The Harm That Good Teachers Do

by Louie Crew a.k.a. Li Min Hua

First appeared in Palo Alto Review 1.2 (Fall 1992): 50-51.

© 1992 by Palo Alto Review; © 2004 by Louie Crew

It is never enough merely to respect your students as talented individuals and to give them your best teaching methodology. Witness this scene from the earliest days of Hong Kong as a colony. S. R. Brown, an American is reporting to his sponsor, the Morrison Education Society, in December 1843. Morrison had translated the bible into Chinese and the Society named for him was the first missionary school in the new colony. Brown himself had trained in America by teaching the deaf and was particularly sensitive to special learning problems, as you can see in his report.

We often find it necessary to spend more time on interpreting the textbook than in merely reciting the lesson. Not only every new word needs to be defined, but every new form of expression, and every particular idiom or combination of words; and it is not infrequently a half hour's task to unravel and expound a paragraph of moderate length so that the pupil shall clearly perceive, not merely what each part signifies but how all the parts hinge upon one another, and are combined together so as to convey an unbroken train of though. Unless this were done, the study would be of little avail to the scholar. The rate of progress through a book is not therefore the index of the pupil's general advancement, but only of that which he has made in the particular science taught in it, while his literary attainments are to be decided by other criteria.

If the examiners of a school like that of the Morrison Education Society bear these facts in mind, they are likely to come to a correct estimate of the pupils, and of the mode of instruction adopted. The boys of the first class have had as thorough a training after this manner as I could give to them, and by it have pretty well mastered the portion of history mentioned above, with great interest to themselves, and have made in the meantime a steady advance in their knowledge of the English Language. They have also finished the manual of Mental Arithmetic, and reviewed it, and have commenced the study of the Sequel by the same author, which is admirably adapted to lead the scholar forward by easy gradations.......

[He reports details of progress for two more paragraphs and then concludes:]

During the whole of last year, the morals of the school-boys have appeared to me in general unexceptional. No instance of theft or falsehood in the upper two classes has come to my knowledge. I believe, indeed, that it may be said without the least exaggeration, that they are all habitually impressed with a feeling of contempt for the character of a liar. I have heard them, when some instance of falsehood or low cunning has occurred among the natives around them, say with a look of disgust, "That is Chinese."1

What an empathetic teacher Brown seems, marvelously patient and thorough with all the intricacies his students need to master. He does not want his students misjudged by applications of the wrong standards, and defends them for their strong progress, learning not only the subject matter under study but also highly specialized English.

Brown's pupils were kids abandoned by everyone else, since no respectable Chinese family would dare send children to missionaries in those days. The girls school took children sold by their mothers into prostitution. Many of the boys and girls had been taken off the streets where they were beggars. Clearly Brown values them as individuals and gives them his best pedagogy without any hesitation whatsoever; and he has gone half way round the world to do so. Understandably he is pleased with their moral progress in this new environment. Thus nurtured, most of them went on to be the middlemen and wealthiest Chinese citizens in the colony by 1860- 1880.2

Yet that killer last line!

What Brown lacks is respect for their culture, and clearly he has passed that lesson along with devastating consequences.

When I shared this with colleagues at Chinese University earlier this week, heads were bobbing up and down on almost all present, without my ever making that point explicitly. Many still experience their education as alienation rather than wholeness. So do many of our students in the United States, far, far too many.

I shared the material with my friend Gail Coulson, brilliant editor of China Talk, published by the international office of the United Methodist Church. "It's still going on, Louie," she told me; "just this week I met with a dedicated minister who was describing improvements being made to his mission station. `And we brought in some Chinese carpenters to make those bookshelves,' he said. I was not clear what he meant by referring to them as `Chinese carpenters.' There are not any other kind of carpenters for hundreds of miles. Did he mean to suggest that somehow the bookshelves might fall down because Chinese carpenters made them? I shall have to ask him about that...."


1 Quoted in Anthony Sweeting, Education in Hong Kong, Pre-1841 to 1941: Fact & Opinion. Hong Kong University Press, 1990. Page 166-167.

2 Carl T. Smith, Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong. Oxford University Press, 1985.


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