City University once offered a master of arts (MA)-level course in the principles of Chinese culture. To ensure that students from the mainland participate, the department offered the course twice in two semesters - the first run in Cantonese and the second in Putonghua.
A few students from across the border enrolled in the first session, then demanded that the language of instruction be changed from Cantonese, which they said they did not understand, to Putonghua. Some local students disagreed, and a row erupted. The dean intervened and settled the dispute. What interests me is the educational phenomenon that this incident illustrates.
The protesting students argued that using Cantonese as the medium of instruction discriminated against them. Is this true? Under the circumstances, offering the course in both languages seems quite reasonable.
The students seemed to be concerned with more practical matters. Those wishing to graduate in the summer would need to have completed all of their academic requirements by the end of the second semester. In order to achieve this, they would try to complete as many courses as possible by the end of the first semester. While this would clearly benefit certain students working to a tight schedule, it would not be advantageous to all, and universities are not in the habit of changing their schedules to make life easy for the few, rather than the many.
If the university acted in a discriminatory fashion, we may well ask how far they would be expected to go to behave fairly? Should the school cancel all of its Cantonese classes and convert them to Putonghua? Would that be reasonable to the majority who do not speak Putonghua? (I am, of course, discussing this as a matter of principle, and not commenting on the relative worth of any language.)
Shortly after this incident, a university friend from Guangzhou said: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," in relation to the affair. A cliché? Yes. But it makes sense.
I'm sure those protesting students understood the lesson in this maxim, so the question is: Why didn't they heed it?
My friend believes their response stems from a superiority complex; a sense of arrogance. That arrogance, that belief in one's right to special privileges, she says, is nurtured by a social atmosphere prevalent in China today. People are becoming egotistical, self-centred and have no regard for the concerns and feelings of others.
One of the students in question was interviewed at the time and said that he felt that he was entitled to greater privileges at the university because as a mainlander, he paid a higher fee than his local classmates. Had he enrolled at a university in the United States, for example, and expressed a similar sentiment, I suspect that he would have had a rude awakening. The Chinese equivalent of the Roman maxim actually goes one step further. It says that, when you enter a village, you should follow the customs and abide by the social mores of the villagers. When you enter a place, you should be aware of the sensitivities particular to that place.
This has been a part of social instruction for a very long time. It has not changed despite myriad social upheavals and revolutions - yet our youth appear ignorant of it.
It seems that our education system is failing our youngsters on a fairly rudimentary level: we have failed to train them in a basic tenet of social living.
Perhaps, as parents and teachers, we should be placing a greater focus on teaching the younger generation how to behave in a civil manner - and that a little humility has a lot of value. Ronald Teng is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education