruption and censorship.” She pointed to [Chinese blogger and public intellectual Han] Han’s declaration “I am just a humanist,” circulating widely on the Internet. “That’s key. Amid tightened censorship, people are looking for more inventive ways to try and keep the public sphere and civil society alive, so they are resorting to words like humanism. They can always use this as some form of criticism.”

The article also notes that "how to live according to core human values like respect, kindness and care for others has deep roots in Chinese thought, written about widely by Confucius and other philosophers." Furthermore, at an event on "Humanism in China" hosted at Harvard this year, Tsinghua Professor Wang Hui expressed a new, urgent concern for what some might call more old-fashioned humanistic values.

The article classifies Wang as part of the "New Left", calling him a "sophisticated theoretician and critic of China’s present model of capitalist development." One thing I really like about this piece and Prof. Wang is his exploration of the writer Lu Xun. He looks at the kinder, deeply human side of Lu Xun -- the one who exists underneath the pointed criticism and mordant satire:
"To make his point, he turned to a little-known 1908 text by Lu Xun, arguably China’s greatest writer of the 20th century, who was appropriated by the Communists. Lu Xun, said Mr. Wang, was actually a humanist. In “Refuting Malevolent Voices,” his major concern was to find “new voices” that spoke from the heart, and spoke the truth
A healthy society needs truthful voices. And truthful voices come from truthful people. China sorely lacks that [Wang says.] To solve its problems, it needs more open discussion and more self-critical thinking. “A lot of people say a lot of things, but they don’t believe these things, they are just echoing other people. China is full of noise, but it’s silent. You don’t hear real voices.”
Along with a sense of humanity, this Lu Xun was also dedicated to the truth. Two meaningful things: truth and humanity. They are worth searching for. They are also necessary.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Teach Chinese. In Oklahoma.

An article in the New York Times about Chinese teachers coming to the United States to be language instructors in American classrooms. The headline is, "Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America" which already hints at how the issue is framed.

There are some funny points that contrast the American education system and the Chinese one. For example: “In China,” she said after class, “if you teach the students and they don’t get it, that’s their problem. Here if they don’t get it, you teach it again.”

In theory, America has a more open education system that teaches critical thinking and makes space for personal expression and creativity. These are excellent qualities for an education system that I fully support, and hope can be emulated by others. However, the reality of the American classroom is also starkly in focus in this article. With rude students who aren't serious about learning (and sometimes blatantly disrespectful), the impression of America doesn't always come off well.

Some choice lines from the article:

"In interviews, several other Chinese teachers said they had some difficulties adjusting to the informality of American schools after working in a country where students leap to attention when a teacher enters the room."

"One Chinese teacher who has built a successful language program in Wisconsin, Hongmei Zhao, said a few students sometimes disrupted classes by speaking English so rapidly that she cannot understand them. “Then the whole class laughs, maybe because of my accent,” Ms. Zhao said."

My first reaction was, "Wow, screw you, idiotic kids! If you're going to be rude, just don't take the class. No one is forcing you to be there, learning Chinese." But then I thought, maybe if we don't continue to engage and give them an opportunity to change, then they're just going to be left behind. Teachers really are important in the lives of their students, and maybe they can help change minds by being more patient and understanding -- by treating their students with love.

There is a question of streamlining though: should we put the best, most serious students on one track, while nominal students are on another? It doesn't seem fair to hold back a few talented and serious students, to make them suffer in an inhospitable context not conducive to learning, when they could be excelling in a classroom with motivated peers. But we should also not ignore or 忽略 those students who are not as quick at picking up new skills.

But part of the problem may also be a lack of a culture of learning and studying in the U.S. What is happening in our schools if not this? It is a little problematic. [See blog post on schools in S. Korea and Finland.]

Ms. Zheng said none of her students had been disagreeable ... [but] she believed that teachers got little respect in America. “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

Here's a rather interesting quote:

Barry Beauchamp, the Lawton superintendent, said he was thrilled to have Ms. Zheng and two other Chinese instructors working in the district. But he said he believed that the guest teachers were learning the most from the cultural exchange. “Part of them coming here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms,” he said. “We’ve seen them go to church and to family reunions, country music concerts, rodeos. So it’s been interesting to see them soak up our culture.”

Erk ... this is just so ... culturally problematic urgh ... There are almost intimations of cultural imperialism, a missionary attitude -- "We'll bring them over and Christianize and democratize them." I don't have a problem with inculcating new norms and ideas and introducing people to our way of life -- but it should be founded on an idea of mutual respect, of tolerance and pluralism. It should not be about waving *our awesomeness" in their faces and trying to shove it down their throats -- that feels very threatening, makes them defensive, and is the quickest road to rejection. Instead, people should observe and make their own judgments about the positive qualities and desirableness of certain traits. We shouldn't just assume everything about our system is superior -- there are things we can learn from each other -- even basic issues like respect for elders and teachers. The phrase "our great country and our freedoms" is what really pushes my buttons.

I love this country -- the ideals it embodies and the opportunities it represents. But I don't like the moralizing and lecturing; it feels very self-satisfied and complacent, rather than expressing concern for the well-being of others.

Some more hilarious aspects of America featured in the article:

Our fat-ness:
After her morning classes, Ms. Zheng drove west through Lawton in search of lunch, passing a seed elevator. The Buick fought a stiff wind that had kicked up a vast khaki-colored dust cloud. Pulling into a Burger King, she ordered a fish sandwich. “I’ve gained 10 pounds in Oklahoma,” she said.

Our inefficient vehicles:
Some districts pay more, but Lawton is one of the few that lends their guest teachers a car — in Ms. Zheng’s case, a lumbering blue Buick Century once used for drivers’ education.

Our ignorance of the world -- always looking in:
That afternoon, Ms. Zheng taught classes at Central Middle School, drilling 22 eighth graders on how to count to 100 in Chinese and explaining some Chinese holidays before turning her back to write a Chinese tongue twister on the board. Out of the blue, a girl with long brown hair asked her classmates loudly: “Where’s France at?” “In Europe,” a boy with baggy jeans called out from across the room. “France is not in Europe,” another boy said. Ms. Zheng just kept writing Chinese characters on the board. “American students don’t know a lot about the outside world,” she said later. “Mostly just what they see here.”

It's possible the students knew exactly what they were doing -- they were just being sarcastic (and random) in an attempt to disrupt class. Simply juvenile. And what a waste of space. I know I should be more patient, but it's pretty frustrating to see people behave this way in the classroom, when there's actual teaching going on. There are lots of other kids out there who would love to be in your seat studying. Teachers can command respect if they live up to their duty and do things properly. But students should also behave in a proper fashion, too. Doesn't require obsequiousness, just an attempt to do your part.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Moral beings visit distant shores ... what ensues?

Interesting piece on humanity's moral development through the ages: is it functional and practical? Is it purely based on reason?

If the former, does it include intimations of enlightenment, alongside general moral progress?

Wright says that we choose to humanize others at first purely for functional reasons: it allows us to engage in win-win exchanges. But he notes that alongside this kind of development, we also gain at least some small aspect of increased humanity, increased enlightenment. And over time, that evolution leads to more compassion and humanity in and of itself.

P.S. On the path to enlightenment, the practice and action of loving kindness is important. So maybe at first it's only functional and pragmatic -- maybe even self-serving. But over time, especially if we can be aware of it and of ourselves, it becomes something reasoned, something chosen, as peopl understand why we are doing something.

But the action is the first step, and that's good.

Our job is to also take the next steps for moral advancement, as well as having a peaceable society and a planet we want to live on.