Schwarzman Scholars....My Unwanted Take
So the big bad, long awaited Schwarzman Scholar list has come out. Great!
I spoke of this sometime ago at length. And I want to talk about it some more, but I can’t promise I won’t say very much.
I assume if you read this blog you know more than a thing or two about the Heavenly Kingdom, beyond the whole “girl thing”(well, ok, that’s my hope anyway). It would be great to read the post I put up some time ago on this topic. Basically, a rich guy wants to do a cool thing and have more learning and 交流 which I think is fantastic.
Afterall, he has the money, and wants to leave a legacy. So he should be applauded, because knowing more about China is not only good sense but imperative. China will not be going away, and unfortunately, in my view, we are woefully lacking an organized policy at the national level for developing “talent”. So a rich guy has to come in and fill the vacuum. Big kudos to Rich Guy. We need more like him.
Now…..I’ve done the work for you and browsed through the list. Everyone is smart, and nearly everyone is from the Ivy League, with the exception of lots of folks from the military academies, and a nice smattering of folks from other countries. Which is also good to see.
It seems while being interested in China is vital, this program also looks for folks who have plans on how to “use” their newfound experience in China for the betterment of future generations. And also seems to stress extracurricular activities. You know, saving the world, that type of thing. Alas, not the “Big Brother, Big Sister” type of activity I was involved in during university but something a bit fancier, like “overseas” outreach in a poor village in Central America….that sort of thing.
In short they want their students to think “big”.
(Being a mentor to a little boy or girl with no father or mother isn’t “big” enough!)
With that in mind, there is NO WAY I would’ve ever made the cut on this list.
So now the list is complete and these kids will soon be going to China to further burnish their credentials. In short, what Schwarzman seems to be creating is a “China Class” of social elites that will solve the West’s future problems with China, which will not only be numerable but frankly, insolvable as well, for the next generation at least.
So what do I think of this whole new adventure?
I think you have a bunch of supremely confident and academically accomplished kids coming to China that will spend a year “on the ground” learning “something” about China “first hand”, and almost certainly nothing else.
Oh don’t get me wrong, they will network….with each other. There will be plenty of academic exchange. Maybe even Mr. Xi drops in for a visit. Perhaps even lunch with the American Ambassador. And they will benefit. I’m just not sure how things between China and the United States, or Europe will benefit as a result.
I need to state here I am jealous of these kids. My time was perhaps a generation too soon. When nobody had a cell phone, or a car, and everybody rode a bicycle and all us poor laowai had to buy coffee from a Friendship Store, and Time magazine from a 5 star hotel. There was no such program as the CriticalLanguage Scholar program. There was no government initiative to learn more about China. In short, you were on your own buddy.
For me to get to China I had to take out a student loan. When I announced my intention to learn Chinese in 1990, people thought I was nuts. It took a lot of initiative on my part to see it through. I even gave up acceptance into the Peace Corps to “experience” China. I was a serious, focused dude . Even the thought of foregoing sex for a year did not discourage me.
The opportunities these kids have today, if they are lucky, is in short, far more plentiful than anything we ever had in the late 80’s and very early 90’s. And that is why I doubt these kids will learn fuck anything about China while they are there.
To paraphrase Coppola when he described the difficulties of making Apocalypse Now….”we had too much money”.
In a way, these kids have “too much opportunity”.
First of all, they don’t realize yet that the Chinese counterparts they will be “studying” with will be there not just to meet foreigners but to “selfishly” network(!!) for themselves. I am curious to know and understand the selection process for the Chinese students, which will only make up 20% of the class.
Which begs the question: if only 20% of the student body is local, why have the program in China?
Still, it is safe to say none of these kids are the iconoclastic type. I also seriously doubt the Westerners coming into Beijing will be meeting any Chinese classmates that grew up in the countryside. As such, right away, these scholars will only receive a viewpoint that is represented from China’s Urban Chattering Classes.
(Before I continue I need to assert that what is taking place is a damn good thing. It is a fantastic start. And well…..I’m just being Me.)
Which brings us to Beijing: for all the “right” reasons, symbolic in nature, why not Beijing? It is the capital of China, but I question if it is the right place to “learn” about China…..?
Indeed, going to Beijing to “learn” about the PRC is the intellectually lazy thing to do. Rich Guy has money right? Why not have the studies take place in separate areas of the country far not just from other laowai, but in areas where they will have to use Chinese to communicate?
The goal of these Scholars should be to learn about how China “thinks”, but through no fault of their own, they are already hemmed in. Due to who they are, they will truly “miss out” on China. In effect, they will live in China without truly visiting the place. Their richness of opportunity nil. The program is only for one year.
The unintentional negative side of Chinese culture will dominate and overwhelm them from Day One; everyone will be telling them how great and special they are. And then human nature will take over: because they are “elite”(Ivy League, right?), they will believe it. Make no mistake. These kids already know how “special” they are. It won’t take much prodding to further enforce the image they probably already have of their sense of superiority. And flattery is what Chinese culture specializes in. And as us older folks all know, once you start believing it, you stop learning.
