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Why criticism is now a problem for teachers
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The Ministry of Education is creating a lot of attention, and confusion, these days.

On August 12, the ministry made known its intention to slightly modify 44 commonly used Chinese characters. Not surprisingly, the move has drawn an avalanche of protests.

That same day, the ministry also issued a circular reminding ban zhuren (teacher in charge of a class) in elementary and middle schools of their rights to "criticize, in a proper manner, their students in routine education administration."

The circular does little in enlisting my respect for that ministry.

Since when have teachers forfeited their rights to criticize students entrusted to them?

Does the circular suggest that non-ban zhuren teachers can no longer exercise their right to criticize their students?

And note that there is a Catch-22 in that "proper manner." That qualification suffices to exculpate the ministry should any adverse consequence proceed from the circular.

According to a report in yesterday's Wenhui Daily, form masters are finding it increasingly difficult to give a dressing-down in a "proper manner."

A reprimand couched in too mild terms would be taken lightly, while a severe scolding might land the teacher in trouble.

Song Yuqin is a teacher in Baoshan District, Shanghai, with 10 years of experience as a form master.

"Some students feel frustrated after being criticized, and this may lead to a runaway from home or even worse tragedies. Some would suffer a devastating blow to their self-esteem, becoming thereafter very reluctant to hold communications with teachers or classmates," she said.

I gather from these remarks that the new generation of students have become constitutionally unable to tolerate any unfavorable verbal comments from their teachers.

How come this unusual delicacy and sensibility?

My explanation is that this new race of students have become ill-adapted to critiques because they have grown up without them.

Which means that some teachers fear they cannot hope to administer a dressing down with parental consent.

You will not be so surprised if you know how today's parents tend to interpret their children's disruptive behavior as promise of future genius.


Their only fear is that they have not been able to do more for the comfort of their children.

Apparently they have the backing of the latest studies from behavioral science that tend to blame misbehavior on others.

Well-informed parents can also roll on their tongue such concepts as human rights, freedom and democracy due to any individual.

Given these considerations, standard practice for parents is to shower their (only) kid with eulogies on every possible occasion, and to do everything to spoil them.

Samuel Johnson observed: "There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly - but then less is learnt there; so that what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other."

But the amusing thing is that we are not talking of teachers caning, flogging or spanking their students - corporal punishment has long been outlawed.

We are talking about teachers telling off their students, and that is becoming a problem now, in China.

Recently, I have come across a lot of parents who have registered their children on swim-learning programs.

When asked why they do not teach their children themselves, they say that notwithstanding their competence, they are ineffectual with their children because their children do not fear them.

As a matter of fact many parents today fear that they have not done enough to spoil their children.

Xinmin Evening News reported on Monday that when freshmen came to register with Zhejiang University, dozens of accompanying parents also brought with them air-conditioners so that they could be installed in the dormitories.

Little do the parents realize that happiness is always relative to a state considered less happy.

It set me to think of a photo published on Shanghai Daily (August 17) of visitors taking a 60-meter free fall at the newly-opened Happy Valley.

To extract the anticipated pleasure they have to experience feelings of intense fear and anxiety.

The same can be said of other sports that deliberately test the limits of physical endurance.

Similarly, we cannot conceive that the arduous task of learning, whether intellectually or morally, can be effected in a painless manner.

Aristotle said in his "Ethics" that "Moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains," and is a result of habit.

And a teacher's first mission is to see to his or her charge's moral upbringing. That mission cannot be completed without discipline.


Teachers' reluctance to criticize also reflects a more fundamental change in attitude, in an age when schools have become a commercialized establishment bent on profit-maximization.

Here a student degenerates into a customer buying a service at a price, and we do not usually expect a service provider to be critical of its clients.

And there are good reasons why the clients are unsatisfied with the services.

My real concern is that an increasing perception of students as the source of revenue will go further in vitiating the trust in teachers.

When a teacher thinks it unadvisable to give a lecture to his/her students, any number of inducements or circulars will do little in making them reassume a critical stance. As a teacher announced after the circular was published: "Sorry, but I still dare not criticize."

They have plenty of coping strategies, anyway.

It reminds me of some middle schools in Shanghai that order students to remain indoors between classes so that the students might not play in the campus, for fear of being sued by parents in the case of injuries.

(Shanghai Daily August 26, 2009)

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