China – Education

In this fourth episode of the special series on the People’s Republic of China—the final program on the road—Tavis talks in depth with some of the students at one of China’s top schools.

What Americans call "high schools" are known as "middle schools" in China, and Beijing's 101 Middle School is one of the most academically challenging schools in the world. The students engaged Tavis and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West in a rich and frank dialogue about how the next generation of leaders views China and the U.S.


Tavis: This is Tiananmen Square. The June 4th, 1989 protest that galvanized the world is still largely unknown to most Chinese. Today, the square, with its famous portrait of Mao, is a major tourist attraction. We had permission to bring our cameras into the square, but at the very last moment, bullying guards refused to let us in with our gear and we had no choice but to continue with a tourist camera instead.

Thankfully we would not encounter that kind of reflexive jingoism again during our two-week visit until we returned to the 101 high school in Beijing. This is one of China’s most elite high schools, which means it’s one of the finest high schools in the world. Only the highest-achieving students go here, and the competition to get in is fierce. Their academic workload is intense – all-day classes six days a week.

I first came here a year ago and I wanted to return with some of my young staffers and Dr. West. What I hoped for was a lively exchange. I got that and more, as you’ll soon see.

Good afternoon.

Students: Good afternoon.

Tavis: Oh, I love this, I love this. I am delighted; I am honored to be back in Beijing. Thank you for making me feel welcome a second time at this wonderful school.

I want to introduce some friends of mine I brought with me, and then I would like to do basically what we did the first time I came. I would love to allow the students to ask us some questions as a group, and I’m sure that my friends who came with me from the United States have questions for you, they’d like to ask about you and your culture.

I want to introduce a dear friend of mine to share some thoughts and some reflections. This is his first trip to China. He’s a professor. He was a professor at Harvard, now he’s a professor at Princeton –

Students: Ooh.

Tavis: – so he’s taught at – oooh. (Laughter) Yeah, ooh. So he’s a professor at major institutions in the United States. His name is Professor Cornel West. So I’m going to let Dr. West share some thoughts and reflections with you, and then I’ll come back up and say a few words. Then we want to just have some dialogue – your questions and our questions, and we’ll see if we can’t have a good conversation here. So please welcome, from Princeton, Professor Cornel West. (Applause)

Dr. Cornel West: Well, let me say I am blessed to be here. Each one of you, you’re precious and you’re priceless. What that means is that you are the future not just of China but of course the future of China is tied to the future of the world, the human family. The relation between China and the United States is crucial, because both are superpowers whose future is connected through the future of the world.

The challenge for young people around the world, but especially here in China and the United States, is what? To be smart, courage to think creatively, critically, but also courage to love, so you have empathy. Putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else, so you have a sensitivity toward them as you are very, very smart.

Tavis: We ought to stop there.

West: Yeah, I think we ought to stop there. (Applause)

Tavis: Our conversation started with a simple question – is the criticism that the strict Chinese educational system keeps even the smartest students from thinking for themselves valid, and if so, should critical thinking be a more important part of the curriculum in China?

Student One: I’m totally for it.

Tavis: For thinking critically?

Student One: Yes.

Tavis: You think young people don’t do enough of that in China?

Student One: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me more. (Laughs)

Student One: You really need more details?

Tavis: Yes, please I want to – yes, yes, I do. (Laughter) Tell me more about why you feel that way.

Student One: Well, take me as an example. I’m a student majoring in liberal arts, but what we are studying in liberal arts is history and politics and also geography. But what I hate most in history, that we are only memorizing facts, but we don’t know what they are really for for the history of humans. We are only memorizing them, you understand that?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Student One: We don’t really feel them, and that’s what I hate. I have a friend who transferred to the United States and I learned that he had studied the part of the enlightenment for a month, totally a month, and I guess he must have done a great deal of reading, but we have only learned that for two days.

Tavis: Mm.

Student One: And that’s all I have to say.

