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Student Opinions

When I first started teaching in China, I made the assumption that my views and beliefs are fairly mainstream.  Then it occurred to me that I was missing a great opportunity to find out what the students actually think and believe.  Since then I've been doing informal opinion polls on almost every subject we discuss, and trying to get the students interested in subjects a bit more meaty than the latest movie stars, rock music, or the latest drivel from the popular culture.

Picture:  My oral English classes are very free ranging as I teach English majors big words. The class began with a student presentation about ghosts and a poll on whether they really exist, then proceeded to discuss the recent non-event, The Rapture. The blackboard shows part of the discussion of "cognitive dissonance" and the reason people believe things that go against all reason.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

It's been a very interesting year.  Below is a collection of the blackboards from student opinions.  As you will see, there are usually at least one or two dissenters in the group, but the students tend to be quite conservative and definitely right of center.  I'm going to do a special page for my discussion of the word "individualist".

Class Poll on Leadership
originally posted May 29, 2011

Inspired by a TED Talk, I've been asking my students about leadership - where do leaders come from, how are good leaders created, what should those African countries do when they have bad leaders.  According to Patrick Awuah from Ghana, leaders come from a liberal arts education, and the root cause of poor leadership in his country is the emphasis on rote learning, rather than developing values and critical thinking.
    
It's ironic that Confucius was the inventor of active learning.  He told his followers: If a student comes to you with a question, do not give him the answer.  Tell him how to find the answer for himself.  Unfortunately, lazy teachers over the centuries codified the thoughts of Confucius and made students memorize them word for word, thus turning his active learning into rote learning and ruining the reputation of Chinese education to this day.

Picture:  Class poll - who wants to be a leader?  This was a fairly high percentage, compared to the other classes, but not the highest.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

     I tell my students that they are the smartest people in China, or else they wouldn't be in university.  This is where the future leaders of China will come from.  But of course not everybody is going to be a leader.  Most don't want the job, though I had one class where the vote was nearly even.

What the Students Think
originally posted May 09, 2011

I've been continuing my informal class polls whenever an interesting subject comes along.  Here are a few of the latest results.

Picture:  Class poll on whether dreams can foretell the future.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
In this officially atheist country, I was hoping to find a bit less superstition.  Doesn't seem to be the case.

Picture:  Class poll on anthropogenic global warming.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
This is encouraging.  The Chinese are far more aware of environmental impact than you might think.  After all, it's their country that has been trashed by the western world exporting our pollution.

Picture:  Class poll GM foods.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
I don't have a problem with GM foods myself, and I think labeling them would just ensure that nobody buys them. 

    Picture:  Class presentation this week was on the death of Bin Laden, and no surprise to hear some anti-American sentiment.  Everybody wants an enemy.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Osama Bin Laden has been fish food for only a few days, and already my students are turning into "deathers"
insisting that America hid the truth of his death for years.  Like Bush wanted to hand the glory to Obama?

Picture: Blackboard informal poll on same sex marriage in China.  More liberal than I expected.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Interesting opinion in a country where a professor is in jail for organizing adult sex parties.

This Term it's been Presentations
originally posted April 24, 2011

I've changed my style for Oral English classes this term.  I decided it's time to challenge the students, and stop talking so much myself.  So each class we've had a group of four students use the first period to make a presentation.  Some of these have been, frankly, uninspired.  But then some of them have been very interesting indeed.  Topics have ranged from popular TV shows (not a subject I think worthy of university students) to presentations about Chinese pirates, Thailand's "ladygirls", and the treatment of LGBT in Iran.  Wonderful to see what the students will do when challenged.

Picture:  A student does her part of a presentation on the stone age.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Presentation by the group calling themselves Stone Age on the subject of prehistoric man.
Worth the price of admission just  for the art work on the board.

Presentations Continue
originally posted March 14, 2011

This week my oral English students continue to do presentations during their first period.  Our presentation on Friday morning was on an unexpected subject - chastity.  I say unexpected, because my students are generally very shy and unwilling to discuss anything to do with sex.

