James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Followup on solar panels and climate issues

    It appears that Alex Wang, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, must have stayed last month in the same part of the Green Lake View Hotel in Kunming that my wife and I recently occupied. Because the "look at all the solar panels!" pictures he took from the hotel window and posted recently on the NRDC Greenlaw site are amazingly similar to those I showed two days ago. If you're traveling to Kunming and want to get in on the fun, I suggest asking for room 2008 at the hotel -- also known as the "view that will impress foreigners worried about the environment" suite.

    It turns out that the solar-paneled rooftops of Kunming are about as well known a feature of the city as are gabled rooftops for Paris. As one reader with a Chinese name wrote:

    Your latest post of  the roof with solar-thermal heating device in Kunming is a typical picture of Chinese city, especially of those second or third-tier cities. People in these cities mostly live in the apartments built in the last two decades. Solar heating device became extremely popular around 2000, for its cheapness, and governments then don't care about its impact on the outlook of the city,ie,barely any regulation.

    He also pointed to this Greenpeace report on the city of Dezhou, in Shandong province, where many solar panels are manufactured -- and used. Also, this recent Danwei.org post that includes a Greenpeace video about the city. Les toits de Dezhou:

    SolarPanel.jpg

    After the jump, a note from a non-Chinese person about the larger life bargain that solar-thermal water systems imply.
    ___

    From a Western reader:

    The ubiquitous solar panels are an example of something that I think is very common in China, especially with regard to modernization and development, which is that things that the Chinese regard as luxuries and real signs of coming up in the world would be considered unacceptable privations in the U.S.

    Have you ever had to live with one of those solar water heaters? Even in a place like Kunming, where the sun shines most of the time, the amount of hot water you get from a roof top solar hot water heater is minimal. My Kunming apartment was on the top floor of an eight story building, which meant that that water had the shortest distance to travel and was therefore hotter than that of my downstairs neighbors. It also meant that the pressure was lower, meaning that the slow trickle from faucet would actually result in the hot water lasting longer. What I got during the winter, when outside temperatures were about 15 degrees centigrade (50 Fahrenheit) was about five minutes of lukewarm water, and this only in the evening after a full day of sunshine. For someone from the countryside this would be luxurious living, the height of decadence.

    Speaking of apartments, an eighth floor walk-up is another thing no westerner would put up with. In the standard Chinese apartment building (not the new hi-rises, the regular, normal, five to ten story tiled buildings built in the 90s) the first floor usually has the advantage of a back door and maybe even a garden, but it's often damp. The second and third floors are the best, the fourth is ok. Anything above that involves planning trips out because of the extra time and effort involved in going down and back up the stairs. I wonder how many aging Chinese are essentially trapped in tenth floor apartments because they've gotten too old to climb those stairs more than once a week or so.

    And what about all those little three wheeled "cars", hardly more than enclosed motorcycles? They go all of about 40 kph (25 mph) and a police officer friend told me they're death traps. And look at the electrical wiring in my apartment. I could go on for a long time.

    Yet this is the life style to which all those hundreds of millions of peasants aspire to. If anything can save China from the impending collision between its stressed environment and limited resources and the increasing expectations of its large and growing population, it is this willingness to live with what to westerners is inconvenience, discomfort, crowding, and danger.

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  • Lost memory of June 4, update #2

    Not all young Chinese people are unaware of or indifferent to the events of twenty years ago in Beijing. Late last night I heard from one such person, roughly in the student age bracket, who had just been put under house arrest for the next week, until the "sensitive" anniversary period is over. The message I received today via mobile phone/SMS, before communication ended, was this:

    Could you please blog, "Chinese people, don't give up on freedom, ever."

    It is heartbreaking and, in a way, shaming for outsiders to realize how little they can do directly to affect the government's handling of cases like these. I would only hurt this person's prospects by saying more about specifics. But this is where my thoughts will be in the next week.

