Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Education and indoctrination in China and elsewhere

China has a long tradition of education and down through the years it has come a long way. However there remains one rather touchy subject which is handled with kid-gloves. It is of course Communism.
The founding fathers are presented as great men ( and occasionally women ). Their opponents are of course the villains. There is absolutely no balance to what is taught.

Even ethics are taught solely from a communist point of view. In schools there is no discussion about how a moral code could come from a different source.

If Mao had not lived, then would people have been better or worse off?
No doubt there are some people out there with strong opinions, for example if you were to ask someone who was persecuted by Mao‘s people. But in Chinese schools that simply is not a question that children and teenagers are ever asked to think about.

Currently, at the top of the Communist Party there are people who firmly believe in what they are doing. They will say with sincerity that they want what is best for the people. On the other hand, an outsider observing their actions and in particular the way they indoctrinate the children, would say that their actions are completely consistent with a group that has some significant power and are absolutely determined to hold on.

The leaders’ fear is that the people might stop believing in Communism. Communism does indeed have some interesting ideas, but non-communist societies have been getting on fine without it for millennia. If the people en-mass dumped communism, then the real losers would be the communist leadership.

Show this article to someone who has grown up in China and gone through the education system and they may even find it offensive. A defensive wall would come up in their mind which they would simply not be able to see through. Suppose you wanted to get through to them that it is fairer and more honest to children offer them a balanced education rather than decide what they should think and indoctrinate them, then one way to do it, would be to write about education in some foreign land and discuss how those foreign children are indoctrinated into something other than communism, then you’d probably be able to get through to them that the best education system is objective and it does not decide how children should think.

It takes humility to presents all sides of the argument and not just their one point of view. If one side of a debate is chosen and repeatedly presented to children as if it were the sole truth and the only side with merit then the children are being indoctrinated and not educated.

If communism and all of its alternatives are taught in an impartial manner, then there is no reason at all why we should have communist schools, where children daily read communist texts. The alternative would simply be to have schools where children are taught and they learn to think for themselves. The arguments for and against communism are rather complex for a six year old. It would probably be best to delay teaching children anything about communism until the age of twelve at the earliest.

Are things going to change in China? Well, it seems not for while. If you visit a Chinese school in early winter you’ll see the children as young as five preparing for their re-enactment of the great march which tells the tale as the Communists would like it to be told. So the next generation is brought into the fold.

Personally, having lived in China for years, I'm beginning to see the amazing similarities between the education I recieved in Ireland and the current education system in China. In fact I think I could re-write the article above, replacing the "Communist Party" with the "Christian Church", change "China" to "The West", replace "Mao" with "The Lord" and "re-enactments of the great march" with "nativity plays"


Fergal said...

As well as the religious indoctrination, western schools pretty effectively provide capitalist indoctrination. Not in the same way as communist or religious indoctrination. By questioning all other systems. By only discussing communism in the context of communist dictatorship. By laying the blame for the bad deeds of the West at the feet of bad people who got into power but not digging too deeply into how it is that bad people can get into power (e.g. who funds their campaigns?).

This is a form of indoctrination but much subtler. At least everyone in the Soviet Union knew that anything printed in Pravda was almost certainly untrue. In the West we have the delusion of "objective reporting" and the "free press". In reality it is not in the interests of commercial newspapers and by extension their journalists to ask certain questions and so these questions remain unasked in the mainstream.

Still glad I grew up in this system though!

Media Lens is a great site for this sort of thing.

Nelnik said...

Personally I sometimes catch myself using the logic, it is good for me so it's for the good. When I started working in a bank, politically, I was quite left wing. Down through the years, the bank treated me well. So the financial markets seemed very benign to me. Government interference just seemed to introduce unnecessary inefficiencies. But I've seen in the last 12 months how pure laissez faire economics just doesn't work. And so my faith has been shaken.

But I'm digressing, returning to your comment Fergal, I don't think I'd agree with the statement that 'everyone in the Soviet Union knew that anything printed in Pravda was almost certainly untrue', it is a bit more grey than that. Something I've picked up talking to Chinese people both inside and outside China is that they are not quite sure where the truth lies. Sure they'll criticise their leaders just as I do the Irish politicians, but they don't all want a change of regime as the BBC might lead you to believe.

Before the second world war did everyone in Japan believe that the emperor was descended from the gods? I suspect that the vast majority would have claimed that to be so. But after the war, confidence in the emperor diminished enormously. That was an example of a mass unconversion.
If we were to take Ireland in the 1980's the vast majority would have claimed to be Christians. But I believe that for many people faith is shaky and is held up by peers who may not be admitting how shaky their own faith is. Ultimately it can tumble down pretty quickly as was seen after the second world war in Japan.
In the Soviet Union, if absolutely no-one believed what was written in Pravda, then the authorities would not have bothered printing it and indeed the people would not have bothered reading it.

Fergal said...

I think China and Russia/eastern block countries are quite different. I agree that a lot of Chinese have more faith in their govt/society. At this point I'm going to go off on wild speculation and a display of ignorance. The cultural revolution got a huge number of people involved and active in the revolution whereas the Russian revolution quickly replaced one ruling class with another while the people remained less involved. Also the Russian experience had far longer to go bad, so while people may have had faith earlier on, by the 70s and 80s everyone knew it was a sham. China started reforming earlier (Deng ZhaoPing started in the late 70s maybe). So instead of crumbling and then opening up, China started reforming and growing and then opening up. I think this could easily lead to quite different perceptions of the govt by the people of China and Russia.

I just finished a book about East Germany under the Stasi and nobody was under any illusions. There was a TV show that was pure anti-western propoganda. It came on just after some popular show. Everyone would switch off their TVs simultaneously. This weekly event had to specially dealt with by the electricity company.

The people of many parts of Eastern Europe knew what freedom was like before they became part of the USSR/Eastern Block and continued to receive normal TV and radio broadcasts from the west. The same is not true for China.

Even the desire to get out is different. "Everyone" wanted to get out of Russia, just get out, that's all. China is quite different, so many people want to leave, gain education, experience, money etc and come back to China.

The point being, I don't think you can argue about what was true in Russia based on the situation in China.

Does China have a well established dissident literary tradition? I don't know. The USSR certainly did.

The original point being that everyone in Russia knew that they couldn't trust Pravda whereas a lot of people think they can trust NYT, The Times, The Guardian etc. because they are independent and not just organs of state.

Often they're not but that just makes things worse because on the times when they do act as state or corporate propagandists there is no way to tell. You have a false sense of security.

In many situations, people are much happier having a false sense of security than a accurate sense of doom. Bruce Schneier (a security researcher who writes a very good blog) often talks about "security theatre" - airports being a good example.

Anyway, a somewhat incoherent response, probably better discussed over a christmas pint.

Nelnik said...

You make some good points. Recently I saw an interesting film on East Germany called The Lives of Others. I'd recommend it.