Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Positive or negative? It depends

My students are fascinated -- and baffled -- by stories of American university life. They're a small group of Koreans, their English isn't perfect, but they have opinions that make me appreciate their cultural wisdom and question my philosophy of education.

A recent assignment had my ESL Writing class read a simple cause-and-effect essay titled "Why College Students Are Poor." In it, the author describes college students as shabbily dressed individuals who work part-time jobs or make sacrifices in order to get a degree, hoping that their efforts will pay off in the long run. One of the questions was: Does the author have a positive or negative view of college students?

"Negative," one of the students responded. "He says that college students wear old pants or jeans and T-shirts."

"Really, you think so?" I pointed at another student: "How about you?"

"I think negative, too. The introduction describes them as poor. They eat pizza and drive used cars."

Our discussion quickly got sidetracked as I told them a popular fashion choice in college: the baseball cap, put on when rolling out of bed ten minutes before class. The kids were amused and said that Korean college students dress fashionably and wear lots of makeup. 

We returned to the essay. "What about the conclusion?" I asked. "What does the author say is the students' motivation? Do you still think he has a negative view?"

"He says they hope the education will pay off, so that means he's not so sure," the class contrarian said. "That doesn't sound very positive."

Little by little, they started to convince me. Not that the author has a negative view of college students, but that a lot of things Americans do seems a little wrong.

"Why do they have part-time jobs anyway?" a student asked. "Why don't they spend their time studying?"

"Because they have to pay for school," I said. They were shocked to learn that more than half of American students take out loans to pay for school, which they then pay off in subsequent decades.

"It makes sense that, if you are independent and have a good job, you should pay for everything," the contrarian said. "But we believe that education is the responsibility of the parents."

We believe. He wasn't speaking for his classmates. He was speaking for his entire country. His culture.

It must be nice to have cultural norms. Expectations. Beliefs that even middle school students understand about life. In the U.S., there are some abstractions -- we believe that all men are created equal and something about pursuing happiness -- but what about the responsibilities of every mother and father? what about the responsibilities of the government to its people, or basic rights like education? What are the priorities of the country?

Koreans perhaps are unhealthily obsessed with education. After-school academies until late night. Standardized test preparation. Insistence on brand-name colleges. All of it is expensive, and all of it is shouldered by the families. Is it sustainable? Maybe not, but neither is the trillion-dollar debt in the U.S. 

Ultimately, I was unable to convince the students that the author has a positive view of college students. How could I? I certainly couldn't convince them that graduating with an average debt of $30,000 is somehow a good way to start adult life.

The problem for me now is that I had previously insisted to this same group of students that there are definitely right and wrong answers in English class. But how can I say that something is right when that answer is so wrong in so many ways?

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