I had a view changing experience recently. I have a dear young man from China in one of my classes. His language skills are excellent, but it’s clear he carries the humbleness of his culture heavy on his shoulders. I gave my class an assignment where they were required to identify their individual strengths and weaknesses as listeners. All of the students did this, except for him. Instead, he wrote an eloquent piece about the importance of good listening without ever referring to himself.
At first I was poised to get out my red pen and begin slashing, but then it struck me: he did the best he could within his own experiential and cultural framework. The Asian view is one of suppressing the ego, being respectful and behaving passively versus our western view where “I” is at the center of everything. Instead of grading his paper as I did the others, I decided to grade it where he was – in his heart, mind and culture. Did I do the right thing?
The right thing – for years I have taught students from other cultures – many of them Asian. Yes, of course there were differences in writing and ideas – I mostly got hung up on the poor grammar – but until these last few days I never faced the question – by whose rules? Given his good writing skills, the issue became culture and whose should win – mine or his? Let me be so bold as to pose this response: neither.
Human beings embrace their cultures and often stay cocooned within them. A booming global economy insists that we emerge from the cocoons, interact and at least try to understand each other’s cultures. Thus is the mandate of this global economy. In reality we pretend.
Back to my student. Again I pose the question: by whose rules? Theoretically I should hold all students to the same standard, and in terms of writing quality, he was competent. It was this indirect answer of his that unleashed the Pandora of just how do determine and administer standards. If indeed standards remain rigid, then what kind of educational system is it that would penalize students who follow the norms of their ethnicity while enriching our country with the vibrancy of their culture.