Lessons from China:
America in the Minds and Hearts of the World's Most Important Rising Generation
Amy B. Werbel
In the summer of 2011, we packed our house in Burlington, Vermont and traveled 8,000 miles to the sprawling, mostly gray city of Guangzhou, China. The U.S. State Department’s Fulbright program provided extensive orientation sessions, but there is much we had to learn on our own -- including how to make sense of new Chinese landscapes, technologies, neighbors, colleagues, schools, and students.
Course One: Culture in the United States from the Civil War to World War I
From the painful legacy of slavery through the birth of our more empathetic modern state, my students and I were impressed by the parallels between the era of America’s emergence on the world stage, and their own present reality.
Chapter One. Teaching Slavery:
The centrality of family relationships in Chinese culture and society cast the tragedy of slavery and the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass in a new light.
Chapter Two. Progress: The American Centennial and The Chinese Century
Americans marvel and worry about China’s rise in its own “Gilded Age,” but for my students, their “progress” is far less celebratory. The 1876 Centennial Exposition and Beijing Olympics both served as opportunities for giddy promotion, and worried reflection.
Chapter Three. Westward Ho: Native Americans and China’s Ethnic
China currently is reliving the American story of Westward Expansion, particularly regarding the fate of its diverse ethnic traditions. In reviewing the history of America’s consolidation, students shared their feelings about China’s rapid loss of beloved linguistic dialects and distinct regional differences.
Chapter Four. What Happened to Communism?
The Gospel of Wealth and the Doctrine of Mao
Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth served as doctrinal truth for the capitalists of the Gilded Age. But his discussion of the relationship between rich and poor could just as easily describe China today. My students were forced to question: what’s the difference between “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and Carnegie’s raw and brutal version of capitalism?
Chapter Five. The People’s Republic of Censorship
Chinese citizens are used to enduring a great deal for the cause of “harmony.” The worst examples of suppression are not readily discernible in every day life. Censorship, however, is present as a constant irritation, provocation, and reminder that “harmony” in China means you are not free. Students were surprised that our own Big Brother – Anthony Comstock – bore such striking resemblance to the censors of their own day.
Course Two: America in the 1960s
In the same manner that our 19th century sheds light on China’s present, our 1960s may predict its future. China’s challenges include increasingly vocal protests, social upheaval, and a rising (internet-saturated) generation with the luxury of dreaming about systemic change.
Chapter Six. Martin vs. Malcolm: Are they going to revolt, or what?
Reaching out across every possible cultural divide, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” will always be an inspirational call to action against injustice, but the history of the American struggle against racism demonstrates that peaceful change often doesn’t come fast enough. Students’ reaction to the debate between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X – “the ballot or the bullet” – sheds light on their own thinking about what change requires, and what they are willing to do about injustice.
Chapter Seven. China’s “Reform and Opening” Generation vs. Hippies
Students in America often romanticize the hippies of the 1960s, but Chinese students’ view of the counter-culture is far more complex, insofar as it challenges still-revered family hierarchies and expectations for “social harmony.” Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary look different when seen through the eyes of China’s own “boom” generation.
Chapter Eight. Vietnam and the Powerful Example of American Democracy
Teaching the painful mistakes of your country takes on a new dimension when you are standing in a foreign classroom – especially one filled with students indoctrinated to see you and your nation as hypocritical imperialists. And yet, the example of a self-reflective nation free to examine the worst moments of its past is perhaps the most salient proof of our potential for greatness.
Chapter Nine. Teaching and Practicing Sisterhood:
The Women’s Rights Movement
Discussions about gender roles in society, parenting, and balancing work and family obligations bring the personal and political together with visceral impact, demonstrating the capacity of soft power to bridge cultural divides.
China’s rising generation bears enormous weight on its slender shoulders. Chinese leaders, parents, and children all understand education as an imperative for personal, familial, and national success. The accepted gold standard for education in China is America’s educational institutions. At home, our colleges and universities in contrast are the subject of brutal attacks from politicians and critics, many of whom view educational systems like China’s as a model. The example of China proves how wrong these critics are. America’s continued success as an engine for invention and economic growth requires that we fully accept and embrace the central role of our higher education system in both these endeavors. For both our nations, future success depends on how well we can embrace new realities, and remember older truths. Less obvious but equally important, our success will hinge on how well we can learn important lessons from each other.
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