During a Chinese middle school’s first week back for the new year, an unexpected assignment has sparked some controversy among faculty and other educators. On the third day back to school, one Chinese school in central Anhui province had its 3,000-plus students study a speech given by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The students at Hefei Shouchun Middle School were all given translated copies of President Obama’s 2009 "back to school" speech, given to students at the Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. In the speech, Obama hones in on the importance of pursuing education, and having a responsibility to one's self to learn. This was a message that the school’s deputy principal Sun Yeqing thought was an important lesson for the students. As a result, Sun made the initial proposal for all students to read and study the text. “His speech was concrete, vivid and lacked empty words, which is very easy for students to digest,” Sun told official news website AnhuiNews.com of the lesson.
According to the report, the entire student population was given 10 to 20 minutes to read through the text during the school-wide morning study session. Obama’s original speech, which can be read in its entirety here, also stressed the importance of furthering personal education to help master individual talents and eventually contribute back to one’s own country. This message itself is something that goes in line with a Chinese nationalistic message, and wasn’t really the focus of the controversy.
According to the South China Morning Post, what raised eyebrows among other academics was the fact they believed the values of American democracy, contradicting Chinese socialist traditions, shouldn’t be taught in classrooms. Others were baffled by the decision to use Obama’s speech over the plethora of Chinese texts which also portray a similar nationalistic, education-driven message. “While having students read over Obama’s speech, it’s better to also introduce Chinese Analects readings, because those also inspire students on the purpose of education,” Wang Tiangen, an Anhui University professor, said to local media.
The middle school’s principal or deputy principal were unavailable for comment at the time of the report, but an unnamed administrative worker at the school did say that staff were trying to take a “low profile” approach to the controversy. When asked if this would be the last time an assignment of the nature would ever be done again, the worker responded that “it is still unclear whether the school would push for a similar assignment in the future.”