  • Lost memory of June 4, update #1

    I mentioned yesterday that a system-wide silence about what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this week has left many young Chinese completely ignorant of that stage in their country's history. I meant this not as an original observation -- the phenomenon is widely discussed here by outsiders and by Chinese people who are aware of the events, plus in the NYT op-ed by Yu Hua I cited -- but as reinforcement of a point that might not be so familiar in the rest of the world.

    Of many reactions that have come in on the lost-memory theme, I will quote a representative two.  The first is from a Chinese person now based at a university in the United States. After the jump, a roundup of references and links on the topic.

    From the academic in America:

    Chinese government is embarassed by the incident 20 years ago. It is never a glorious thing to shoot at your own citizens. So it keeps silent on the issue.

    But I don't think this is the main reason to students' indifference. There are plenty of resources about this on the internet. This is a staple topic in Chinese internet discussion forums, usually with great vehemence on both pro and anti government sides. The main reason I think is there was not really any support among general population for overthrowing of communist government even back in 1989. There was not any strike. (If there had been a general strike, the communist government would probably have fallen).

    The general population watched the events unfolding in Beijing before June 4th warily but also with amusement. Unlike the participants in the demonstration, for the "silent majority", the events happening in those few months are far from the defining event in their lives. It is no great surprise people in China don't attach much importance to them.

    And for most of young people, they don't have a lot of grievances against the government. People have lots of personal freedom as long as they don't touch politics. As for those political-minded, the communist party is always eager to recruit them. There are ample economic opportunities to absorb their mind and energy. They don't identify with the students 20 years ago the same way young people in US don't identify themselves with protesters during the Vietnam War.
    ___

    Now, from Elliott Ng of CNReviews.com, with leads to some of the extensive online discussion of this topic.

    I posted on this topic of "edited memories" on 5/22. I was inspired by a 5/22 Peking Duck piece that also lamented the general collective amnesia around the TAM crackdown.

    My Chinese colleague, "Grigo," shared her thoughts on some factors that affect whether or not someone has awareness of TAM.  She is from the generation born in the late-70s and went to college in China.  She only learned of TAM when she attended graduate school in HK.  Excerpted from her blog post:

    It may be the most historical event in my life so far although I was too young to fully understand what and why every thing have happened.  Even today, I still don't fully understand the cause and result.

    But, I was lucky enough that when I went to graduate school in Hong Kong in 2001, I was able to access all kinds of information (texts, images, video) from Internet and learned as many as I can about this historical event. Student Union of my college in Hong Kong has special memorial events on this day. They have been doing the similar thing for more than 10 years when I first experienced it. I know local Hong Kong people may get used to it (as they have been staying at the campus for 1-4 years). But people like me, from Mainland China, I felt more respectful to Hong Kong  for its openness and tolerance.

    I have asked my couson who is born in 1992 if he ever knows about this. He doesn't, as this historical event is not yet in History class; and in really life, he doesn't have any channel to learn a word about it: TV, newspaper, Internet. No media is pushing this to readers or audience unless you are driven by strong curiousity and dig online + you can understand at least one language besides Mandarin. I've aslo asked my interns (all in colleges now) who are born in 1985 or 1986. Only one of them knows it.
    For the generations born in the 80s and 90s (and probably even many in the 70s), there is "collective amnesia" of this event.  For those born in the 60s and older, perhaps there is more of a "consensual amnesia" where there is a general and grudging acceptance of the forbidden nature of TAM as a topic which is all part of a social compact between the people and their government.  I don't mean to criticize, but can say I feel a little bit of sadness that an event of this importance can be rubbed out from the history books.  I also feel that Western misperceptions of the event (e.g. "tens of thousands of students massacred right on TAM") can only be erased fully once there is more openness and dialogue about the event.  But of course, the Chinese government has many more important things to do than worry about Western misperceptions.  :)  However, I do feel that there is opportunity for the Chinese people themselves to gain even more confidence in their government (yes, I know there is a lot of confidence already among large segments of the population) when the historical record is open, accessible, and not manipulated from time to time by the government.

