Jiang Xueqin: The Trouble With Teens

On the Diplomat blog (via Danwei), Jiang Xueqin, curriculum director at Shenzhen Middle School, China’s leading centre for progressive education reform, writes about the psychology of high school students in China and the U.S.:

Consider the life of an American high school student. He may play on a sports team, participate in student council, volunteer, date, and work part-time at McDonald’s. School can be a popularity contest, a jungle, a prison or just a nuisance, depending on your social designation. Teachers and parents, meanwhile, have resigned themselves to their minimal influence over these stubborn and rebellious teenagers, and will just seek to prevent pregnancies and drug abuse. The teenage years are an endless drama: fights with parents over curfew, acne, not making the football team or cheerleading squad, break-ups, depression, anorexia, Waiting for Godot anxiety, the prom.

Now consider the life of a Chinese teenager. He’ll study at his boarding school, and study when he’s locked at home on the weekends. His parents’ apartment and a classroom that looks like a prison cell are the boundaries of his experience and imagination. Chinese parents see their only child as a vessel for their aspirations and retirement plan; teachers see their students as test scores and possible financial rewards. The meaning and purpose of life are clear and simple: study hard, get a high score on the national examination, and become a mid-level bureaucrat.

Parents may not like the American teenager’s rebelliousness, and teachers may not like his lack of focus, but psychologists will explain that for the teenager his most important task is to construct a self-narrative that will become the basis of his identity, and permit him to engage the world as an independent human being. He ceases to yearn for the approval of his parents and teachers, and instead seeks the approval of his peers. He takes unnecessary risks (betting he could eat 10 hamburgers at once) and places himself in constant danger (actually trying to eat 10 hamburgers at once). He has exhilarating triumphs (getting a date with a cheerleader) and abysmal tragedies (the cheerleader cancels). He faces impossible obstacles (his mother) and deadly challenges (calculus class). He will seek allies (he’ll read The Fountainhead) and seek the meaning of life (he’ll re-read The Fountainhead). His memory takes all this epic drama from his teenage years and writes his very own Aeneid (so please excuse him if his memory doesn’t have room to store the periodic table, and only gets a B+ in chemistry).

Yes, in the process of formulating his identity, the teenager may be a selfish jerk, but the same process equips him with ‘empathy’ and the growing self-awareness that he is a selfish jerk.


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