“It is our duty!” explained Albert proudly (Chinese students learning English usually assume an English name).
“Shoveling snow is part of our education.”
“Yes, no one should slip on the ice and become injured,” chimed in Tiffany, whose muffler remained just below her lips in the cold classroom.
“How is the work determined?” I asked, still trying to keep the conversation going.
“Each class is given an assigned area. If the area is not done satisfactorily, the responsible class will be punished,” answered Gerald.
“What happens if someone is lazy and doesn’t want to go out into the cold and sleeps in?” I continued.
“That person will be scorned and even ridiculed by his fellow classmates… will be considered as a person who is unreliable… who can’t be trusted,” said Gail.
Intrigued by the ingenuousness of their answers, I tried to get as much information as I could. “And I saw the girls shoveling and chipping just as hard as the boys. Why is this?”
Connie, who was always timid in class, finally found her voice. “Chairman Mao did much for establishing the equality of women to men. He maintained that women need to stand with men in society, not behind them.”
Perhaps with a little chagrin, I concluded the conversation with a joke about what my students would probably tell me to do with the shovel if I commanded them to go out and remove snow from our college’s sidewalks… a joke no one really understood. But I had found a “teachable moment”… or rather a “learnable moment”… an instance in which the students and I were able to look beyond ourselves and jointly comment on the world around us. And not only had I found out more information about my environment, I was beginning to find those rare moments of teaching when I learned much more than I could ever impart.
I had two such other sudden leaps of understanding just this past year when I went to Shenyang. In my several trips there I had never had the occasion to go in the fall, so because we went during September and October on that visit I was able to observe two very remarkable occurrences. The first was on September 10th, which I did not realize was National Day of the Teacher, a nationwide holiday in which students around the country show their appreciation for their teachers by presenting them with gifts of cards and flowers. We knew the day was a holiday for teachers, but we were incredibly surprised when two of our students appeared at our door with two large arrangements of flowers… a token they said of the gratitude all of our students had for us being their teachers. Traditionally, the relationship of the teacher to the student has almost mirrored that of the one between parent and child, a concept that comes from the time of Confucius (Kongfuzi).
This insight was followed up shortly thereafter with yet another, when I was visiting the Foreign Studies College at Northeastern University, just after the beginning of the semester in September. From several blocks away I heard a chorus of hundreds of voices singing a martial anthem. As I walked onto the large concrete square in front of the twelve-story Administration Building, I saw arrayed there at least two thousand students dressed in the drab green of military uniforms. Some were marching, some were standing in large cadres on the building steps, and other were engaged in military hand-to-hand combat tactics, all under the direction of regular Chinese Army instructors. Later I came to find out that all college freshmen, at every college and university around the country, are required to receive a full three weeks of military training before they even begin their classes. Some of the teachers I talked to explained how that requirement was purposeful in helping the students prepare for the rigors of college life and studies; others said it had come out of the Tiananmen Square incident and had been implemented to prevent university students from engaging in anti-government organizing and activities. Again, the differences between the students of China and those of America are often stark.
But the restlessness and impatience of youth is universal. In China the imposition of Western influences, brought about by the rise of capitalism and the driving force of commercialism and advertising, movies and videos, the Internet and other glimpses of outside cultures, have generated a rising sense of not dissent, but perhaps discontent… maybe uneasiness with the status quo. The Chinese youth of today are not the same as that of twenty or even ten years ago, and this groundswell is probably most noticeable in education. Though still hard-working and conscientious, contemporary students are progressively coming to expect more than just a passive exchange of information and knowledge during the course of their learning; they are, I think, gradually asking for a more participatory role in their education, which might, in the end, spill over into the broader social and political realms.
This need for change in educational methodology is exerting growing pressure on the teaching profession in China to change. The Chinese teachers and professors I worked with were equally industrious and eager to help and learn. And though the teacher remains the center of authority in the classroom, they are continually asked for much and given little in return; they for the most part are underpaid, making a fraction of their American counterparts, while doing more with less. And they sense the limitations of their traditional methods of teaching… those that have been ingrained into the culture since the time of Kongfuzi. With the new generation of students coming into their classrooms, the old methods prove to not be working so well. The twenty-first century is requiring people who can do more tha just memorize; instead, abstract thinkers are going to be needed and the teachers and professors are looking to the West, strangely enough, to provide them with the teaching tools to accomplish this goal. And just as with their students, when exposed to new and different ways of teaching, such as collaborative learning and independent thought, Chinese teachers are slowly finding out that melding innovation with tradition brings success.
At the risk of over generalization, I can say that the students, and certainly the faculty members, are extremely different from those I have grown accustomed to in America. Because education is not a right, but rather a privilege in China, both groups for the most part take their studies, educational mission, and teaching responsibilities quite seriously. As a result, I submit that both the American and Chinese cultures and educational systems can learn a great deal from each other.
Note: The above article has been excerpted from a photo narrative entitled An American Academic in Li Bai’s Court: China Photos and Reflection, created and written by John H. Paddison. Copyright 2010, Paddison-Orvik Publishing.
Copyright 2011 Paddison-Orvik Publishing.
John H. Paddison is Professor Emeritus at Central Arizona College. He taught there and at several other colleges and universities after receiving his PhD from the University of Arizona. Paddison’s writing career started with numerous non-fiction publications in the education field and has since branched out to the fiction genre with the publication of his literary novel The Brothers’ Keepers. Upcoming publications include a photo narrative of his travel experiences in China, entitled An American Academic in Li Bai’s Court: China Photos and Reflections, and a novella entitled The Neighborhood. For more information, or to post comments on these works, please go to: [http://www.reflectionsofchina.com].