Picture:  Friday's presentation on the subject of "chastity".  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

After the presentation, the class voted on whether it is important to remain chaste until marriage. I think attitudes have changed in China in the the last few generations.* 

Picture:  The class vote on chastity - sixteen to seven saying sex before marriage is okay.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

I only wish their school sex education was keeping up with the change.  The Chinese are very pragmatic people.  Maybe sex education in schools is coming soon.

*This is, after all, a country where a professor from Nanjing has been jailed for three and a half years for organizing sex parties.  Sometimes the thinking of officials in China is hard for a foreigner to understand.  That professor admitted the facts but argued that since all participants were adults, no crime was committed. The chief judge disagreed, stating that "group licentiousness infringed public order."  Interesting.

Adventures in Teaching - current social issues
originally posted March 09, 2011

I'm trying to engage my students more in discussion.  They will chatter away in Chinese, but getting an animated conversation in English is not easy.  One self-criticism I've had of my teaching has been that I talk too much in my oral English class, and my students don't practice talking enough.  I try to balance this by saying things that are interesting and provocative, but that's not good enough.  So this term I've taken a new approach.  Each class has two forty-five minute periods.  I've split my classes into teams of four or five students, and each class from now on one of the teams will do a presentation for the whole first period.

Picture:  An improptu presentation on Chinese fortune telling and naming of infants.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Our discussion inspired this impromptu presentation about Chinese fortune tellers and the way they name babies in China.  Very good stuff.

I'm doing my best to just sit back and listen, take notes, and offer suggestions in the second period.  This has been the first week of this new regime, and so far it's working well, though we haven't had any real barn burners of presentation.  At least the students are talking. 
       So far this week we've had a presentations on the pyramids of Egypt, astrological signs of the Western zodiac, the difficulty of getting train tickets during Spring break, and primitive tribes. 

Picture:  The class assessment of the presentation on primitive tribes.  A bit more generous than I would have been.  No, a lot more generous.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
The name of the class is Burning Tongue.  The presentation group is Shero.  Their presentation was on primitive tribes.  This is the audience assessment of whether the presentation was understandable.  Generous crowd.

    The second period is to be spent evaluating the presentation, and discussing the points it brought up.  I find that the students are very generous in their assessment of presentations, and even presentations that were nearly incomprehensible to me got relatively high marks from the rest of the class.
     Each presentation is also supposed to include a discussion point for the second period, but I've taken the second period back this week  to get the students discussing recent events.  I'm trying to get my students interested in things that are happening in the outside world.  I've already talked to them about the Gates Foundation's well financed campaign to promote circumcision in Africa.  This past week there's been a flap in San Francisco because a group there is trying to get a law passed that would make circumcision illegal. Needless to say, the Jewish community is up in arms, even making alliances with the Muslim community in preparation for a fight against any restrictions.  Right now in America the ONLY surgery you can do on an infant without a good medical reason is male circumcision.  So much as a pin prick on a girl's genitals will send the perpetrator to jail.  The male foreskin is the only exception to the law that protects infants from mutilation by their parents. 
     Circumcision is not practiced in China, and my students don't know anything about it.  It's not a comfortable subject for them.  They've had no sex education, and most are painfully shy and reluctant to hear about sexual subjects.  I'm sure I'm pushing them out of their comfort zone, and I hope that's a good thing.

Picture:  The blackboard with the student's vote on the San Francisco effort to make male infant circumcision illegal.  Interesting.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

My students were fairly accepting of male circumcision, as you can see from the vote above.  They had never heard of FGM, and had no idea that it was done anywhere, or what is involved.  I think they call this a teachable moment.  Since my class is mostly girls, they were shocked to hear the details of FGM.  Needless to say, the vote was unanimous on that issue.
残害  (cn hi literally "injure" + "harmful") v. cruelly injure or kill; mutilate

The American Dream Comes to China
originally posted December 19, 2010

Last year the word that I investigated was "individualist", which I found to have a completely negative interpretation in China thanks to the political instruction.  I did my best to explain our connotation on the word as neutral tending to positive.  This past week I became aware of another bit of confusion.  I asked a student what the American Dream is, and was told "The American dream is to control the world.  Uh...Not quite, though that might be some American's dream.

