You see, this school trip to China is an exchange built on “respect” and “mutual education” within the confines of the Chinese government’s definitions. It’s most definitely not an exercise in respecting the individual rights of Chinese and American students and supporting mutual education that involves critical thinking instead of upholding the polite fictions the state requires. Because thinking critically and exchanging those thoughts is dangerous in a repressive country. Which you might think would be a lesson for the school officials involved, here, but that’s not how this story goes:
Newton North High School senior Henry DeGroot was visiting a school outside Beijing on a semester abroad this year when he decided to have some fun and also make a point by writing prodemocracy messages in the notebook of a Chinese student.
“Democracy is for cool kids,” he recalls writing. “Don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you,” said another message, and “It’s right to rebel.”
But when Chinese school officials found out, he had to serve five hours of detention. And when he returned home, it got worse: Newton school officials barred DeGroot from his prom.
Newton school officials say he violated semester abroad rules, embarrassed the principal of the Chinese school that was hosting Newton students, and showed so much disrespect for the Chinese that the longstanding relationship with the school may be harmed.
The founders of the exchange program are deeply concerned. Their response to this makes me sure I’d never send my kids on any kind of educational endeavor with them:
“Until this week, we have never had an incident with a student disobeying the written code of conduct that they all sign,” Claire Kanter said from her home in Florida. “And then he refused to apologize in person. He refused to take a 30-minute train ride to apologize. I can’t tell you what I feel about this, we are an educational exchange, not a political exchange.”
So, do they send a bunch of impressionable high-school students to China while willfully keeping them ignorant of the Chinese governmental system, its differences from ours, the moral conflicts this might cause for free people engaged in free inquiry, and any of the atrocities it visits upon its people? Exactly what are they educating them about if they’re subtracting any and all context from the trip?
“I felt as a human being on this planet I have an inalienable right to free speech if I’m doing it in a non-vulgar, appropriate way, as this private conversation was,” DeGroot said in an interview.
“Throughout this exchange, we and those that followed us taught our students to recognize and respect the cultural differences between our countries,” their letter said. “The purpose of this exchange was and still is the understanding and respect as well as the mutual education of all our students so that solid appreciation of each other’s cultures would result.”
The Kanters have sent an abject apology to the principal of the school. The student signed a code of conduct and violated it, which I suppose means they can dole out some kind of punishment. Civil disobedience does not always come without a price, and he should be willing to face it. But a prom banning sounds a little drastic for speaking out for democracy to a fellow student in China.
The school system, he says, taught him the importance of civil disobedience and speaking his mind, but then punished him when he practiced what he learned.
I suppose it was implied in his instruction that that kind of thing should only be deployed on wingers in the U.S.
Now, I’m not intimate with the rules of exchange programs. I know the politics and sensitivities of setting these things up are likely daunting. There is, of course, sometimes value in cultural exchanges, even with countries where the system is not so friendly to individual or human rights. But those exchanges should be preceded by some very rigorous thinking by educators about how much freedom of inquiry their students are being made to give up to participate. Such an exchange should also be bolstered by some very rigorous instruction about the differences between our system and theirs and the costs and benefits of acquiescing in another culture’s system to learn about it.
The tone of the Kanters’ response to this “transgression” suggests they’re giving up way too much. If your educational relationship depends upon students upholding the propaganda line of a repressive government at all times in private conversations, as this one seems to, there’s probably not much education going on.