West: I think that’s very well said, that’s very well said.

Student Two: As Chinese, we have our special educational system, and what it really matters, as the history thing, what really matters is that we can, through memorizing, we can know a lot of facts of the history of the world, and as we know the facts we can make the world a better place.

It matters with us, but not the educational system. What we have to do is to think critically, think creatively, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the form of education.

Tavis: Appreciate that. Yes, sir?

Student Three: Yes. I have to complain about something about the education in China.

Tavis: Okay.

Student Three: In fact, there is some change in the changing education now about – I think the speed of it has changed to be faster and faster. For example, now I think our education is just like cramming education – too much homework, but not too much critical thinking. I think we need critical thinking. We need to be unique to tell the teacher what we think but not what they think. So I think that point should be changed.

Tavis: Appreciate that. Yes? Yes – oh, they’re going now, yeah. (Unintelligible)

Student Four: About the educational system, I have to say that it’s not our fault or it’s not the government’s fault, it’s not our country’s fault. A lot of people are born, okay? So we are facing great competition. We have, like, 10 millions of people in our same age. So we have to compare with better who is not so good, and here comes the exams, we have to research, we have to memorize, but I think you have to know the history. Then you can think.

For example, if we don’t even know the Cultural Revolution, how could we learn from that and how do we know to do that in the future? So I don’t think the educational system has some problems. The problem is that it’s a different way of thinking.

Tavis: Let me ask another question right quick. We knew before we came, but we’ve been wrestling with this since we’ve been here, about your one-child policy. So your entire generation, basically single-child. Most all of you are single children.

We were talking yesterday about the pressure, the pressure, the pressure that your parents put on you to succeed, to get into university, because there are only so many slots, so many openings available for these millions of Chinese students who are graduating, only so many slots available in school.

You’re the only child. They want someone to take care of them when they get older. So can you talk to me about whether or not you do feel that kind of pressure?

Students: No.

Tavis: You don’t? Yeah, sure, please.

Student Five: I want to say I think every parent will give their child pressure, not only because we are one-child policy. Since I’m the only child in my home, my mother sometimes gives me some pressure, but she only wants me to do a little better and more focused on study.

But what I – as long as I’m focused on my study and also do the right things, my mother won’t give me such pressure and also don’t have to make me so stressful.

Tavis: That’s important. That’s very important. Yes?

Student Six: What my mom told me is she just wants me to be happy in my whole life, and my study is not very bad. My mom said she doesn’t care about how I study, but when I study better, I become happier and so she becomes happier.

Tavis: I’m glad to hear that. Perhaps our earlier conversation about critical thinking touched a nerve, because at this point the deputy dean (unintelligible) insisted on speaking out at length, condemning the United States, and I had no choice but to counter with the criticism that many Americans of China. The deputy dean spoke through a student interpreter.

Deputy Dean: (Speaks in Chinese.)

Student Interpreter: But the thing that troubles him is that why is the American government is trying to have friction towards – well, not trying, but is having friction (unintelligible) thinking against the Chinese government and the Chinese people. Maybe he should focus on maybe persuade – you ask the government not to start so many wars and actually to focus on the civilians around the world.

Tavis: Wow.

Deputy Dean: (Speaks Chinese.)

Student Interpreter: Well, this is the word inside – this is the actual word inside millions of Chinese normal people. Our dean said he never lies and never says things that are just for – that you (unintelligible) but it’s the words that hide in his mind for years. So that you shouldn’t be afraid of that our young people won’t be warring against America, but what actually we’re afraid of is that maybe American youth may war against us.

While the culture of Chinese people, which lasts for thousands of years, has always focused on peace.

Tavis: I want to ask him a question, if I can. So his critique, his statements about the U.S. government engaged in wars around the world, I think most of the people in this group understand that point and may even agree with him, but that said, though, having said that, if he were having this conversation, if he repeated what he just said to many of the American people, they would take that as a lecture from him and then respond to him by saying China has no right to talk to us about the wars we start with your record on human rights inside your own country.

