Intelligent vs. Smart

June 19, 2012

I’m almost at the halfway mark of my time teaching in Linyi and like most things in life the older you get, the time here is flying by.  I’m thinking back to a week and a half ago when I was battling jet lag in Beijing and calling my parents every hour on the hour from 3am until 8am China time because they were the only ones who could soothe my jet lag-induced angst.  Now I find myself re-integrated into Linyi life and constantly surprised at how familiar the city feels to me after only being back for a week and a half.  It’s still an isolating existence in a lot of ways because even when I am around people, I find myself speaking in either halting Chinese or slow and booming English.  But I will say that being back has been good for my Chinese and I find that the lessons I have been taking in New York have actually helped with my pronunciation because I am getting less blank stares upon first speaking whereas it used to take three or four tries before anyone understood me.  Of course I need to think about my tones beforehand because if I just start speaking, it has the potential to end up as a disaster.

I have some downtime because my classes were re-arranged from morning to afternoon, without any real advance warning as is the norm in China.  My writing may be a bit disjointed because there are a few strands of thought that I want to address and I am not sure if they are all interrelated, but I am going to try my best to bring it all together.

A good friend of mine, myBITblog, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past few years and an ardent and valued supporter of my writing, commented on my post last week “Fill in the Bubble” that the American media could be construed as just as controlled and controlling as the media in China and that Americans rarely look beyond the box given them.  I tend to agree with my friend that many Americans do not care to look beyond their own backyards, but I think the choice to be parochial is different than being programmed to be parochial.  Many Americans may not choose to look beyond their own worlds, but they have the option to do so.  If I do not want to read only the conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or similarly liberal op-ed pages of the New York Times, I can go out and augment those views with a wide array of opinions across the spectrum.  We may have the opposite problem in America of too much choice to the point where we can pick a news source most closely aligned with our opinions and never venture too far beyond that, but I still argue that the breadth of choice is what is lacking for many people here in China.  That is not to say that there are not bloggers, authors, and others who operate at the fringe of public discourse who present alternative viewpoints, but most people either do not have access to these voices or worse, do not care to seek out these voices.  The New York Times this past weekend had an interesting article about how Chinese writers need to be more nimble to evade sensors, but I wonder how many people actually seek out these writers who are creatively dodging the paranoia of the government to express themselves.

I think back to my student Qi Zhichao who asked me about mercy killings, which required him to think beyond the given course materials.  At dinner with the other two professors from UNH we were talking about our students and state of university education in China.  We have been exposed to the same students during this summer session, so it was possible to canvass opinions on certain students that made an impact in our classes.  If you remember, I had a student two years ago, Karen, who met me at my car every morning, helped me with daily classroom tasks, and accompanied me to lunch.  She is graduating this year as one of the top students in her class and passed her civil service exam with flying colors, so she will be returning to her hometown of Jinan (also the capital of Shandong province where I am based) to work for the government.  Over dinner we all acknowledged that she was very smart, but I proffered that I did not think she was very intelligent.  The difference being that she can take a test like nobody’s business, but she did not think beyond what she was told to think about.  She did very well because she mastered all of the courses thrown her way and worked very hard, but she was not a thinker.  Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with studying hard and getting good grades, but that does not make a person intelligent.  Perhaps it’s the bias of my liberal arts education, but there is more to be said for someone who thinks beyond what they are told and draws connections between topics to ultimately think for themselves.  Qi has displayed signs of going beyond just what he is told in class, but students like that are few and far between.  Smart does not always equal intelligent.  Perhaps there are more of them at the top schools like Beida and Tsinghua, but I think it’s a byproduct of an education geared to massive tests that determine the next step in your education that leaves little room for people to think outside of the box.  And it is for this reason that I think the media in China can get away with just following the party line without any real push back from the general population.  Sure there are magazines and other publications that offer alternative viewpoints, like Caixin, which occasionally publishes articles from economists whose ideas on the economy may be at odds with the government’s vision.  But the overall effect of the government’s near ultimate control over the media is that a population has been trained to not only care very little about thinking outside the box, but more importantly, not really having the choice to go outside if they so desire.

The education system is one of the main tools that the government has at its disposal to control future generations.  During the same conversation at dinner, we were talking about the poor oral English skills of our students and how they have very little opportunity to practice speaking English.  Apparently the university is looking to cut back on English instruction because they do not want to spend the money, but they have plenty of money to build a new stadium that would not be out of place at a Big Ten school and a golf course in the middle of campus.

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I also found out last night that the students in my class are part of a program where over the course of four years, they take all the classes that they would take at the University of New Haven in the Business program.  Most of the classes are offered in intensive bursts like my three-week U.S. Business Law class, but upon completion of all these courses, they are eligible to receive a B.A. from UNH in addition to the degree from Linyi University.  This arrangement is obviously very good for Linyi University because they can market this program to attract students from all over Shandong, as well as around the country with the lure of receiving a U.S. degree without having to go to the U.S.  The students in the program can also opt to go to UNH for their senior year, but for many students this decision is too expensive.  Now I think it’s a great program for these students, but if their English skills are not up to snuff, how much are they really learning during the course of their studies.  I am inclined to think that as part of this program, there should be a greater investment in teaching English to give the students the language skills to back up having received a B.A. from an American university and giving the graduates greater opportunities that come along with being truly bilingual.  My students complain all of the time that their English is not that good or worse, they barely say anything because they are embarrassed by their perceived poor English skills.  Linyi University should be investing in bringing more instructors to the school to teach the students oral English to solidly position their graduates for brighter futures, but instead the president of the university wants to cut back on this item in the budget and the result will be students whose English skills become even poorer.

Where am I going with all of this rambling?  There are definite problems in the Chinese education system (as there are in the American system), but I think what I am witnessing is a tension that plays itself out all across Chinese society – how to continue advancing as a society while maintaining control over that advancement.  The government has done an admirable job of growing the economy over the past 30 years and moving large numbers of people out of poverty.  However, as the government seeks to position China for the next 30 years, it’s trying to maintain it’s tight grip on people’s expression of ideas and thoughts while moving towards a knowledge-based economy.  Maybe they can do it, but there is something oxymoronic about building a knowledge-based economy when the knowledge is not freely developed and exchanged.

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