Monday, February 16, 2009

Politics, "Owning School," Culture and the Commercialization of Education

I have a professor who loves to predict the death of many of my classmates whenever they tell her about their travel plans, particularly if they are going to places she deems unsafe, like Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

I’m not a brave person. With the exception of Prague, I don’t have a very keen interest in going anywhere that might fall in those three regions. But when I signed up to come here to France on exchange, I never imagined that I would be in the thick of political unrest.

Many people here are very upset with the government because of a set of proposed reforms. The universities in Nice have been on strike for three weeks and counting; I hear that the momentum is still going strong, and that the strike will even continue beyond our reading week (the last week of February). As a result, I’m freaking out because I got conditional acceptance into a postgraduate program, and I need to have a degree before it starts in September.

My friends in this program are completely confident that I’ll get all the credits I need. “We PAID TUITION, so the school owes us marks. It’s not our fault that they’re on strike here. There’s nothing we can do about it. They can’t deny us our marks or our credits because we paid for them and we were prepared to do all the work necessary to earn them,” I’ve been told.

However, I’m not used to of feeling like anyone owes me anything. I’m entitled to nothing. While I appreciate their efforts to comfort me, I still think that it’s up to our school. We don’t really call the shots here. So I’m still really worried and am hoping, hoping, hoping for the best.

But this conversation really made me wonder: What kind of relationship am I in with my school? The way my classmates see it, it’s almost like they view themselves as the patrons, and the school as their employee. They paid for the academic institution to provide them with the service of teaching them, grading them and awarding them degrees. So they’re the ones who are in charge. They (we?) call the shots.

This is completely at odds with the attitude about school that was instilled in me. Modern Chinese culture is still pretty Confucian. Even as non-traditional as my family is, I was raised with many of those values. We’re all about filial piety and respecting our elders...sometimes to a point I don’t agree with, but regardless of the divergence of opinion that exists in me because I grew up in Canada, this is still The Right Way to Be in the back of my mind.

School is supposed to be where a person’s mind is cultivated, so teachers deserve our utmost respect, and we don’t question them. Consequently, the Chinese values of pedagogy are also very serious. Teachers have almost an equal responsibility to their students as their parents do because they play a vital part in how they turn out. Teachers were traditionally called 師父 (“sifu”), which is comprised of the words “si” (師), meaning teacher, and “fu” (父), meaning father – because, of course, back in the day all teachers were men. You’re supposed to respect your teachers as much as you respect the knowledge or the art they pass on to you.

Now, this would work very nicely if we were living in a Confucian utopia, where the lowest common denominator for every teacher in the world is, virtually (and impossibly), perfection - completely fair, super qualified, super intelligent, super ethical, very accomplished, etc. In that case, of course we wouldn’t ever question our teachers.

Unfortunately for us, it’s not the situation we’re in, or even a realistic one, so I think that to maintain this viewpoint about school and teachers requires a lot of faith on the part of everyone who has ever been a student, or who has entrusted the intellectual development of their child to an instructor. For those who are raised to have this attitude, they respect their teachers as much as they do because they trust that they will be completely fair, that they are qualified, intelligent, ethical and accomplished enough (that is to say, way more so than the average person) to merit their utmost respect. But the fact of the matter is, while there must be plenty of teachers who are this amazing and deserving, there are also lots of crummy teachers out there because, well, we can, essentially, purchase our qualifications, and we all do. Just like I’m doing right now. And I’m lucky to be Canadian, but there are countries in the world, like our neighbour down south, where the credibility, status and usefulness of our qualifications depend on how much money we can shell out.

So what happened to the noble pursuit of knowledge known as education? How did it become all about money?

Photo of the Carlone Campus (Fac de Lettres) of the Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, taken by the lovely Ms. Lesley Oosterman

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