Picture:  The blackboard on the American dream, another victim of political indoctrination.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

It's a shame that it's called the American dream, because it's is also the Canadian dream, and now the Chinese dream.  When it originated, it was a revolutionary idea.  In the old days, a Russian peasant, for example, knew that his grandfather had been a peasant, his father was a peasant, and no matter how hard he worked, his son would be a peasant.  But the American dream changed that.  It's the most powerful social motivator ever invented - the idea that your children can become wealthy and rise above your current social class.  The idea that the son of a worker can become the president.
I illustrate the power of this idea with my son, Victor, who bought a house when he was only seventeen.  It wasn't much of a house, because he didn't have much money, but he's worked on it every day since he bought it, some fifteen years ago.  Now it's a much better house, but if he'd been renting he would have done nothing to improve the place.  Ownership motivates.  Depriving people of ownership takes away their incentive to work.

Survival in China for University Grads
originally posted December 24, 2010

I've read that this year China will release over six million graduates into the job market.  We can expect more next year, and the year after that when my sophomores graduate.  I'm worried for them.  Already, college grads are flooding into Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.  They are known as the ant people.  They live in slums and squalor, and take whatever jobs they can get.  I heard of a job opening for a public washroom guard that attracted applications from thirty thousand college grads.  My students have two and a half years before they graduate.  I'm trying to get them to think ahead, devise strategy, develop a resume.

Picture:  The blackboard from one of my oral English classes.  English majors are going to have a tough time in the job market when they graduation.  They need strategies.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

The good news is that China is in transition from a manufacturing economy into a service economy.  Once China starts to develop its own middle class of consumers, there's going to be a lot of opportunities.  But not necessarily for those who simply hope to find a job.

Good Fun
originally posted
December 16, 2010 

I was looking over files today and stumbled into this video clip from last term.  I'm posting this because it's a great example of what happens when a class is going well and just watching it lifted my spirits.  I assigned groups of students to practice and present a song last year.  This is the group that called themselves Sky.  It's about 80 megs, so it will take a few minutes to download.  But check out the creativity and English language level of these students.  Check out the fun we can have in some classes.

Picture:  My students in performance of a song.  Click the picture to play the video.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
Click here, or click the picture to watch the video.

Picture:  A sample blackboard from one of my more interesting classes on the subject of culture and westernization.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

 

Students participate in another informal poll, Jiangnan Univeristy, Wuxi, China

Chinese word of the day: 无神论者
(w shn ln zhě literally "without god theory" + nominalizer meaning "one who") = n. atheist

Asking the Wrong Question - Do the Chinese Believe in God
originally posted May 6, 2010

China is an officially atheist country. It's in my contract that I'm not supposed to promote religion. In truth I have no interest in getting my students to adopt any ideology, other than an enthusiasm for lifelong learning.  And as a recently out of the closet atheist, religion is the last thing I would wish to promote.  But I am curious about this culture, and my students are a window into China.  I thought I'd investigate how many Chinese actually ARE atheists.  So I asked my students what proportion of Chinese people believe in god.  I made it clear that I wasn't interested in their personal beliefs.  I wanted their estimate, based on friends, relatives and family. 
     What they told me is on the board below - some people believe in god but most don't.

This seems to allign with the officla  political position, but that's only because I was asking the wrong question.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

By my second oral class of the week I was getting suspicious of this result. It seems a very low proportion of believers, given the number of temples, mosques, and churches around here.  So I asked the question again, only this time replaced God with Buddha.  (Yes, I realize I spelled Buddha wrong on this blackboard.  Spelling has always been my bete noire.)  Perhaps not surprisingly the results were very different.  My students had been assuming that by god I meant the Christian God,  Yahweh or Jehovah, not god in general.

Ah, it's not that the Chinese aren't religious.  They just don't believe in the Christian story.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

For the next class I clarified the question and  told the students that I wasn't asking about the Christian god, but about any god - Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, Zeus, Thor, or Muhammad.  Do people in China believe in some supernatural being who created everything. takes an interest in human behavior, responds to prayer and intervenes in their affairs?  Once I cleared that up, a different picture emerged. My students felt that the Chinese are as religious as anybody else.

