Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Answer to Societal Corruption? A Liberal Arts Education: The Chinese Stanley Fish Speaks

Today, browsing Professor Liu Cheng's blog, I came across a fascinating interview with the dean of Fudan University, the top university in Shanghai and one of the top universities in China.  Of course, while I'm always thrilled to read every dean interview I can get my hands on, it was the title of this interview that particularly intrigued me: "The Collapse of the Chinese University Consciousness."

It seems fair to ask what consciousness existed that could have collapsed, as it was only thirty years ago that many of China's universities re-opened after being shut down for years during the Cultural Revolution.  Well, Dean Yang answers that:

“If there's corruption, bribery, and sex-power transactions even within the universities, then is there any point in talking about social trust at large? Universities are getting carried away with following the trends, and have become employment services. ...."

There are two major points here.  One is that many Chinese feel that nothing is sacred anymore.  In the public consciousness, nearly every profession has been corrupted by greed and posturing.  Teachers, doctors, a profession, most Chinese can give you the stereotypical scam.  (More on this tomorrow.)  I don't know how much academic dishonesty, corruption, degree forgery, plagiarism goes on in Chinese Universities; I only know how much people think goes on.  I have a number of friends who went to work for law firms because the academic world was too suffocating.

Second, universities are under huge pressure, both from above and below.  From above, there's pressure to build Asia's Ivy League.  For about half as long as China's been chasing the developed world's economies, it's been trying to build world class academic institutions, with far less success.  A recent blow to China's academic ego was that a British college ranking institution failed to place even one mainland university in Asia's top ten.  From below (and I guess, from above, but what pressure here isn't from above?), there's the burgeoning unemployment of recent graduates.  China graduates close to seven million students a year into a country that just doesn't have that many slots for college-educated workers.  Hence, you can see Dean Yang's frustration at becoming China's "employment service."

Yang isn't interested in resumes, he's far more interested in what the university can do about Problem One. 

"[Fostering] social responsibility is a key value extant in the university. When breakdowns in social norms arise in a society, university scholars need to step forward boldly, speak and write, caution against impending disasters. They need to say why something is happening and which road to take in order to solve the problem.”

“Our universities are being charged with the responsibility of raising generation after generation of the Elite. Take the students at Peking University, Qinghua University, at Fudan, the accomplishments of these students after graduation will determine the direction of the country. For a great nation like China, the accomplishments of this group of people will even determine the future peace of the world. That's why even before WWII, the British philosopher Russell expressed his anxiety at the Fascist education of the young taking place in Germany and Japan. Sure enough, after that generation of students emerged, the world was unable to stay at peace.”

One of the things that makes studying China so fascinating is that Chinese communication is far more dependent on implication than English.  I'm not sure, but I think what Yang's saying is "Watch out, right now our children are receiving an education that puts us all a road to global nastiness."  More than that, I think here we start seeing more of what Yang intimated by the "collapse of the Chinese University consciousness."  There have been times when Chinese universities were the conscience of the country, times during in my lifetime.  In fact, during the lifetime of any American of legal drinking age... 

What's also fun about Yang is that he, in traditional Chinese fashion, spends far more time talking about what needs to be (and no doubt, is being) done than the problem itself.  Yet while the form is typical, the solution is anything but: liberal arts education.  This is where I wished Stanley Fish would make an appearance, so that they could commiserate, no doubt in Latin.  

“Why does Fudan have to carry out a General Knowledge Education Program [Liberal Arts Education -- it's important to note hat he doesn't use the word "Liberal Arts Education" here, perhaps for good reason]? Because in 20 years China can't help but play the part of a powerful country, the role of a great nation. We have to have a group of people who can take on that level of responsibility. According to current maturation patterns of top talent, the ages 35-45 are exceedingly important years [in the determination of who will eventually become a leader of influence]. Those [leaders] are studying on our campuses right now. What kinds of qualities do they need to posses?”

