My Turn: Chinese campus is a good opportunity for state

  • A student walks out of the entrance to the Northeast Yucai School in Shenyang. AP

For the Monitor
Saturday, December 02, 2017

Has Nashua become northern New England’s center for Chinese education?

The Monitor recently reported (Monitor front page, Oct. 27) that an unknown Chinese university had purchased the campus of the bankrupt Daniel Webster College. The intended use of this campus is unclear but it is obvious that a Chinese university operating in Nashua will add a new dimension to higher education in New Hampshire.

I am the director of teachers of Northeast Yucai School in Shenyang, China. This school, the leading secondary education institution in northeast China, features an international division representing 20 different nations. My experiences working within the international division and in China generally have convinced me that this Nashua campus can be an extraordinary opportunity for New Hampshire.

(What the university will do with the campus is unknown, but I suspect it will follow the trend of opening international campuses. New York University, for instance, opened the degree-granting New York University Shanghai in 2011.)

Many graduates of my school attend top universities in the United States and have contributed to the large increase of Chinese students in America. In 1999 there were 50,001 at American universities. The number tripled by 2010, and by 2016 there were 328,547. These students return to China, able to strengthen their nation with cosmopolitan ideas gained in the United States.

Comparatively, in 2011 there were only 11,000 American students seeking a degree from a Chinese university. The opening of a Chinese campus in Nashua will provide New Hampshire students, otherwise unable, the chance to “study abroad.” Nashua residents, however, may wonder what a Chinese campus might look like.

There is a tendency, both in China and in the United States, to position Chinese students as “good at math but not as creative as Americans.” While Chinese classrooms are often centered on lectures and exams, this stereotype is misleading and unhelpful. China and the United States are complex countries with widely varying views on education, and both have national student bodies that resist easy categorization.

I have found national origin is a poor indicator of a student’s academic potential. Though the students of my division come from a myriad of educational systems, I am a product of a New Hampshire high school and American universities. It is unsurprising then that students entering my classroom face the same expectations and requirements they would in the United States. In my experience, some Chinese students thrive in an open classroom centered on discussion and experiential learning. Others prefer a more teacher-centered class. I imagine my counterparts teaching in New Hampshire’s high schools have similar experiences with their American students.

Another popular claim, and one with more veracity, is that Chinese influence can stifle open and free academic discourse. There have been concerning reports, mainly from Australian universities, of Chinese students disseminating secret recordings of professors. These recordings capture the professor making statements or teaching concepts that go against widely held Chinese beliefs. These professors have then been subjected to harassment and intimidation through social media. This is alarming and New Hampshire should not play host to any institution of higher education that does not cherish free speech.

That said, these incidents must be viewed as part of an unfortunately wider trend in which students use social media to shame professors with whom they disagree. This is certainly not confined to Chinese students – there have been many disturbing reports of American students using similar tactics to silence American professors. In both cases, it is imperative that New Hampshire institutions preserve free speech on campus.

My school celebrates its “proletarian” mission to educate. Numbered among our alumni is Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China and a staunch supporter of Mao Zedong. Given this background, some might be surprised that I have never been asked to modify the content of my lessons. Not once.

This semester my students have discussed religious interpolations in Beowulf, the violent revolution of A Tale of Two Cities and the disguised autocratic dictatorship that forms the background of I, Claudius. Previous semesters have seen passionate debates, prompted by the Iliad, on the duty owed to incompetent leaders; Sophocles’ Antigone led to impassioned arguments as to whether citizens are compelled to follow the unjust laws of a corrupt state. Each of these discussions was strengthened by diversity of experience and background. The school has neither asked nor directed me to alter my lessons.

My point is not to say that there is no censorship in China – there is and it is disruptive to education. My point, rather, is that Chinese students are as anxious to engage with literature, history and art as their American counterparts. Moreover, they are as capable.

Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that challenges may face Nashua. At the same time, there is also the important prospect of more interaction and collaboration between American and Chinese students. Cultural sensitivity is a must as educators find some topics are more controversial than expected and other topics less controversial. But, as long as speech is not silenced, New Hampshire should welcome the possibility of Chinese students bringing new ideas and perspectives to the Granite State.

(Christopher J. Dawe is the director of teachers at Northeast Yucai School in Shenyang, China. He holds a master’s of science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania and has spent his career teaching in Asia.)