    More from Ng, including interesting material from Orville Schell on whether China is an "ahistorial" society, at his site.

    The 20-years-after theme is already the subject of so much saturation coverage that I don't plan any more updates -- except an important one of current rather than retrospective importance.

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  • Well, here's one way to respond to the flu threat

    From an organization holding a conference I plan to attend in Beijing starting tomorrow,  whose sessions have been scheduled for a government-run meeting site:

    Change of Venue
    Due to the concerns of the H1N1 virus, the Chinese government has banned gatherings of groups larger than 50 people at all government facilities. Due to this new circumstance, we are no longer able to host the forum at the [xxxxx]. We have now changed the venue to the [xxxx] Hotel. The schedule of the forum will remain the same, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

    I have no independent information about whether, when, by whom, and with what geographic extent such an order might have been issued. And of course it's hardly the first time I've heard of a last-minute change of site (or cancellation) for a long-scheduled gathering in China, for reasons having nothing to do with flu.

    Whatever the back story here, to me the announcement is an interesting historical document concerning the management of public opinion in China during the current flu episode -- and the success of the government in making any measure, no matter how hazily connected to systematic public health reasoning, seem part of a resolute effort to protect the Chinese people against lax standards elsewhere, notably including the United States. No other countries are imposing quarantine rules as strict as China's? So much more to the credit of the government protecting us here!! Yes, Americans too are familiar with such "security theater" -- just not when it comes to flu. And I can't help remembering that in recent hours I passed through airports in Kunming and Beijing, "government facilities" in both cases, where tens of thousands of people were gathered. So far we all survived.

  • Win in China screening - Tuesday in NYC

    Reminder (earlier notice here): If you're in New York this Tuesday evening, June 2, consider checking out the screening at the Asia Society of a new documentary on the Chinese reality TV show for budding entrepreneurs, Win in China. Screening details here; my 2007 article about the show here.

    WinInChina1.jpg


    At the main web site for the film, here, you can see a short trailer. I was going to embed a playable link to the trailer, but the opening image on the embed is a headshot of me being interviewed about the show, and that seemed too weird. So here's a different static shot from the trailer, below. It depicts one of the PK phases of the show, for "Player Kill." See my article, and presumably the film, for explanation of PK and much else.

    WinInChinaTrailer.jpg

  • Lost memory of Tiananmen

    As I write, at the equivalent of 11pm Saturday night in New York -- 11am Sunday morning in Beijing -- links to three of the four NYT essays about the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square are broken. (The page with links to the four essays is here: as of this moment, items #2, #3, and #4 are instead linked to essays about the recession from three months ago.)

    I am sure that will be fixed soon. A quick note about the one essay that is readable at the moment, this one from Yu Hua, the author of Brothers. He says he is writing about the event for the first time ever in order to emphasize two points:

    The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people's political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

    The first point is continually thrashed out in all articles about the current state of China's economic and political evolution. For the moment I want to underscore the accuracy of the second.

    I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country's past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family's experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can't assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it's just another day.

  • What do you notice in this view of Kunming?

    This morning, looking north out the window of the Green Lake View ( Cui Yi Hu*) hotel in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in southern China:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_726654.jpg

    Click above for larger, detailed view. Or, see this closeup of the building nearest the hotel: http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7264.jpg

    Clue, in case you didn't spot it yourself: Every roof as far as you can see has solar-thermal panels for hot water heating. More to come shortly on China's general environmental/climate situation, but I think this vista is different from that in many US cities -- among other details you might notice, in the prevalence of the panels.
    __
    * Originally thought we'd stayed in the Green Lake, Cui Hu. On correction from higher authority, ie my wife, I realize it was the Green Lake View, Cui Yi.

  • Offline

    I am in rural China and away from the internet until Sunday. Greetings from the road. 

  • You learn something every day

    In this case, about the history of the LA freeways. Recently I mentioned the I-10 / I-405 interchange in west Los Angeles, familiar to many headed to LAX --especially before the completion of the Century Freeway, I-105, in the 1990s.

