A Telling Vignette from a Chinese High School Classroom

Deal W. Hudson
Published September 30, 2014

Last night I returned from a trip to China where I visited eight of its elite high schools and talked with the students about college education in the United States.  In one class I raised the question of how it was possible that a Chinese students could be educated in the United States or an US student educated in China. I suggested the answer was “our common human nature,” adding that for all human persons, “the true, the good, and the beautiful are the same.”  That remark, following its translation, produced a few frowns and polite chuckles, so I pressed on.

Among those who chuckled was a young man named Ricky (his English name).  I told him that I noticed his chuckle and wanted to ask him another question, to which he nodded, very shyly.  “Can you name a truth that is true for all human beings around the world?” He paused, during which I noticed his friends whispering to him. I guessed what they were saying and suggested he think about mathematics.  When he added,” “One plus one is equal to two,” I applauded him as did the rest the class.

Then I turned to another student who had chuckled, a young woman named Amy. “Can you name a principle of morality that is true for all people around the world?” I asked. She barely hesitated and said in perfect English, “All people should make a contribution their country.” Again, I applauded the answer saying, “Yes, all citizens should contribute to their nation.” A Greek philosopher named Plato taught this 2,500 years ago in his book called The Republic.

The reference to Plato puzzled them because they had never heard of him. In fact, in spite of their excellent English skills none of the students or teachers I met had any familiarity with the Western philosophical tradition — not even names such as Socrates, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, etc.  But, in spite of all that, once we had communicated successfully about what I meant by a universal truth we found we were in agreement — our shared human nature made certain conceptual truths true for everyone.

Yes, this student from China, brought up in a collectivized culture, had immediately thought of a principle binding the individual to the demands of the state, but that is to be expected.  Had we the time, I might have talked with all of them for hours about what other moral principles were universal, but the basic point had been made — we had all recognized the existence of universal truth.

I can imagine another time in my life that I might have challenged Amy to think instead about the principle of human rights that limits the power of the state, but that was of secondary importance at that time and place. What was important was to establish a human point of content between me, a gray-headed American philosopher and these handsome, bright-eyed students who represent who represent the future of China.

It’s much easier it is to build on a conversation, start a dialogue, that does not have to wrangle with the post-modern assumption that all truths are culturally, politically, and sexually relative. No doubt that conversation would happen upon hidden pockets of post-modern confusion, but I can always point back to the initial agreement there is a body of universal truth, grounded in our human nature. Unless Amy, for example, wants to take back her claim that individuals should contribute to the state then she will have to face the possibility that other, less familiar, moral truths exist as well.

By the way, Amy’s confident utterance of our natural obligation to the nation is a principle that Americans need to hear more often. Yes, my experience in China was a learning experience for me as well, but that is another story.


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