This is obviously not a rigorous sampling, and I still think the number of religious believers in China is underestimated here.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
This is obviously not a rigorous sampling, and I think the proportion of believers in China is underestimated here.

You might notice the words "atheist" and "amoral" in close proximity on this board.  This was an accidental result of explaining how the prefix "a-" in English can make a word neutral or negative.  It was decidedly NOT in any attempt to associate atheism with amorality.  I'll leave that to the religious.  As social scientists are now discovering, religion is not a source of morality, or at least not the only source.  Morality seems to be a universal human characteristic that evolved with our social character for very obvious practical reasons.  Our genes survive better if we're nice to each other.

Further Opinion Polls with University Students - G.M. Foods
originally posted May 6, 2010

I asked my News Reading class what they felt about genetically modified foods.  My students in this class are non-English majors, with many of them in sciences and at least one majoring in Food Science.

Informal opinion poll on GM foods with Jiangnan University students, Wuxi, China

Again these results were surprising, given that they had all just read an article (GM Food Protesters Have Got it Wrong By Mark Henderson, From The Times, September 2003) claiming that there is virtually no danger at all, though there might be some concerns for environmental and economic reasons.
     Perhaps my students were anticipating that I would harshly criticize the article, and voting as they expected their teacher to approve.  (Or perhaps I overestimate my influence on them, and their desire for my approval.) I didn't do that because I do agree that G.M. foods are safe to eat, which doesn't mean they are a good idea.  I did introduce the students to Canada's own David Suzuki expressing concerns from the perspective of a Ph.D. in genetics, and I explained that the article makes one major misstatement. 
     The Times article claims that genetic modification is simply a more precise way of doing what humans have done for centuries - introducing new genes into food.  But of course, as Dr. Suzuki explains, this isn't true.  We might have bred a carrot that was resistant to frost with a carrot that produced a large root, but the genes all came from carrots.  We didn't introduce genes from a mouse, or a bacteria, into the carrot gene pool.  That is something that we've never done before, and maybe it deserves some special caution.  Especially when we get a food plant to produce a drug or vaccine.

Sex Education in Chinese Schools
originally posted April 30, 2010

I'm told there is no sex education in Chinese schools, or if it happens it's because of the initiative of an individual teacher.  I took another poll of my students and was surprised to find strong support for the idea.  One class was unanimously in favour.

A vot of 23 to 3 in favour of sex education in Chinese schools.  Came as a surprise to me.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Sex of course is physically, emotionally, and socially dangerous.  I tell my students that sex is much more dangerous now than it was when I was their age.  Back then you could catch a disease, but the disease could be cured.  Now sex can kill you. 
     It seems to me that ignorance increases any danger.  If, like my dog, you don't know enough to look both ways before crossing the roa

 danger for just about anything, yet sex education in schools is still a very controversial issue in many regions of North America.
     My class this week was a chance to introduce the students to some vocabulary they're not likely to have encountered before.  Words like puberty, abstinence, condom, genitals, pedophile, deviants, perverts, predators, menstruation.  I didn't talk about specific practices, fetishes, or even variations.  But I did try to explain the sex education issue and why there is a controversy over it.  Leaving aside those who believe that sex education belongs with the parents, despite the fact that many parents are ignorant or too uptight to accomplish any real education, it comes down to the question of what should be taught, and when. 
     There are those who say that there is no such thing as safe sex, and therefore the only thing to teach children is that sex is bad and dangerous and don't do it.  Abstinence.  The other side believes that trying to stifle one of humanity's strongest drives simply doesn't work, results in things like priests molesting orphans, and that a certain percentage of young people will have sex no matter what they are told.  Thus harm reduction is the only sensible approach - education about contraceptives and condom use. 
     There are those who would delay introducing the topic until just before marriage, those who would introduce it just before or just after puberty, and those, like myself, who believe that sex education in an age appropriate form should begin in kindergarten.
     I'm not out to destroy the innocence of childhood.  But ignorance is not innocence.  The first question a pedophile asks a child is what his or her genitals are called.  If the child doesn't know, or knows only the childish euphemisms such as "wee wee" or "thing", then the predator knows that child has no adult in their life that they talk to about their body.  It marks a child as "safe", a potential victim, and that makes the child more vulnerable.  Three year olds should know where babies come from, how they happen, and what the various body parts involved are called, both technically and in street language.  They should be taught what behavior from an adult is appropriate, and what is not.  They don't need to be frightened of strangers, but they do need to know that they can tell adults anything and be believed.
     Speaking of talking to strangers, the best thing a child can do in a situation where they are lost or confused is to pick a stranger to talk to.  Children have pretty good instincts.  The chances of picking a predator are miniscule, but a child who looks alone and frighten
is a target.