    From reader BF, now living in Pennsylvania, this recollection of that very interchange:

    I wanted to pass on two things. First, that during the decade I was navigating the freeways in LA, the soaring transition from the Santa Monica Freeway west to the San Diego Freeway south was always the high point. The designer of that interchange launched your car into the sky, banked it over 8 (10?) lanes and landed it full speed in the southbound lane.

    Second, is that the designer, Marilyn Jorgenson Reece, was the first female civil engineer licensed in California. This link describes the dedication ceremony when CalTrans named the interchange for her. [Link is here.]

    Here, from the linked CalTrans website, is Marilyn Reese as she looked during construction; below, a clearer sense of the design she had in mind.

    The designer:
    Reese.jpg

    Her work:
    Freeways.jpg


  • Not death of newspapers but death of advertising

    As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of response on the "who's killing the press?" theme. Because the theme has been so very heavily worked over in recent months, I'm not reposting much of this. But here is a note that reflects a theme in a number of messages: that the newspapers are only the first casualties in what will be a more sweeping elimination of ad revenue in general. It is a response from a reader named Hal:

    Among my friends, we've had this discussion before.  Here's what I said then, edited to fit addressing you directly:
    *^*^*
    The real problem is, advertising is dying. It's just pulling down newspapers along the way. Next up: TV, radio, and Google.

    This is why I was warning anyone who would listen that traditional media's schadenfreude when the internet bubble popped in 2001 was probably misplaced. Because the reason it popped was one finally had the metrics to show Advertising Doesn't Work. Google has forestalled the inevitable by doing the Net equivalent of the "tiny little ads" schtick of a decade or two back, but I think they see the writing on the wall, which is why they keep trying so desperately to find something, anything, other than search that'll make money....
    Perhaps the most widely read piece on the possible death of advertising is Bob Garfield's "Chaos Scenario" piece in Advertising Age.... One of the things he points out is how high the number is of people who use TiVo to skip the ads. Think of the Net equivalent -- Adblock Plus (and I've seen sites that won't let ABP users browse, which implies both a) a high ABP use rate, and b) that ABP is substantially cutting their revenues).

    Here's a fun question: How long was it before Starbucks ran a TV ad? (answer here)

    Direct mail response rate: Typically, 1%. Which is to say, within the margin of error.

    Spam: "50 in every million people". And a massive whack at brand equity....

    No, as far as I can figure out, American businesses still use advertising because "that's what our fathers did." Sooner or later, that won't be enough.
    *^*^*
    (Hal in the present here:) ...  I still say the fundamental problem is, the link between advertising and increased sales has been shown to be very weak, and the advertisers are bailing out.  There's just no way they can justify the expense to their stockholders any more.

    So did Craigslist kill classified advertising for newspapers?  Perhaps, but it was already dying, at least for some markets.  Did you ever see Los Angeles' The Recycler?  Basically, it was free to place ads, and then they charged readers $1.00 or so to buy the thing for a weekly edition.  During my last decade in LA, I don't think I ever used the classifieds of either the LA Times or the OC Register, except for job listings.  In that market, the move to Craigslist was one of means, not of category.

    Now, I'll hedge a bit.  To me, there are two kinds of advertising:

    * Ads that let you know a product you didn't previously know about exists.
    * Ads about things you already know about, and either never buy, or buy regardless.

    The first kind still has a future, albeit very informally.  I think it's the heart of the, "One person's piracy is another person's free advertising" argument. (See the music business, where tickets still sell like mad even if CDs are in the tank, or Cory Doctorow's thing about the main fight an author has is against obscurity.)

    But the second kind -- the traditional Coke v. Pepsi, Bud Light v. Miller Lite, Tide v. Bold, Obama v. McCain -- that stuff is deader than a doornail.  Customers will actively delete those ads. And, yes, I absolutely think this has political implications.  Then again, I'm a guy who thinks The Cluetrain Manifesto has as much to say about politics as about marketing in the traditional sense.

