The U.S. and China: Passing Each Other in the Night on Academic Freedom?

Students in China are caught between two systems, one Marxist-Leninist and one capitalist.  The result is this:

The curious collision of ideological coercion and material opportunity births a conformity-breeding exhaustion. To resist the constant current of ideological homogeneity requires relentless energy and vigilance: to remember that no matter how compelling the words of the anchor on the nightly news, certain facts have been blacked out by the pernicious party pen; to read and trust media published in countries that you have been taught have interests antithetical to your own; to sustain beliefs that cannot be given voice beyond your own scattered thoughts. The few students who voice dissenting views emphasize that they have never raised these concerns beyond hushed conversations with one or two close friends. Socially, emotionally and academically, it is easier to follow the path of least resistance.

My university is now wrestling with how it plans to respond to the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s gripes about prayers at our football games.  But such high-visibility disputes mask the real drama that is going on in our educational systems: how do our students react to the conflicting demands placed on them?

China is a country that “started out” with Marxist-Leninist hegemony and a political system to enforce that, then grafted into the system capitalist achievement and the performance expectations to go with that.  So students getting an education and moving into a career find themselves caught between two worlds, both of which they feel they have to make happy to succeed.  So the result is silence.

The U.S. is a country going in the opposite direction.  We started out with a system that engendered economic and political freedom.  But now various “politically correct” groups are attempting to take the latter way by enforcing ideologies and thought processes.  But we still expect our students, before and after graduation, to perform as before and do so in an open way.  Although the court system has slowed this process down, it has not stopped it, and academics have all kinds of means at their disposal to make whatever ideology or life view they think their students should have a prerequisite to their success.

Although no one wants to admit it, my guess is that our students here are dealing with it in a way not so different from their Chinese counterparts.  They just keep their heads down and move forward; high-profile disputes are by far the exception more than the rule.  Our countries may be “passing each other in the night” without realising it.

The problem with this is simple: when the system’s cognitive dissonance issues finally push things to a crisis, you really have no idea where your people, silenced by years of “you can’t say that”! are really at.  The results are generally highly unpredictable and destabilising, to say the least.  The Chinese learned that the hard way in the years of “democrazy” and I guess that we may well get an expensive lesson in that too.

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