More Liberal than I Expected
originally posted April 22, 2010

Today my News Reading for non-English Majors class read a story in their textbook from The Economist, May 3, 1991, about exotic dancers in a San Francisco sex club who went on strike to form their own union.  The textbook suggested two discussion questions: 1. Should stripping be considered a legitimate profession and 2. Should stripping be allowed (I'm told it isn't allowed in China.)
     After the students had a few minutes for discussion, I took an informal vote.  Much to my surprise, the class turned out to be far more liberal than I expected.  I really didn't think we'd get a single vote for allowing strippers to work, or for calling it a legitimate profession.

Students vote on the question of whether strippers should be allowed to work.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Results of the student vote on the issue of allowing strippers to work.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

One of the girls did a nice job of summing up her argument for allowing strippers to work - banning them only drives them underground where they are harder to control and can't be protected by the law.  But as you can see, the vote was far from unanimous. 
     I asked one of the opposing students why he felt that stripping should be illegal.  He said that it's a moral issue, and that it's traditional in China to take this position.  I explained the western view, or at least the liberal western view, that the government doesn't exist to enforce morality.  After all, there are moralists in Canada and America who would make dancing and wearing makeup illegal. 
     That student also told me that morality comes from God, which I suppose means that an atheist like myself can't possibly have any morals.  Of course I strongly disagree.  I don't think I need God, or the threat of eternal punishment, to tell me whether something is right or wrong.  It's surprising to hear this argument from a student in an officially atheist country.
    
I also pointed out that many things were traditional in the past which are not allowed today, such as the beating of wives, cock fighting, and dueling.  Some things that were illegal in the past, such as blasphemy and homosexuality, are now legal, at least in Canada.  So tradition seems a weak argument for a law.
     Getting students to argue with me in class can be frustrating.  This is very much against the Chinese educational tradition.  In China, the teacher is the one who has the wisdom, and the students are expected to soak that wisdom up so that they can regurgitate it on the exam.  The idea of arguing with a teacher is really foreign to them.

The Basis of Morality in China
originally posted April 8, 2010

My contract here says that I must not promote religion, or engage in political activity, so I try to avoid discussions of these topics in my classes.  But I do see my job, in part, to be promoting an understanding of Western culture and thought.  I've also come to see my students as a great resource for gaining an insight into contemporary Chinese culture and thinking.  Instead of just telling them what I think, and what most people in my culture think, I've been actively investigating what they think.  The results have often been surprising.

Send the professor to jail.  We don't like people who engage in sex with multiple partners.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China Turn the Nanjing professor loose.  What consenting adults do in private is none of our business.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
A show of hands - the professor deserves jail time. The charges should be dropped..