“First off, they need to have a global vision, with a mentality that's incredibly open to the world. We don't want them to be like American politicians, just believing that their country is the best: 'If you don't listen to me, I'm going to send my army and destroy you.' [Ouch]. [They] can't forget that different cultures and histories exist on this earth. Every country has its own set of stuff [of worth].  If there's just one culture and one value system extent on this earth, we're going to be facing Armageddon, because culture is like human genes, requiring cross-hybridization in order to engender new culture -- [the pool] can't be too limited.”

A quick note.  I don't feel that I need to justify the simplistic view of Americans or American politicians Yang presents here, there are, unfortunately, some American politicians who do present this simplistic a front. Moreover, both liberals and classical liberals in the U.S. frequently use similarly broad generalizations about China's economic or humanitarian record, devoid of any nuance.  

But if he has offended, think but this and all is mended: this was purely utilitarian, no other statement could get more Chinese heads to nod in agreement at the obviously true point: a globalized world needs a globalized perspective.  The whole premise of his article is that Chinese universities can't hold a candle to American universities (something I'd fault as equally lacking in nuance, even if it's laudatory). 

Second, they need to have deep understanding of their respective disciplines, otherwise they're just going to be people who simply indulge in exaggeration.  A people, a country, can't not have a group of academic masters. Third, what are their ethical principles going to be like? The squandering of wealth by the rapacious American Wall Street financiers caused a global disaster. Do you want leaders like that?”

Side note II:  You think it's just Main Street that's mad at Wall Street?  Nope. 

Again, he could have mentioned any manner of corruption in Chinese society (and does in other sections), but why alienate his audience?  They've already internalized that.

“Fourth, they need to possess proper levels of verbal and written eloquence. Regardless of with whom they're communicating --what group of people, of what cultural background, and regardless of what discipline they're engaged in, they all need to be able to communicate.”

“Fifth, they must have a critical understanding of the natural world and of the humanities. They can't believe that scientists don't need to be accomplished in the humanities. That kind of person is a scientific craftsman, and will never become a leader in academic circles. Academic leaders must have an incredibly integrated, comprehensive character and moral personality. First-rate scientists are all profoundly accomplished in philosophy, so much so that even philosophers are surprised by it.”

“Therefore, we need to clarify a few notions. Liberal arts education is an idea, and isn't antagonistic to specialization....We will increasingly emphasize the wisdom of the liberal arts, emphasize fundamental academic thought, methods, and history, not simply teaching the skills required to take a test or solve a problem."

"Only after one possesses a profound grounding in Chinese culture, an understanding of global culture, is both tolerant and accepting, and has a strong foundation in his/her specialization, hereafter [in this modern age] only that type of person is going to be able to become a leader in his/her respective field. Our "general education" program isn't  yet meeting this demand, so we're right in the middle of improving.... University deans don't just go around raising money.”  

Three quick comments.
  1. I always liked Thomas Friedman's idea in The World is Flat that one of the ironies of modern society is that everyone thinks everyone else is behind in education.  We think we're behind the Chinese, the Chinese think they're behind us.  We're trying to shed the weight of canonical, rigid liberal arts education for more specialization while China's academic leaders are pleading for it.  
  2. I hope you gleaned something positive from this, as I did: the fact that highly intelligent, sensible discussions are happening in the Chinese media and are consumed by the Chinese public.  This is an incredibly regular occurrence, especially because Chinese TV has far more PBS-es than MTVs.   
  3. Finally, one thread that runs through Dean Yang's commentary is just how much social morality is on everyone's mind, even if, according to this great post on China Law Blog, China's actually ahead of most similarly-situated countries in its corruption indicators. But China wants to be a "great nation," Transparency International's survey would provide little solace to most Chinese: they want to compare themselves with the US, the EU and Japan, even if our financiers and politicians are rapacious, intolerant, and hawkish. 

Unfortunately, the space for public discourse of solutions to the problem of social immorality is quite limited, as it touches upon issues of government power and moral suasion.  If it's not politics, it's philosophy or religion -- and who wants to talk about that?  Well, anyone who likes the liberal arts.  And there it is again:  the brilliance of the indirect statement/interview, and the slow evolution of the word "consciousness."  I have no doubt that not only Stanley Fish, but many Chinese academics would welcome a reanimation of the Chinese University consciousness.  The only question is, will Beijing?

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