As the ESL specialist at Dartmouth, I organize a weekly discussion meeting for international graduate students. I teach grammar and vocabulary, but my main purpose is to inspire students to read American newspapers and literature and to expose them to American culture, society, and history. My rationale for these meetings is that in order to learn a foreign language, one needs to immerse oneself in the culture.
Occasionally tensions arise between the values and assumptions of one's own culture and the foreign culture. It can be distressing to have one's worldview shaken up, but I think everyone needs an occasional prod to stay intellectually alert.
This spring I had the opportunity to experience such a shake-up for myself.
The majority of the international students I work with are from the People's Republic of China. These have been turbulent times for many of them. Most Chinese students take great pride in the Beijing Olympics, so they were deeply hurt when American media seemed to focus only on the unrest in Tibet and the protests surrounding the torch relay rather than on the celebrations.
I sent my students two New York Times articles - Intellectuals in China Condemn Crackdown and Chinese Nationalism Fuels Tibet Crackdown - about Chinese reactions to the events in Tibet, thinking they would trigger an engaging discussion. Instead, these articles prompted angry reactions from some of my Chinese students, who let me know that they were tired of what they saw as unfair criticism of their government in the American press. They did not want to be subjected to more criticism and discussion in their ESL class.
One student showed internet materials that exposed the alleged anti-China bias in the Western media. Most of the supposed errors and biases seemed to me a matter of careless reporting (for example, illustrating reports about the riots in Tibet with images from Nepal).
Yet, this perceived anti-China bias deeply upset my Chinese students.
In our discussions we talked about factuality and how to decide what is true and what is untrue. Many Chinese students seemed to have come to the conclusion that one can never know the truth. At the end of the discussion one student voiced a sentiment shared by others, saying that he had always known that the state-censored Chinese media are not to be believed, but that he was disappointed to conclude that the presumably "free and objective" western media are equally unreliable and biased.
One Chinese student said that he felt that his opinions were not taken seriously by his American colleagues because they assumed that everything he had learned to be true was propaganda. He said he felt hurt when he realized that people who have never visited China think his views can be dismissed because he is "brainwashed."
This gave me pause. I realized that to a certain degree we are all "brainwashed": we all interpret reality through the bias of our culture, our beliefs, and what we want to be true. But still, some "truths" are more true than others. And if we claim that facts don't matter, we shouldn't be in academia, where we are supposed to be in the business of pursuing and proving "facts."
Another student wrote to me that the concepts of "freedom of press" and "freedom of expression" are totally new to people from China and asked if I could explain them.
The best explanation I could offer was this: We all see the world from our own perspective and biases, but if we are free to challenge our own and other people's assumptions, we may be able to get closer to an objective truth. And isn't this also the idea that lies at the heart of academic discourse?