Back in March, a famous Chinese sociologist, Li Yinhe, caused a flap by suggesting that China's law against "practicing and organizing orgies" was outdated and should be scrapped.  At the time nobody had been charged with this offence for over two decades.  Just a few weeks later, as if to make a point, the police arrested a 55 year old Nanjing professor, Ma Yaochun,and charged him with this "crime".
     As I understand it, Ma Yaochun didn't organize anything, and didn't even realize that he was committing a crime until he was arrested.  He was just a guy in an unhappy marriage who wandered into Internet dating sites, discovered the swinger community, and began to participate in a more liberated sexual lifestyle.  Everything was consensual.  Everything was between adults.  We're talking about wife swapping and swinger parties, activities that would attract no official attention in the West. But the professor is now facing a possible five year jail term.
      Some countries have moral codes that are very hard for Western liberals to comprehend.  Islamic fundamentalists take young athletes off a bus and execute them for the crime of wearing shorts.  A school teacher is jailed for allowing a student to name his Teddy bear Mohamed, and protesters gather outside the prison to demand her death.  Recently in Dubai, a foreign couple was jailed for kissing in public.  The people behind these events don't think of themselves as bad people.  In fact, they think we are the bad people.  They are trying to enforce their morality.  But their morality is based on something very different from mine - the authority of their religious leaders, holy book, and religious beliefs.
     Many religious people believe that morality must come from a belief in God, or an authority such as the Bible or the Qur'an.  But obviously this is not the only source of morality.  In Richmond, British Columbia, serious violence broke out in the Sikh community over the question of whether to have chairs in their temple.  A few years earlier, a Sikh father sent his daughter a kettle full of dynamite as a wedding present, because she refused the marriage he had arranged and married without his approval.  Their morality appears to be based more on tradition.
     Humanists base their morality on concepts such as the greatest good for the greatest number, or equality of all people, or reverence for human life and human wellbeing.  They might argue that if a practice does no harm, does not involve coercion, and only affects practitioners who are consenting adults, then nobody has a right to interfere.    
     Last week I decided to find out what my students think is the basis for their morality.  Interestingly, one of the first answers I got to the questions was "patriotism".

The basis of morality in China discussion, and a vote on whether the Nanjing professor should go to jail for "organizing and participating in orgies".  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
This was a liberal class.  I had one class that was 24 to 1 in favour of jail for the professor who held sex parties.

     I also thought I'd find out what my students think about the Nanjing professor who is facing a five year jail term for his swinging lifestyle, so I put it to a vote.  The question:  should the professor go to jail or not?  The result in the first class I asked: 24 to 1 in favour of jail.  Other classes, such as the class results on the blackboard above, were more... tolerant.  But still every class voted a majority for jail time.
     I put the same question to my News Reading for Non-English Majors class.  They are not freshmen, like my oral English students, and maybe they are a bit more sophisticated or worldly.  But still over half the class voted to jail the professor.
    It's easy to assume that these sweet and agreeable young people think the way we do.  They don't.  Most are comfortable with a government in a parental role, taking complete responsibility for all social decisions, and most take it as the right of the majority to tell people how to behave both in public and in private.  Most believe it is correct to jail a consenting adult who gives consent too liberally.

Sex Education in Chinese Schools
originally posted April 30, 2010

I'm told there is no sex education in Chinese schools, or if it happens it's because of the initiative of an individual teacher.  I took another poll of my students and was surprised to find strong support for the idea.  One class was unanimously in favour.

Sex of course is physically, emotionally, and socially dangerous.  I tell my students that sex is much more dangerous now than it was when I was their age.  Back then you could catch a disease, but the disease could be cured.  Now sex can kill you. 
     It seems to me that ignorance increases any danger.  If, like my dog, you don't know enough to look both ways before crossing the road, doing so is very dangerous.  Once you know how to deal with it, the road becomes pretty safe.  Never completely safe, of course.  There's always the chance that a drunk could swerve and get you while you walk down the sidewalk.  But a lot safer than if you haven't been taught how to minimize the danger.  Knowledge reduces danger for just about anything, yet sex education in schools is still a very controversial issue in many regions of North America.
     My class this week was a chance to introduce the students to some vocabulary they're not likely to have encountered before.  Words like puberty, abstinence, condom, genitals, pedophile, deviants, perverts, predators, menstruation.  I didn't talk about specific practices, fetishes, or even variations.  But I did try to explain the sex education issue and why there is a controversy over it.  Leaving aside those who believe that sex education belongs with the parents, despite the fact that many parents are ignorant or too uptight to accomplish any real education, it comes down to the question of what should be taught, and when. 
     There are those who say that there is no such thing as safe sex, and therefore the only thing to teach children is that sex is bad and dangerous and don't do it.  Abstinence.  The other side believes that trying to stifle one of humanity's strongest drives simply doesn't work, results in things like priests molesting orphans, and that a certain percentage of young people will have sex no matter what they are told.  Thus harm reduction is the only sensible approach - education about contraceptives and condom use. 
     There are those who would delay introducing the topic until just before marriage, those who would introduce it just before or just after puberty, and those, like myself, who believe that sex education in an age appropriate form should begin in kindergarten.
     I'm not out to destroy the innocence of childhood.  But ignorance is not innocence.  The first question a pedophile asks a child is what his or her genitals are called.  If the child doesn't know, or knows only the childish euphemisms such as "wee wee" or "thing", then the predator knows that child has no adult in their life that they talk to about their body.  It marks a child as "safe", a potential victim, and that makes the child more vulnerable.  Three year olds should know where babies come from, how they happen, and what the various body parts involved are called, both technically and in street language.  They should be taught what behavior from an adult is appropriate, and what is not.  They don't need to be frightened of strangers, but they do need to know that they can tell adults anything and be believed.
     Speaking of talking to strangers, the best thing a child can do in a situation where they are lost or confused is to pick a stranger to talk to.  Children have pretty good instincts.  The chances of picking a predator are miniscule, but a child who looks alone and frightened is a target.