That’s what many Americans would say to him – that China has a problem with its own human rights, and that we have something to say about that. Until you give your people freedom to express themselves, then you can’t say much to us about what we do around the world. Free your people.

Deputy Dean: (Speaks in Chinese.)

Student Interpreter: Well, our dean said that the (unintelligible) between countries may differ, but we all act according to our own judgment, and we do and so as you. But actually that we deeply believe that the deaths or the harm to millions of civilians is definitely not something moral. (Unintelligible) Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you. (Applause) Your dean just gave some strong impressions, some strong opinions about what he thinks of our country. I’m curious – what do you – you’re all learning English every day, you’re speaking our language. What do you think of the United States?

Student Seven: The things the United States are doing and they want to have (unintelligible) is for the benefit of their country, of the nation and its citizens. I think that’s perfectly justice. Although we all know that wars are intolerable, cruel and bloody, but I think most of the things, both domestically or internationally that the United States has done, they are doing and they have done benefits for the people in the United States.

I think that the opinion that people in China, Chinese people are not free, they are jailed, whether culturally or politically, is from the view of some people in other countries, like in the United States or in Western countries like in Europe. But it’s an obvious fact that very few people, almost no one in China, they feel that they are jailed.

They feel that they are leading a life that is not free; they are not allowed to do things or do this or do that. Not many people are – a handful of people think so. I think the reason of this is because those people living in China and those living in the United States, they live in different conditions, almost totally different, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m curious about the United States, because I think it’s different and it’s good different.

Why they are arguing with Chinese people that you are not free, many Americans say that because they think of Chinese matters, Chinese political matters and cultural matters, from their perspective. So sometimes they fail to feel empathy toward us. They didn’t put themselves I our shoes.

So they are quite many differences, so I don’t think that the point to have argument with, because we live in different conditions. So that’s my opinion about the United States.

Tavis: So how do you get most of your information about our country? How do you get it? What do you read, what do you listen, how do you get information about the United States? Yes?

Student Eight: Well, in fact I’ve been to America, U.S., before, when I was at second grade and primary school, and I was –

Tavis: What city were you in?

Student Eight: Texas.

Tavis: Texas.

Student Eight: Houston.

Tavis: Houston, Texas, okay.

Student Eight: Yeah, yeah, it was very different, quite different from Beijing, because it’s a city with a lot of fun and everyone is full of enthusiasm. Because of the Houston Rockets, because it’s in the –

Tavis: (Speaks in Chinese.)

Student Eight: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. (Laughter) What our teacher says, of course we are all against wars, and I think he means that we should find a better way to solve the problem. We don’t know how the U.S. government thinks, but as for us, we think it’s kind of a cruel way, yeah, just about that question a little.

And we learn from America mostly from music. Yeah, I guess so. (Laughter)

Tavis: Music?

Student Eight: Yeah, we listen a lot to American pop music, and maybe about the films, the media. A lot of news from that. So we know more about culture, but about things like political events, from the news or maybe some of our students go to the Internet, we don’t just go to Chinese Internets. We can go to U.S. webs and international webs and know things.

So I think communication for us now is more and more convenient, and we have a lot of ways to know America. So it’s not just we are just thinking, we know. We can feel America, and we can listen to songs that just as popular as there.

Tavis: Just because I’m curious, name me three or five of your favorite American musical artists. I’m just curious. Eminem. Cold Play. Beyoncé. Michael Jackson. All right, Vonda, you had a question.

Vonda: What is your dream as a young person?

Tavis: What are your dreams? She said live a happy life. What else? What are your –

Student Nine: Yes, to be a manager of an NBA team. (Laughter, applause)

Tavis: I like that, all right.

Student 10: Have a nice wife.