So how will these Scholars be able to learn when they believe they are special? As such, the Very First thing these kids will need to do is come down from the Cloud. I have to say I am not very optimistic at their ability to do this. There will be banquets, and speeches, and unfettered politeness. In short, the velvet glove will almost certainly keep the “Future of the West” from learning and seeing, and experiencing all the grime that comes with learning new things.
Earlier I said that people of my ilk that truly Love China are jealous as all hell at the opportunities this new generation has at its disposal. But in a sense, I feel for this generation as well. It has in many ways missed the boat. It will almost certainly not have the opportunities I’ve experienced, from a China that is harder to find than ever before. A China that is leaving us by the day.
Will they meet true “survivors” of the Cultural Revolution? One such survivor, a Chinese professor, once said to me,
“I see my persecutors everyday on Campus. We say hello when we pass. But that’s really about it”.
A Chinese Army Korean War veteran once looked me in the eye and with more than a hint of glee recounted,
“American soldiers are cowards. They ran everytime we attacked.” Then he giggled.
When getting my bicycle repaired on the street corner one day I once had a repairman tell me about all the Bing Crosby movies he used to watch. The funny thing was when he mentioned Bing he would utter not only the name in English but the movie titles, too.
These encounters are priceless.
Another told me about how his parents had to eat bark to survive during the Great Famine. Everyone at the table nodded during the dinner conversation. (I wonder if those lucky Chinese scholars’ parents or grandparents had to eat bark?)
Instead these scholars will meet famous economists, capitalists and journalists, all of which presumably will travel a great distance for a hefty fee to dazzle and hypnotize. From outside China. Could I proffer the possibility better, more impactful lessons can be gained perhaps only a mile outside the campus gates? (it's here I will digress, and in the name of Pride say with a straight face I will take the educational quality of my State University and compare straight up with Qinghua any day....and probably win)
Here I simply have to sigh…..how can anyone learn anything about China if only 20% of the class is Chinese?? Everyone knows at the end of the day, Chinese will simply form their own clique, along with all the other ethnic groups. What’s the point of even having this held in China? Will the kids even leave their campus?
To learn about China is to get out of the Cocoon. Beijing, with all its glitter and shine is akin to the Prince becoming King without ever leaving the Castle. It is not just about meeting like minded scholars who have their own agenda in mind. These scholars will need to decide early on what their goal is: “learn” China or meet as many officials that will help their future careers as they can?
We already know how this one year is going to wind down:
“We’ve decided we can indeed co-exist together”.
But is it even the goal of these scholars to learn about China? Or is it simply a bridge too far? Or is meeting “decision makers” within the World of Influence enough?
So how best to learn about the Heavenly Kingdom?
Dare I offer an extracurricular activity?
If one has a year to spare, why not take the train? The best way for these Scholars to “learn” about China is to do just that. Forego the airplane. Forego speed and efficiency. 吃苦吧. I’ve sometimes said the rise of the bullet trains in China has taken away the intimacy of opportunity. The truly best way to learn and understand the young Chinese counterparts these Scholars will soon enough be interacting with is to gain a firm grasp of why they hold the opinions they have.
The best venue for understanding the ordinary Chinese in my selfish view is by going to the train station, buying a hard sleeper ticket, and alone travel from Beijing to Chongqing and back. Too hard core? My views may be a wee out of date you think? Or is this method just “too twentieth century”?
Or am I yet another one of those stereotypical “geezers” from the “ Old China Generation” belittling those of the New as too soft”?
My thoughts are that when traveling on a train, long distance there is nowhere to go. No escape. Surrounded by the locals, one can only break the monotony by “hanging out” with your fellow travelers. Trust me on this one....you will have ample time to not only hear an alternative view to everything you hold dear, but equal opportunity to espouse your own to an audience very unaccustomed to hearing anything alternative from a laowai in their native tongue.
Taking the train is the best classroom one can have in China.
While Beijing is great for opportunity of academic exchange and networking, and while there is no doubt these budding China Scholars will without question all be successful and rich, I just do not believe any of them will truly learn anything about China unless they marry a Chinese, live in the clubs, or stay a hell of a lot longer in China than one year.
I had a hard, hard decision to make in Spring, 1991. The Peace Corp came calling. My one year sabbatical was up. They had a spot for me in Africa. My spending a year in China with no Western creature comforts was mentally taxing. I was a 6 footer that probably weighed 145 pounds. In short the environment for me in 1990-91 was a hundred times more conducive to learning all things China than it is today. There were no distractions, no internet, and China certainly could not be confused with neither Sodom nor Gomorrah. There was nothing to do but speak Chinese and learn about China……and a year still wasn’t enough!
So what will these “Scholars” do with just one year, surrounded by English and Starbucks and people telling them how great they are, that will truly increase their knowledge of a People hell bent on just not challenging the World Order According to the West, but changing it?
Or am I missing the point? The point isn’t to “know” or “understand China”, Fontenot. Because, if we really “knew” China, and spoke to the Chinese leaders based off our knowledge of what the Chinese People think and feel, we really wouldn’t get anywhere.
So sorry but this is my prediction: these Scholars will go the way of Kissinger. Met a lot of people, made a lot of money, and over time just faded away. An argument can be made that all the good he did in the end simply came to naught. All those important people he met and knew……and what of it? In the end, what of it?