    In a related-though-different vein, from another reader:

    The problem with newspapers is that they were a bundle of hard news, classifieds, sports, weather, financial information, comics, lifestyle, etc. People were willing to pay the cover price for the whole package, but were mostly interested in the non-news items.

    All of those non-news categories have fled to the net, where they are done significantly better. Craigslist really is better in every way than the newspaper classifieds. Other categories are also covered in much greater depth out on the net.

    The newspapers themselves thought of their reporters as the core, and the other sections as just fluff to fill out the paper. With the "fluff" gone, they are discovering there's not enough taste for hard news alone to pay the bills.

    This is why micropayments or paywalls for online papers are not going to save the business. Hard news just doesn't pay for itself, not in advertising revenues or in subscriptions.

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  • Beijing construction triptych #3: Opposite House

    The Atlantic's latest issue has a brief article by me about a very unusual new hotel in Beijing called the Opposite House. For details -- get the magazine!

    Here are a few amateur shots of what makes the place a noticeable exception among the other fancy Western hotels that have sprung up all over Beijing. Giant version of a traditional Chinese medicine chest, with (mainly) workable drawers, in the atrium:
     

    Scando-Japanese minimalism in the rooms -- I mean, "studios":

    Enormous woven-metal drape or sail hanging from the upper stories down through the atrium:

    There are genuine, professional photos in the magazine, and this brings me to my real point. Seriously, you should read articles like this in the magazine itself, not on line.

     Some written material is merely "text" and can be absorbed equally well regardless of medium. I've claimed that I like reading novels just as much on a Kindle as in printed form. All that matters is a novel is the words. But some material is designed for something other than a computer screen, and is best absorbed from printed pages, with illustrations and thought-through layout. Most of what's in a good magazine is in this category. Long, narrative articles are simply better to read on a sequence of pages, with illustrations and margins and call-out text, than as clicked-through screens.

    I'm saying: subscribe to our magazine because you'll enjoy it more that way. And: subscribe because you should! Anyone who worries about the "crisis of the press" has a chance to do something about it for two bucks a month. 

  • Herdict: now, in Arabic and Chinese!

    Several months ago I mentioned a new web site from Harvard's Berkman Center called "Herdict," which allows people around the world to pool information about web sites being blocked.

    For instance: late last year, I suddenly found that I couldn't reach the New York Times web site from my apartment in Beijing without using a VPN, and I heard from a friend in Shanghai that she was having trouble too. We didn't know if it was a problem on the Times's end, coincidental problems with our local connections, some other unknown issue -- or a conscious crackdown in China. As it emerged, Chinese officials had imposed a nationwide blackout on the NYT site. But it took a while to determine what was going on.

    Herdict is meant to be a quick, crowdsourced way of reporting such developments -- and it has recently come out with Chinese and Arabic language versions of its site. It looks as if it's getting more traffic than the last time I checked a few months ago, but it could use more participants to produce finer-grained reports. Even now it's a quick way for people in, say, China to figure out that if they're having problems reaching YouTube, Blogger, China Digital Times, or Huffington Post, the fault lies not with them but with the Great Firewall. A useful tool.

  • On Memorial Day

    Consider the Map the Fallen project, here. It is an overlay on Google Earth that provides details on the lives and deaths of 5600+ U.S. and coalition men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sample:

    FallenMap.jpg

     


    Details for installing the overlay at the site above. (Mac users: it definitely does require the latest release of Google Earth, here.) As the project's originator says:
    I have created a map for Google Earth that will connect you with each of their stories--you can see photos, learn about how they died, visit memorial websites with comments from friends and families, and explore the places they called home and where they died.
    Respect to him, and to those he is honoring. (And, yes, I do realize that there could be a much more densely-populated map of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. That takes nothing away from the power of this project or the sacrifice it commemorates.)

  • Back to the gaokao....

