Saturday, January 22, 2011

East is East and West is West

During the last week or so I've read and viewed some things that have disturbed me and provoked me.  These have made me question my role as an international teacher as well as how I view myself as a parent.  At a curriculum leaders meeting last week we were handed a copy of George Walker's position paper East is East and West is West.  I've read this paper before of course, and blogged about it too, and now I'm happy we're actually going to be discussing it at school.  In my time in IB schools I've heard many parents and teachers question how international the IB Learner Profile is, with many feeling that it is merely promoting Western values.

The video below, however, really made me question my role in international education.  Having been in Ladakh in the early '80s, I was shocked to see this movie (much of which is shot there).  To be honest it was my time in India, working on a public education programme with adults, that made me decide to become a teacher of children.  Yet the answer to the question:  if you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it?  got me thinking.  With the best will in the world, imposing our Western education system is certainly changing, maybe even destroying, the traditional way of life, the traditional values, of many places, and I am asking myself what right we have to assume our values are "better" ones than the ones that have existed there for generations.

I have always loved teaching in an IB World School, which certainly promotes certain attitudes among students and educators.  At the same time I am also conscious that a value-laden programme smacks of cultural superiority as we try to promote a "better" way of life.

The article in the Wall Street Journal from Professor Amy Chua, moved my thinking in another direction.  While many found her extreme parenting verging on abusive, it surprised me to read the letter from her daughter supporting her mother's parenting style. The comments to the WSJ article are numerous (over 7000 of them) - clearly there are very strong feelings both for and against this method of parenting - and the debate that followed in the NY Times provoked even more comments.   I have taught many Asian students who would say similar things to Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld - students who practiced a musical instrument (or several instruments even) for many hours a day, and who loved the way they felt when they mastered a difficult piece - who came to love something because they were good at it, and they became good at it because they had been forced to practice - they learned to love it and then they loved to learn it.

I think in the West we do things the other way round - what has been termed "the romance and the rigor".  Here we encourage students to fall in love with something first, then once they are in the "romance" they are introduced to the rigor - the hard work it takes to become really good.  

When I worked in Asia, I worked with a number of women the same age as myself who had had arranged marriages.  This is definitely not something I would ever have wanted for myself, but having spoken to these women (one of which was busy arranging a marriage for her own daughter, who was in her 20s), it was clear to me that their family lives were just as happy/successful as my own.  What they had done had worked for them, one way was not "better" than the other.  East is East and West is West - we shouldn't be trying to push our own ideas of what is "right" onto others (therefore I still have an issue with Professor Chua who claims Chinese mothers are "superior").

I'm still thinking about the video, however,  I still  have a way to go to straighten out my thinking on that one.

Photo Credit:  Prayer Wheels by Njambi Ndiba

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