Transitioning from Shantou’s bubble to Whitman’s

Rensi Ke

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Credit: Johnson

Credit: Johnson

Waking up from an eight-hour siesta, glancing at the clock in the dark and  recalling with remorse  how many assignment deadlines I had missed because of    this extended nap: the result of working overnight on a midterm paper: I suddenly got  a sense of Whitman’s bubble.

My personal Whitman bubble is currently filled with Bronislaw Malinowski’s psychological  functionalism, Sandra Gilbert’s ekphrastic poetry and my slow process of adjusting to that bubble. That’s right:  my goal is to immerse myself in the bubble that many Whitman students try to break through.

While the content within  individual bubbles varies,  our communal Whitman bubble  remains the product of what Whitman proudly claims: its traditional liberal arts education.

On its Web site, Whitman defines liberal arts education as a combination of “a passion for the life of the mind” and a bunch of skills to maintain that passion. I translate this five-line definition into a  pressing  need to enlarge my English vocabulary and  a desperate  eagerness for critical thinking skills, both of which my liberal arts  education in China failed to offer.

Some Whitman  readers might feel confused about why I think Chinese liberal arts education needs to teach students more English and  some friends at home might feel equally confused  because English is already a  required course in Chinese schools from fifth grade to college.

In answer to my American readers: if conducted properly, English education is probably the only  thing that Chinese liberal arts education can use  to develop students’ critical thinking, because traditional Chinese education  simply wants everyone to  diminish his or her own ideas and to obey authorities.

In answer to  my  Chinese readers: sorry, we don’t conduct English education properly: there’s too much emphasis  on grammar and  written English. And those standardized English tests don’t ask for personal opinions either: our college entrance examination’s writing section  even provides an essay outline for test-takers to follow.

It was not until I became an English major at Shantou University that I finally had opportunities for expressing myself. I submitted creative writing to the college’s English Writing Competition, made speeches in the university’s English Speech  Contest, worked as a reporter and then  an editor for the English newspaper The Shantou Beat and did  many presentations and projects for classes.

However,  I was still feeling  restricted in a suffocating bubble, since many Chinese professors still expect students to cater to their  ideas  and styles. How did I sense those expectations? By looking at the grades on  my papers and the looks on their faces.

After I  took a  few courses given by  expatriate professors at my university, I  had a chance  to compare Chinese and Western pedagogy. It’s  frustrating to notice that  our pedagogies  are not only teacher-centered, but also what-centered.  Chinese professors  like asking  questions about what rather than why and how, probably because it’s easier to check facts than to evaluate arguments.  The likely result is that we acquire nothing but a great memory.

But the good news is that my university  has its Bulletin Board System: While  most Shantou students are still  tentative in class discussions,  they produce perceptive and humorous insights in  this nearly authority-free Internet forum.

Transitioning from my university’s  bubble to Whitman’s bubble, I’m aware that Whitman has the same problem as Shantou  in its relative isolation, which somewhat limits the praxis of a  liberal arts education. But I’m blessed that  Whitman’s liberal arts education  has helped me mature in ways my Chinese universities could not.

The only price I’m paying for my Whitman experience is probably sleep. Unprecedented workloads of reading and writing have been keeping me up at night from time to time. But compared with the intellectual growth I’m obtaining,  it’s not that bad a deal.

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