    ... following this discussion of Chinese education, Chinese management and research styles, and whether there is a "creativity" problem for people trained in China. Main theme so far about the gaokao, or 高考 -- the standardized, nationwide, make-or-break test for university admission: no one likes it, but many Chinese people feel that it is fairer than any likely alternative.

    Today, two dispatches. First, a short one from a young Irish high-tech entrepreneur now working in the United States. Then, a long one from a foreigner teaching at a mainland Chinese university. 

    From the young Irish technologist:

    Am enjoying posts on the gaokao. As it happens, the Irish education system functions virtually identically. The "Leaving Certificate" is taken by every Irish student in their final year. It consists of three core subjects (English, math, a language), plus three tertiary subjects; your results in each subject add up to a single score (max of 600); this score is the sole determinant of undergraduate college admission. There's much hand-wringing over students' foreign-language abilities--or lack thereof--even after years of study. It's often criticized for excessive emphasis on rote learning. And it is ultimately brutally fair: students rank courses in order of preference, and a computer program fills them by allocating places to successively lower-scoring students.
    Despite the similarities, I've never heard accusations of a lack of creativity in students... and having gone through school in Ireland and college in the US, I can't say I noticed much difference in creativity or critical thinking. All of which may mean that the Chinese education system (or at least its superficial attributes) are not the problem.

    (As it happens, I never sat the Leaving Cert, so I don't have direct experience with it. Unlike the gaokao, you can't sit it early, so I dropped out of school and taught myself the A Levels (British equivalent) instead. Also, I guess I should qualify the US/Ireland comparison. At college, the students were certainly smarter on average, but I don't think they were relatively more creative.)

    From the teacher:

    I'm another foreign university English teacher in China. I'm currently in Yantai, Shandong Province. I'm an experienced teacher from the U.S. and I've been in China for almost three years. One of my standard classroom practices is to pose a general question and ask for responses. I find that after a couple of weeks, when the students have gotten used to me, most of them are willing to risk raising their hands and offering their opinions.

    One of my regular discussion subjects is the students' experiences so far with the Chinese educational system. More than any other, this one is greeted with groans and rolled eyes.
    As many of your responders have noted, the exam system is valued for its perceived fairness and egalitarianism, even though there is also a perception that rich kids have better chances than poor ones.

    But despite their belief in the fairness of the system, the students are nearly unanimous in hating it and feeling oppressed by it.

    They are under tremendous pressure during their public school years (K-12) and the pressure accelerates hugely during the last three years of high school.
    Many of them talk about dreams and goals abandoned to the imperative to study for test. They talk about their admiration for what they perceive as the emphasis placed on "practice" over "theory" in the western education system, something that's not possible when everything for 12 years is focused on a single three day exam.

    I start the discussion by asking what a well educated person is and what effect the college entrance exam has on their education. They don't generally understand what I'm getting at.

    I ask them about the nature of knowledge. As an example, I ask them when Mao ZeDong and the Communist Party won the civil war and created the New China. They can all answer "1949". I then ask how it happened that what started as a rag tag band of peasant revolutionaries managed to take over and unify the most populous country on earth. Deer in the headlights. The best any of them can do is platitudes like "They won the hearts of the people." I ask which question is more likely to show up on a test. By now I have most of them with me.

    Then I ask them a more specific question: When is the best time to start studying for a test? The answers to that one range from "a month before" to "the night before". When I ask them if and when they forget the things they learned, the answers are very definite and almost always a mirror of when they start studying.

    I ask them about the relative importance for getting a good grade of attending class, reading the assignments, and participating in class discussions. The answer is that the only thing that really matters is the final exam.

    All of this is reflected in the quality of homework assignments, which are usually dashed off at the last possible moment, copying text from the assigned reading based on a key word search rather than any attempt at actually comprehending the text or the question. Almost no attempt is made to achieve any kind of higher order understanding. It's also reflected in classroom behavior: sleeping, doing homework and cramming for other classes, text messaging and playing games on cell phones, reading magazines, etc.

