to be of use…

人才是第一资源。古往今来,人才都是富国之本、兴邦大计。我说过,要把我们的事业发展好,就要聚天下英才而用之。要干一番大事业,就要有这种眼界、这种魄力、这种气度。Talent is the first resource. Through the ages, talented people have been the foundation of a country's wealth as well as great plans to rejuvenate the country. I have said that to develop our cause, we should gather talents from all over the world and use them. To realize a great cause, we must have this vision, this courage and this bearing. -- Xi Jinping, 2018

In some of my more fanciful moments, I imagine Confucius and Ignatius Loyola sitting down together to talk education, “Just how,” they muse, “do we cultivate the kinds of people we need to properly govern/ shepherd our people?” They agree to disagree about just how the will of god/ heaven should–and they enjoy a frisson of pleasure as they impose their shoulds on young bodies–manifest locally, but they share the supremely feudal idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate talents who will be of use to god/ heaven and the king/ emperor. And yes, the idea of education as a means of cultivating particular kinds of ideological subjects is feudal, directly contradicting the modern idea that the purpose of education is to cultivate enlightened and independent thinkers. (How feudal our minds are is topic for another post. Maybe.) Anyway, this is why it makes sense that before the protestant evangelicals sailed into Victoria Harbor, HK on the ships of predatory traders, Jesuits enjoyed over two hundred years of pleasant chats with Confucian scholars about grandiose topics, such as wither the world? (Check out The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire by Thomas Reilly for an insightful account of why Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit brethren received warm welcome in Beijing, whereas the protestant mission was criminalized because it informed rebellion.)

Matteo Ricci and Paul Xu Guangqi From La Chine d’Athanase Kirchere de la Compagnie de Jesus: illustre de plusieurs monuments tant sacres que profanes, Amsterdam, 1670. 

Since my arrival in Shenzhen, the classroom has been one of the most important templates for Shenzhen’s moral geography. This means Chinese students are a pleasure to teach. Unfortunately, however, it does not follow that it is a pleasure to teach in China because the system itself is (as the quote above indicates) increasingly ideological and its moral root is nationalism.

China’s educational system not only distributes young people to different social roles and class positions, but also trains them to experience this distribution as justified. (For a wonderful introduction to this system, check out Terry Woronov’s ethnography, Class Work: Vocational Schools and China’s Urban Youth). Much as the US American system places the onus on graduating and changing one’s fate on the shoulders of children and young adults, so does China’s system. Moreover, just as in parochial schools throughout North America, this education is profoundly moral. Chinese children, like parochial students in the US and Canada are not only expected to know things, but to know them in a way that reinforces the truth claims of a larger cosmology; the purpose of education is not to cultivate critical thinkers, but rather to cultivate intellectuals for others’ purposes, such as achieving the kingdom of God or establishing China as a world power.

The moral turn in pedagogy leads to otherwise inexplicable situations such as schools teaching creationism alongside evolution to explain human origins (in the US in case you were wondering), or organizing physics curriculum around Xi Jinping’s vision for the New Era. The 2022 national standards for physics education, for example, have been framed within Xi Jinping Thought, making science and research an extension of correct government. The first paragraph from the preface of the national physics curriculum states, “General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized that in order to be beacons for the soul, offering enlightenment and increasing wisdom, course materials must adhere to the guiding position of Marxism, reflect the latest achievements of the Sinicization of Marxism, reflect the style of China and the Chinese nation, and reflect the party and the state. The basic requirements of education, reflect the basic values of the country and the nation, and reflect the accumulation of human cultural knowledge and innovation.”

The impact of this pedagogy is not simply ongoing censorship of ideas and discussions that challenge the party’s legitimacy, but also in making careers such as scientists and researchers an expression of the moral self. If this sounds familiar, it is. As a model, we’re thinking Galileo, who was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty of heresy, forced to recant, and held under house arrest until he died. In present-day China, there is a similar practice of silencing thought and discussion on university campuses, let alone in the public sphere.

Since 2013, for example, student information officers 学生信息员 have been deployed in Chinese higher education to enforce moral correctness, limiting not only discussion topics, but how these topics can be discussed. Universities select students to collect and report feedback to administrators about their educational experiences, especially teacher conduct and educational materials. This means that education must be explicitly framed as an extension of national goals and also that classroom debate about these ideas and perspectives is being actively monitored and curtailed. This is similar to conservative opposition to critical race theory, which works through PTAs and social media to argue that it is racist to challenge the status quo, rather than actually talking about what the status quo is and what it means for racialized people, including white folks.

Thought du jour, educators throughout Chimerica struggle with the distinction of educating students to think critically for themselves and larger social forces that require educating students to be of use to others, especially those with authoritarian inclinations. Indeed, the resentment and anger that many feel about the education that they have received–both here and there–hinges on this distinction; we all know we need to learn, we just don’t want to be learned into compliance.

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