Student Opinion Poll Continued
originally posted January 21, 2010

Last week I told my students about the Danish cartoonist and asked them whether the paper should have been allowed to publish the cartoon.  This week I told them about France banning the hijab, the Muslim scarf, and other religious symbols in public places.  This week's question: Was France right to ban the wearing of religious symbols in public.

Again, a vote for authoritarian control.  Other classes were not so clear on this issue.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

The vote:  16 to 7 in favor of authoritarian control.  As I said before, this is their culture and they like it the way it is. 
     Those who said France was wrong often stated that we should respect religion.  I asked them why, and explained that I respect people's right to believe whatever they want, but I don't necessarily respect their beliefs, or their religion.  I don't know how they deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by believing in a loving God who will punish me with eternal damnation in the fires of hell simply because I don't worship him.  Strange concept of love.  And when religious people say things that are absolutely stupid, such as the American evangelist who told his followers that the earthquake in Haiti was their own fault because they made a deal with the devil, I can see no reason to respect them at all.
     Because they know that I'm not fond of religion, my students were surprised to learn that I think France is making a mistake.  To me it seems to be religious groups that want to take away our freedom of expression.  If we take away freedoms in reaction, then the religious fanatics have truly won.

Capital punishment might be wrong, but not China.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

As a follow up I asked their opinion on capital punishment.  While a few students felt that capital punishment is wrong, there were no votes critical of the recent Chinese execution of the British citizen.

Just a hint of cognitive dissonance in this class.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
A bit more cognitive dissonance with this class.  Fifteen to nine against capital punishment,
but only five to eighteen critical of China's decision to execute the British drug smuggler.

And this let me explain the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Irony
originally posted January 14, 2010

My sudents.  Not unhappy.  Not feeling repressed.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

     Looking back five years to before I came to China, I realize that I came to this country with an expectation that the Chinese people would be miserable.  You know, repressive communist dictatorship in power.  No freedom.  People can't say what they think about things.  But what I found here was a mostly very happy people who laugh a lot and really enjoy life.  It's been a puzzle.  According to what I've always been told in the West, the Chinese SHOULD be unhappy.  This week I think I have discovered at last a part of the reason why they are not.  This is their country, and their culture.  They like it.  They like it just the way it is.  Why in the world would we in the West expect anything else?

Happy students.  It's their culture, and they like it the way it is.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Fairly recently a fanatic broke into the home of Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, and attempted to kill him with an axe and a knife in front of his five year old grand daughter.  They survived by barricading themselves in the bathroom "panic room" until police could arrive to save them.  This is all part of the continuing brouhaha over the cartoon Westergaard drew that was published in a Danish newspaper.  The cartoon itself was part of a discussion of freedom of expression and self-censorship in the face of violent reprisals against artists, including the murder of a Dutch film maker, by fanatical followers of Islam.
     This past week I told my students the whole story of the Danish cartoon.  I explained that it caused no initial outrage by itself, but "religious leaders" later took the cartoon,  added other material that had nothing to do with the discussion, or with Islam for that matter, and then went to Muslim countries to instigate protests and riots.  Danish embassies were attacked.  In all, something like a hundred people ended up dead.  
     I asked my students this question:  Should the newspaper have been allowed to publish the cartoon?

