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Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice, and the (Chinese) Way Hardcover – April 1, 2011
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This is a short memoir of a university philosophy professor's experience teaching for two years (in the Peace Corps) at Sichuan Normal University in China. The storyline that holds the book together is his account of regular off-campus meetings where he invites all Chinese students to come engage in discussions of various philosophical questions, in part, to expose students to the strategy of questioning and in part to himself learn the current attitudes and beliefs of China's next generation.
In truth, this book is about 30-40 percent about Western philosophy insofar as Vernezze prefaces many chapters by setting the proposed question in a Western context or comparing the students viewpoints with various Western philosophers across the last 2400 years. This is not bad since most Western readers are deficient in our Western philosophical heritage.
Vernezze is well-versed in Western philosophy but is no scholar in Chinese history. His reading of the basic Chinese classics by Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and a few other works allows only the most superficial of comparisons. His strength is definitely on communication to the Western reader, not depth in Chinese philosophy or current worldview. Perhaps the best take-away lesson from this book is some sense of how tied to rote memorization the Chinese educational system has been since the Song Dynasty. It has won them first place in the international PISA exam, but no Nobel Prizes. His fight to get Chinese students to question is perhaps one of the best accessible published examples of China's current educational dilemma.Read more ›
Peter Vernezze is another Peace Corps volunteer who, in the Peter Hessler tradition, chronicles his experience teaching college students in Sichuan. (The other great book on China by a former Peace Corps volunteer is Michael Meyers' superb The Last Days of Old Beijing.) Vernezze, who had taught philosophy in the US for 15 years, was an English teacher at Sichuan Normal University, and for two years he held a weekly discussion group on philosophy that grew increasingly popular.
Being neither a "China expert" nor a philosophy expert (one semester in college), I found this book offered both a valuable primer on the influence of Confucius and the Tao, which is going strong to this day, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the mindset on contemporary young Chinese people.
The author starts by describing the typical university classroom: rows of desks bolted to the floor, all facing the front-center of the room from which the professor will lecture them. The room is designed to discourage peer-to-peer discourse, and as Vernezze later explains, peer-to-peer discourse is something the Chinese student absolutely does not desire. They see themselves, he writes, as vessels into which the professor is expected to deliver his knowledge. They aren't interested in what their fellow students have to say. Anything of value will come from the teacher.
So it makes perfect sense that he holds his philosophy discussion group in local coffee shops where students can sit facing one another. There, he challenges them with questions such as What is Truth? What is Sanity? Is life a matter of fate or free will? How Vernezze draws his students out, and the stumbling blocks that challenge him, makes for excellent reading.Read more ›
In addition to finding out what these young Chinese think about deep questions like the nature of the good life, the reality of fate or the purpose of romantic love we learn as well their views on a variety of contemporary events from the bombing of the World Trade Center to the riots of Tibet, which occurred while the author was present and were the subject of one of his sessions. We also learn a good deal about the landscape of contemporary Chinese culture, from the re-emergence of Confucius to the Edison Chen scandal to the prevalence of Christmas celebrations in China. We even discover there is a Chinese version of American Idol. I think the thing that really sets this book apart from a standard travelogue where the author provides his or her impressions of some foreign land is that in this case we get our ideas about China from the words of Chinese students themselves. In addition, the author does an especially good job of connecting the dots between these students views and classical Chinese thought, for example, linking their views on political truth to the metaphysics of Taoism and Confucianism. The volume is both a fascinating portrait of China today and a glimpse of where it is headed.