Let the children learn Chinese

The Times’ April 4 article on Beijing’s funding of a Los Angeles-area school district’s Chinese language and culture program was disturbing -- not because of the program itself, but because of the knee-jerk xenophobia of its most vocal opponents. As The Times reported, some believe the Chinese government is just as interested in brainwashing students as it is in teaching students its languages and culture.

Though Chinese is becoming an increasingly popular subject in American schools, it is still nowhere as omnipresent as English is in Chinese schools. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that five times as many American schools offer Chinese language courses now as they did only a decade ago. Confucius Classroom, the K-12 program the Chinese government launched last year, now exists in more than 200 schools nationwide.

In the L.A. Times’ article, a former superintendent of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, which adopted the program at one of its campuses, said Confucius Classroom was “a propaganda machine from the People’s Republic of China that has no place anywhere in the United States.” A Hacienda Heights resident who once hosted a children’s show and opposes the teaching of Chinese said that “doctrine will be part of the curriculum.”

Nonsense. The program is overseen by both the school principal and a teacher from that school. More than a third of the community’s residents are Asian, making the teaching of Chinese there quite logical.

I agree with the former superintendent that children “need to be taught Americanism” (though he needs to be more careful with his word choice). American students do need to be taught that America is great because it accommodates a wide range of viewpoints. The philosophy of the founding fathers was elastic enough to recognize a diversity of viewpoints and the inevitability of change. Children are not being brainwashed by learning to speak Chinese and understand a different culture any more than they are brainwashed when they learn math or science.

China is sometimes accused in the West of shutting itself off from the world. But the fact is, many more Chinese students are going to schools in America than vice versa. English is also taught in schools throughout China. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that among the three largest suppliers of graduate students to American colleges (China, India and South Korea), only China, which saw an increase of 19% this year, is continuing to significantly increase its numbers.

The Chinese apparently aren’t afraid to learn English and send their students abroad to be “Americanized.” So why are some Americans so afraid when their youngsters are exposed to Chinese language and culture, particularly at a time when it is important for Americans to learn about the world’s next superpower?

America simply cannot prolong its insular attitude, insisting that the rest of the world learn English while Americans remain monolingual. Perhaps the wisest attitude was expressed by Ricardo, the sixth-grader in The Times’ article who is learning Chinese. Ricardo, who already speaks English and Spanish, said he knows he could get a better job speaking a third language. He said that if he has kids one day he will teach them Chinese too.

Patrick Mattimore, a fellow at the Center for Analytics Journalism, is a former high school teacher living in Beijing.