Thor's China Diary

Sisyphus and the Rock of Education

@13 March 2000
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The tale of Sisyphus must have been invented to describe to struggle to educate human beings. Recall that Sisyphus (in Greek legend) was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, but no sooner had the task come within his reach than the stone slipped and rolled to the bottom once again.

The task of educating each new generation is exactly like this. Parents suffer in life's university, but their hard learned lessons leave their children unmoved. Communities called nations may endure for a thousand years or more, but in each generation a mere handful of individuals have any grasp of what really came before. This despite all the tools of communication available at call. And now we have need of knowledge extending far beyond village, town and country. We need a grasp of global realities and global histories. The number of individuals anywhere with some hold on this is miniscule.

I teach postgraduates in China, Masters and Doctoral students. The best brains that the country has to offer. As a group they know little of the history of their own country, and have only the faintest critical grasp of its real sociopolitical structure; (oh yes, they have a classroom Communist Party speil on this latter, but it's a slogan game). They have a kind of Hollywood understanding of America (since that is the place which, they believe, is so unfairly leader in everything), and some idea that Europe is a trendy sort of scene, wherever Europe may be. Ask them about the countries and peoples bordering China and their knowledge is ground level zero.

China spends less per capita on education than almost any other country on earth, and before the mid 1970's scarcely had a tertiary education system at all. (For a detailed review of the history of education in 21st Century China, see this devastating article by Jasper Becker from the South China Morning Post: "At the Back of the Class" @ ). In this year's (2000) national budget, the combined allocations for education, science and agriculture are roughly a quarter of that for defence (and much of the science allocation is concealed defence projects). These are insane, pathological priorities, guaranteed to castrate national development. However, the uncritical ignorance of China's citizens is hardly unique. The rich Japanese and Koreans are also profoundly ignorant about the history of the world they live in. Most damning of all, Americans, with every communication system imaginable and a supposedly free society, are famous for their ignorance of anything that is not American.

The single, slender thread that unites all of these pristinely innocent minds is therefore not historical memory and mutual understanding. It is the international news media. The chronicle the fourth estate plays a more and more homogenized epic of video events, "world news, sports and entertainment", into living rooms in Beijing and Moscow, Sydney and Washington. The passive viewers decode this contemporary Ramayana largely according to a script supplied by their political masters, cheering whatever they are told aids their football team, and excoriating the appointed baddies.

A few individuals however experience some rush of doubt, some cold shower of rational evaluation, and question the script writers. There are more of these doubters where I come from than in China, but the capacity for reason is universal (though often subdued). Censors struggle to control the premises, the information upon which we base our reasoning. They are often overwhelmed however, even in China, and at least a handful of alert minds can draw conclusions which are not approved of by the manipulators.

Cramming the children of America, and the children of China, with rote gazetter memories of the world has probably always been a lost cause. What we can imbue them with is a passion for enquiry, and minds free enough to doubt. The best hope we have as a species for surviving the ignorance of Sisyphus' children is steady pressure by alert minds on that world-wide video conspiracy in the TV box.

"Sisyphus and the Rock of Education" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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