Will learning from a native speaking Chinese teacher turn American students into subversive commies? Probably not. (But it might get them a job.)
Chinese President Hu Jintao's making his first state visit to the Obama White House at a time when the American economy—and American schools—are feeling left behind by the growing economic superpower. Now a story out of Columbus, Ohio, about the Gahanna-Jefferson School District's Chinese language and culture program spotlights the revival of "Red Scare" fears—all because China's helping pay part of the program's cost.
At a time when many American school districts are busy cutting foreign language offerings, the Chinese government is contributing $30,000 to Gahanna-Jefferson's four-year-old program. It's a fraction of the cost—the U.S. government is ponying up the rest of the $1 million needed to run the initiative, which teaches Mandarin and Chinese culture to 350 students.
In the hopes of easing American-Sino rivalry and fostering cultural understanding, the nonprofit Asia Society has helped the Chinese government set up similar "Confucius Classrooms" at more than 60 schools across the country. But, according to critics, the Chinese government's financial involvement puts American students at risk of being indoctrinated into communism.
Former Hacienda La Puente Unified Schools superintendent John Kramer said his Southern California district turned down being a part of the Confucius Classroom network. "The objection was not to the teaching of a foreign language," says Kramer. "The problem here was the culture portion and the involvement with the Chinese government."
Kramer says concerned community members worried about "communist propaganda" being taught in schools. Gahanna-Jefferson mom Mandy Aldis doesn't understand the communism fears. Aldis moved within the Gahanna-Jefferson school boundaries specifically for the district's Chinese language program. "We feel very lucky that we have this. I say it's just like math, English, art—it's as important as anything else," she says.
Her son, Andrew Aldis, says that taking Chinese expands his cultural understanding of the most populous nation on the planet, and it's expanding his career opportunities. "I'd have potential to get a job doing translating or interpreting, maybe work for the State Department," he says.
Andrew Aldis and his mom are on the right track. In the mid 1990's, I taught English in Guangzhou, China, to elementary students as young as six. It was clear that in China, educating kids so that they were employable on a global scale trumped any concerns over Western teachers indoctrinating students in the ways of democracy. Speaking English and understanding American culture was seen as essential to the future—and that was 15 years ago before "Made in China" became truly ubiquitous.
Apparently, parents in Hacienda La Puente Unified are more concerned about communism than their kids being successful in a future where China's a major player.
Gahanna-Jefferson officials say that the Chinese government doesn't send materials with the teachers providing instruction. In other words, learning from a native Mandarin Chinese teacher about China's 5,000 year-old history doesn't automatically ignite a desire to don a Mao suit. It may, however, make a student more employable. Let's hope that officials in La Puente Hacienda get a clue about the difference.