The class vote - no to freedom of the press by a wide margin.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

It wasn't a unanimous vote by any means.  But every class came down solidly on the side of NO.  The press should not have been allowed to publish the cartoon.

My most liberal class.  Still fifteen to ten in favour of controlling the press.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

This lead to a very interesting discussion.  I'm not allowed to talk about Chinese politics here, and wouldn't want to if I could.  But this is talking about Denmark.  Besides helping students develop language skills, I do see my job to be helping them appreciate and understand Western culture.  So I had to explain a few things such as:

1. There is no authority in Denmark that could forbid publishing the cartoon.

2.  Most Western countries have laws against hate crimes, but those must be promoting hatred and violence, not just commenting on it.

3.  Western democracies believe that freedom of the press is essential for a healthy society, and that controversy is acceptable as long as it is restricted to words and ideas. 

4. Political cartoons are supposed to upset people and mock ideas that some people care about.  If people are setting off bombs in the name of Islam, as seems to be happening in various places in the world, so that the entire religion is now associated with terrorism, isn't this a legitimate statement for a political cartoonist to make?

I also got a chance to explain the meaning of the word "irony".  What could be more ironic than a religious groups reacting to the suggestion that they are violent by storming embassies and rioting, and by trying to kill the man who made the suggestion with an axe.

Further Exploration of "individualism"
originally posted December 10, 2009

If 个人主义 (g rn zhǔ y)i isn't right, what about 个体主义 (g  tǐ zhǔ y).  Nope.  Also uniformly negative.  My students just think "individualism" is a bad thing.

As I posted yesterday, my students all gave me a very negative interpretation of "individualism", in response to the Chinese translation I found in my dictionary, 个人主义 (g rn zhǔ y).  Then I was told that 个人主义 (g rn zhǔ y) is just not the correct translation and it should be translated as 个体主义 (g tǐ zhǔ y), which is supposed to be neutral.  So this morning I tested 个体主义 (g tǐ zhǔ y) with my oral English class.  The result was identical to 个人主义 (g rn zhǔ y), uniformly negative.  And today the negative got even more explicit, with one student saying "It's a bad thing", and another saying "It's against our country".
     Michael in the administration office tells me that the Chinese do have the concept of somebody acting altruistically against the group, but it seems this is not the generally accepted meaning of "individualism".  If this concept is in the culture, it isn't attached to the words "individualism" or "individualist".
     I asked my students where they got their understanding of the word.  One student told me that it is just part of their culture, that they were always told that following the leader and acting in accordance with the group was good, and that independent action is bad.  Another told me that this is in their political textbooks in school.  Wherever it comes from, it is pervasive.
     Over and over I'm told that the Chinese value harmony, 和谐社会 (h xi sh hu - harmonious society, a phrase that has deep resonance for the Chinese.) above everything else.  They emphasize connection to the family, the group, the community, and the country, and do not value public discussion of decisions made by the leadership.  They see protest as destructive to their country, where we see it as essential to keeping our country healthy, strong, and on the right path.  For the Chinese it seems that argument or debate is not a process that leads to better decisions, but a process that leads to disharmony and violence.  Given the history of China, I can see their point.  But if my students are to understand my culture, they need to understand the meaning WE give to "individualism".
     This points up a very general problem with translation.  Words have a definition and a connotation.  With the definition, a translation will seldom go wrong.  If I think a car means an automobile, but it is translated into Chinese as 马 (mǎ = horse) then we have no problem saying that the translation is incorrect.  When I say car, I mean something with four wheels, not an animal with four legs.  But when it comes to the connotation on a word, things are not so easy.  Another culture might put a connotation on the word that is opposite to our understanding, or at least takes our understanding from neutral to strongly negative or positive.  We might have an identical definition for "tiger" as a large member of the cat family.  But one culture might see it as a dangerous predator that should be hunted down and killed.  Another culture might see it as an endangered example of charismatic mega fauna that must be protected. 
     It's easy to correct an interpretation that gives the wrong definition.  Connotation is something else again.

 

 

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