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Non-Critical Thinking in China

February 24, 2014

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle Review

By Jennifer Ruth

It’s late October at a Chinese university in Fujian province, and I’m sitting in a large, chilly classroom. The class is “Introduction to Critical Thinking,” and the topic is credibility in journalism. Using a microphone to compete with an industrial-size heater belching tepid air, the instructor asks 60 Chinese undergraduates, “Do you believe what you read in the newspaper?”

The Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange flew me over as a “foreign expert” to evaluate a pilot program in general education. I am to observe a class, talk with faculty and students, review course materials, and report my impressions. The invitation and the very name of the class are signs that times have changed, or so I think. Gone are the Maoist days when swaths of the past were off limits, or when student monitors reported their professors’ and peers’ politically incorrect remarks to Communist Party secretaries. Gone are the days when “critical thinking” meant only bashing the United States.

The scholarly-exchange center started the program three years ago, when Wen Jiabao was still premier. “Students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains,” he once said. The consensus among many commentators in both China and the United States is that China’s educational system creates skilled but unimaginative students.

So do the Chinese students in “Introduction to Critical Thinking” believe what they read in newspapers? I never heard an answer.

At the outset of the discussion, a young man raised his hand and mentioned People’s Daily, but the instructor firmly directed the students to American newspapers. “Since our textbook focuses on America, let’s stick with American examples,” he said. Straying from the assigned material is considered bad teaching.

Few students had traveled to the United States or consumed American-produced news. Less sophisticated than their peers in Beijing and Shanghai, they were unfamiliar with The New York Times, the primary example used in the lecture. (The irony that The New York Times is periodically blocked in China was not discussed.) The lecture focused on corporate and business influence on Western journalism. When a few conglomerates own the news, how much independence does it really have?

This is a daunting enough question in the West, but it was totally lost on these Chinese freshmen and sophomores, most of whom responded with blank looks, while a few seemed merely baffled. I felt frustrated. More pertinent would have been an analysis of political pressure on the press. It seemed odd that no one in the class mentioned politics—as if money were the only thing to ever compromise objectivity—even though I knew that the party tells Chinese news media what they can and cannot cover, that it imprisons journalists who report on sensitive topics, and that it hires tens of thousands of Internet scrubbers.

When I talked with the instructor afterward—a Polish man with a Ph.D. in philosophy—he agreed with me. “But I can’t talk about the Chinese situation,” he said. “Were you told you couldn’t?” I asked. “No, but I know.”

He had taught in China before earning his Ph.D. in Europe and was back, after a year or two of failed job searches. “I don’t want to get the students in trouble,” he said. “What if one of them says something that causes trouble for them later?” We were laughing, but in that bitter, rueful way, as we acknowledged the irony of a critical-thinking instructor feeling that he must avoid fostering critical thought. “Mei banfa,” he said, using the phrase Chinese often use to express helplessness, as in “What choice do I have?”

Later that day, I was asked to give verbal feedback to the scholarly exchange center’s staff and the university’s administrators and faculty. “The textbook is too focused on America,” I said. “You’ve got to get the students talking about things that are real to them. People’s Daily is real; The New York Times isn’t.”

I told them my concerns about their written work. The final essay assignment asked the students to: “Make an argument that either: (a) Everyone should be forced to exercise; or (b) TV should be abolished.” The results were moralistic essays comfortable with the idea that one authority should force everyone to do, or not do, something for their own good. For a class intended to teach students to think for themselves, I explained, this assignment is a kind of contradiction because it presumes that most people cannot think for themselves.

Nobody responded. One of the center’s leaders finally said, “Let’s skip this.” I’d given them what they’d asked for—my honest opinion—but the vibe in the room indicated that I’d done something wrong. I felt a kind of fight-or-flight panic coming on but managed to stay quiet. I reminded myself that I shouldn’t be surprised if everyone looked uncomfortable. Hadn’t I essentially called their class a farce, a kind of cruel joke? But what was I supposed to do?

After more silence, a man I’ll call Professor X—a Chinese professor evaluating a science class—asked if he might say something. I relaxed, sure that he was about to support my points. “I disagree with Jennifer,” he said, turning his body away from me and the exchange-center staff to speak directly to the administrators and faculty: “Do not have the students talk about their own lives or China. That might cause trouble. I want you to be able to continue to develop this class.”

Wen Jiabao might believe that greater political and educational freedoms are needed for China to continue its astonishing ascent, but apparently President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, the current leaders, do not. They are attempting, according to the journalist Chris Buckley, “to carry out market-driven economic overhauls while reinforcing the Communist Party’s pillars of political and ideological control.”

Can a state fully liberalize the market without liberalizing society? History has not issued any definite conclusions. Economic growth without political and intellectual freedom worked so well in East Germany for a spell that in 1970 Hannah Arendt wondered in an interview if “people there … will live just as well and eventually even better than those in West Germany.” What if China’s authoritarian capitalism, Slavoj Žižek has asked, “shows that democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and engine of economic development, but its obstacle?”

Xi’s strategy could succeed, at least long enough for several more generations to go through life muzzled.

Before I returned home, I had lunch with Professor X in Beijing. He apologized for disagreeing with me but said that he felt he had to. “That class is a baby step. You must encourage the baby steps,” he said. He hoped the students might apply the concepts learned with American examples to China.

But wouldn’t that require them to have understood the concepts in the first place? I asked. He conceded this, smiling. As we walked out of the restaurant, he told me that his father, a high-ranking party official, had said before he died that he wanted to live long enough to see Chinese Communism fall.

Arendt said that if East Germany caught up with West Germany economically, the only difference would be that “in one country people can say, and within limits, also do what they like and in the other they cannot.” She added, “Believe me, that makes an enormous difference to everyone.”

Professor X and I continue to correspond by email. He shares all of my concerns and none of my cynicism. He is optimistic that change will come, but he believes it will come from the party’s leadership, not its downfall. “In 120 years, there have been several changes in Chinese history,” he wrote me recently. “We may wait and see.”

Jennifer Ruth is an associate professor of English at Portland State University.

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