    This attitude is further reinforced by university policies that require the course grade to be based 70% on the final exam grade. Other teachers have no hesitation to require student attendance at activities and events that force them to skip classes, since the teachers know as well as the students that nothing important happens in class.

    These students are not stupid or foolish people. Their behavior is a rational response to the system in which they have been raised. Attending class, paying attention in class, doing homework, none of that matters.

    The only thing that matters is the test, and doing well on the test is a matter of memorizing a number of decontextualized facts. The worst affect by far of the exam system is that it creates a distorted and poverty stricken idea of what education is and how to engage in it. These students hunger for real engagement, real knowledge, real education, but they don't know what it is or how to look for it.

    The thing that bothers me more than anything else, though, is that the educational system in the U.S. is being pushed down the same road. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing, something which teachers almost universally deplore, is leading to the sinification of American education. If things continue in the direction they are going, the U.S. will soon have a system that is just as rigid and anti-creative as China. From having taught in both places, I think the U.S. is already well on its way.

    The biggest difference is the response of the students. Whereas the Chinese students tend to buckle down and work hard at what they consider to be a useless task in order to please the teachers and justify the tremendous investments that their parents have made in them, American students become even more bored, alienated, and rebellious in a system that they can see isn't interested in their actual minds.

    More to come. Thanks to all correspondents.

    More »

  • Beijing construction triptych #2: Guomao

    First picture: Google satellite view of the I-10 / I-405 intersection on the west side of Los Angeles. This is where the Santa Monica freeway meets the San Diego freeway, an extremely busy piece of thoroughfare. The only airline flight I've ever missed in my life was because of a jam at this very intersection -- my mother was driving me to LAX for a flight back to college after my first year's Christmas break, and we sat for two hours on one of the connectors shown below. (Part #1 of the Beijing construction triptych here.)

    LAFway.jpg


    Next picture: the Guomao intersection in Beijing, where Jianguo Lu meets the East Third Ring Road. Our apartment building is just off screen on the lower right corner of the picture; subway entrances are on the other three corners but not on ours:

    GuoMao3.jpg

    From my point of view, main difference between these intersections: no sane person would try to cross I-10/I-405 on foot. But many tens of thousands of pedestrians, including me, have to cross the Guomao intersection every day.

    As so often stated, and sincerely, I like most things about being in China and most of the Chinese people I've met. But I hate with a white-hot hatred the experience of being a pedestrian in China at big Indy-speedway type throughways like the Guomao crossing. As I confessed years ago, I have adapted fully to most aspects of the every-man-for-himself spirit of Chinese public life. I can line-cut with the best of them, and hip-check or elbow away anybody trying to line-cut on me. But there is no way I can fight out the equivalent of that behavior when the adversary is mechanized -- when buses roar full-tilt through red lights, knowing that at the last second their size and momentum will give them right of way and the pedestrians must scatter. Or when taxis drive the wrong way, when little vans shoot around at a 90-degree angle to the supposed flow of traffic, when a black Audi A8 (ie Big Shot's car) that once bumped my knee as it rolled through a red light while I was crossing on a green and then kept on pushing, etc.
     
    So for 18 months now I have watched, with a mixture of hope. desperation, and impatience, as construction workers have hammered away on what will someday be a subway entrance on the last corner of the Guomao intersection -- our corner! When it finally opens up, I can go under these dozens of lanes of traffic, rather than fighting my way across them. Think how my overall outlook on Things Chinese will improve!

    But it seems that time is not on my side. A door in the high construction wall that normally shields the construction site was open for a moment yesterday. I saw that the new subway entrance was close to operation -- but not quite close enough for my purposes (with less than a month to go on-scene in Beijing). Oh well.



    One second after I shot this photo, the man in the red hard hat started running toward me while waving his arms and yelling at me to stop because no photos were allowed.



    A grizzled foreigner in a business suit, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a camera in another - a strapping, irritated construction worker in pursuit.... It should have been no contest. But I darted into traffic, and he lost interest.

    More »

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