Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 5, 2018

a Chinese model for American education?

I am somewhat puzzled by this essay on American and Chinese university students by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. Not by all of it, mind you — some of it is easy to understand, for instance this: 

In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations.

I have to admire Roth’s straightforwardness here: When people point to a lack of freedom of speech on your campus, call them fundamentalists and change the subject. But what I’m wondering is whether the whole essay is basically about the free-speech-on-campus issue, though it doesn’t announce itself as such. 

Let’s look at the whole paragraph from which I drew my earlier quote: 

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity. 

Now, Roth writes like a college president, which is to say rather badly, so it’s difficult for me to be sure. But he seems to be making a point of insisting that the Chinese students he met were bold, thoughtful, and willing to challenge the status quo despite studying in an environment in which freedom of speech is profoundly restricted by the government. As far as I can tell, Roth’s argument is that powerful constraints on speech don’t impede the education Chinese students receive or the investments they make in their society — so why should similar constraints be a problem here in America? As long as students are "disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity,” what’s to complain about? 

Tell me in the comments if I have this wrong. 

8 comments:

  • I am always struck how our public discourse has become desensitized to non-sequiturs. In this case, since students can be productive non-conformists, we should not worry about restricting freedom of speech in universities. A brilliant syllogism.

  • Kudos to you for extracting some cogent claim from that hot mess of a paragraph.

  • He's arguing that China's efforts to curtail freedom on campus haven't prevented their students from being exposed to different cultures by studying abroad, i.e., _leaving_ campus. (In fact, he seems to be more interested in what happens off-campus than on it. Odd, for a university president, don't you think? Maybe he's fantasizing about a future career away from the demands of thinking, which seem beyond his current capacity.) In any case, I suspect he believes that the thousands majoring in a foreign language also receive some beneficial exposure to other ways of thinking, but their numbers are small compared to those lucky half million who travel to democratic countries where they will learn to 'disrupt homogeneity.' Rather than complimenting the Chinese students on their ability to think for themselves, then, he is complimenting his fellow academic administrators on their perspicacity in allowing Asian students to come drink from the rivers of knowledge that apparently flow only through western campuses. But in the West, those rivers of knowledge seem to flow mostly off-campus. Go figure.

  • VL, that's a very shrewd read indeed. Wish I had thought of it myself!

  • "Most Chinese young people are like the tiny sliver who go abroad to study in American universities" is a bit of selection bias I have mocked in the past and I will take this opportunity to mock it again.

  • Freddie, that one totally slipped past me — also a shrewd read.

  • I second the comment about the series of non sequiturs. In addition, why should the university experience be primarily activist, disruptive, or lead to entrepreneurship and productivity as opposed to being, well, educational? What’s the true mission?

  • You're right to flag the use of "fundamentalist" but the weasel talk in that very sentence doesn't end with that word:

    "don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had,"

    "free market approach to speech"???

    Nobody talks that way. Unless of course they are attempting to link a concept (i.e. free speech) that the audience is likely to have mixed feeling about, to another concept (i.e. the "unregulated" free market") that the audience is likely to have at least an aesthetic objection to if not an outright hostility toward.

    Now, I'm one who is a big fan of both "free speech" and "free markets" in general. But one can easily be a big fan of "free speech" while being quite skeptical of "free markets." Hell - the operative term for folks like that was "the Left" until very recently.

    That Hideous Strength look less and less absurd as time goes by...

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