Tavis: Oh, yeah. (Applause) All right, nice wife, nice life. (Laughter) Kim, you had a hand up?

Kim: I wanted to know what some of you want to study at the university, what your career goals and paths is, if you’ve selected a major in the university.

Tavis: What do you want -?

Student 11: Anthropology.

Tavis: Anthropology. Mass media.

Student 12: (Unintelligible)

Student 13: She wants to go to (unintelligible) Brown.

Tavis: Oh, she wants to go to Brown University. Oh, so you want to come to America, oh, okay. Coming to America, to Brown University.

West: (Unintelligible) president.

Student 14: Biology.

Tavis: Biology. Pretty diverse. Raymond, you had a hand up.

Raymond: I’m curious their perception of their American peers and the lack of how you guys have exceeded them in education is because – do you deem them being lazy and too many options or you guys just being more focused?

Tavis: What do you know about American students?

Student 15: Last year I’ve been to two American middle schools. They are friends, middle schools, of our school, and I think, no offense, but they are creative but less intelligent.

Students: Ooh.

Tavis: I’m just curious, though. When you say – you said, “No offense.” I hear your point, although it’s hard not to take it when you say that they’re more creative but less intelligent, tell me what you mean by that.

Student 15: Intelligence doesn’t – in studying.

Tavis: They don’t study as hard.

Student 15: No, from my opinion, no.

Tavis: That’s what you’re saying, okay.

West: So it has more to do with the habits.

Tavis: The habits.

Student 15: Yeah.

West: It has to do more with habits. I see.

Student 15: Yeah, there are more habits here.

Tavis: Kenya.

Kenya: Do you interpret the value of your degrees in the same way or differently?

Student 15: I think a degree is just permission to get good jobs, and that’s all. But not (unintelligible). Maybe with more knowledge you can’t earn more money, but knowledge is a part of your wisdom, and with knowledge I think your mind is much more stronger than all the others and you can gain wisdom. Money can never give you that.

Tavis: Yeah, you’re right about that. Last comment.

Student 16: I want to say that I really appreciate the way of high education, high-level education in America. For example, university. But I think for (unintelligible) education of China is oh, so very great, and it shouldn’t be so many people is criticizing this.

I think we have different ways of learning things. In our school we just maybe learning more than thinking, but in America they read a lot and they think more and they don’t – I don’t think American students care so much about their scores, but actually, some of us do care about it because it’s kind of our access to a better university.

Tavis: So it’s stiffer competition here. The competition is much stiffer in China.

Student 16: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it’s hard to compare the two kind of education systems, so I think it’s just a different kind of education system for different kind of people since we have quite different cultures and history. Yeah, so that’s all.

Tavis: I’ll give you the last word, Doc, in your own way, but I thought that you might want to – I’m curious for you to comment on what she said and then you can have the closing thought to inspire these young people.

West: Well, one thing I think we have to recognize is that you’ve got brilliance, high intelligent and even habits in both countries among young people. What is distinctive about China is that you all are moving so quickly. The United States has had universities for over 120 years doing what they do. That’s why a place like Princeton is one of the best in the world.

Brown, Harvard, Yale, Berkley, University of Chicago, but they’ve been doing it a long time. China is catching up, quick.

But I want to end with this brief point, and it’s this – that we must learn from each other in the spirit of humility, with dignity. China has a great civilization in the past and present. China has work to do to be better. The United States has a great history, but work to do. We must learn from one another, push one another, criticize ourselves and criticize one another so that we both will be more democratic, we’ll both be more free. That’s what’s so wonderful about this discussion.

Tavis: I had a wonderful time here. That’s why I wanted to come back. It’s students like these here in Beijing and their counterparts throughout the United States that are going to decide how our two countries deal with each other in the future.

I’ve come away from this journey, as I have from so many others, thinking that what we all need to do is to talk with each other and listen to each other and find what makes us the same rather than dwell on what makes us different.

So thanks for hanging out with us.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm