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UPDATED: June 8, 2015 NO. 24 JUNE 11, 2015
Did a Teacher's Symbolic Exercise Overstep The Mark?


Recently, Zhang Nengli, an associate professor with Wuhan University of Technology, requested that his students purposefully "insult" him by stepping over him when he was lying on the ground. At his behest, dozens of students did so. This professor explained that he did so to encourage students to challenge authority, the privileged in society and specious "truths."

Chinese tradition holds that a teacher's authority and dignity should never be challenged. Thus, this incident garnered much attention and caused much debate. Some have supported this professor's novel approach, holding that many Chinese lack the ability to innovate and are too servile owing to the prevalence of outdated ideas in the education system. They reason that as it is important that students be encouraged to explore new possibilities and to broaden their horizons intellectually, the symbolic act represents a good first step toward breaking free from the chains that bind them.

However, others argue that this was nothing more but a shallow stunt and such activities risk fostering disrespect for seniors and authority in general.

An innovative step

He Dao (China Youth Daily): The associate professor has bewildered the public as his behavior directly contradicted the dictate that teachers should behave respectably and students should show respect to teachers.

The course Zhang gives is about problem solving. Whether or not a new way of thinking can solve a problem is dependent on the degree to which it is able to break through the traditional restrictions placed on thinking. Zhang stressed that this practice was not about morality, but about "challenging authority with scientific truth." In this sense, his behavior is innovative, and will probably inspire his students to adopt unconventional thinking in solving problems.

In addition, Zhang's behavior does not impinge upon his dignity as a teacher. While an emphasis on rituals may serve to bolster teachers' standing, to what degree students can really respect their teachers when they uniformly wear a mask of solemnity and coldness is highly debatable.

Students brought up with the cramming method tend to lack the ability to think innovatively. One reason for this is that they are too obedient to their teachers and are simply afraid of giving voice to their doubts or asking questions. The professor is helping to liberate his students from restricted modes of thought by first putting aside his dignity as a teacher, in effect, providing a kind of portal through which students may embrace new thinking.

Qian Guilin (Wuhan Evening News): For thousands of years, it has been unacceptable in Chinese culture for one to allow others to step over him or her, or to have someone crawl between one's legs. Such actions are seen as damaging to one's personal dignity. By undertaking this exercise, the associate professor presumably meant to encourage his students to defy authority figures and started with himself, forcing his students to take that difficult yet necessary first step. His devotion to his cause is moving.

Chinese students have long been thought to lack the courage to confront authority figures. Sometimes, they will know for sure that their teachers are wrong on certain points, but they nonetheless remain silent. Teachers are also understandably leery as regards cultivating students who will challenge them at whim.

Questioning those above you is a tendency very much needed in modern times. However, this is the exact area in which Chinese education falls down. It's important for teachers to first change their own concept of education, replacing their outdated ideas with modern ones, so that they may help their students to develop into courageous modern citizens who do not balk at challenging authority.

Mo Shenghan (www.xatvs.com): Many people believe what Zhang did exceeded the boundaries of conventional teaching practice. What then would an acceptable model for teaching look like? Should all students merely sit quietly in classrooms, holding themselves meekly subject to their overly verbose teachers? It is possible that many teachers have already internalized this convenient model, and are thus highly uncomfortable with changes of the like proposed by Zhang.

Calls for teachers to innovate their teaching methods so as to promote a higher quality of education have recently abounded, but every time someone makes a genuine attempt to try out a new method, they are shot down or labeled as eccentric cranks. Innovation in education cannot be realized through the efforts of a handful of teachers, but requires support from the whole of society. We need to take the right attitude toward this professor's exercise. This method is not nearly so terrible as some have maintained, and activities of this nature will to some extent encourage schools to break with out-of-date models of education and try new things in their stead.

An ineffective method

Li Dingqiao (www.cnhubei.com): Zhang is said to have prepared for this scenario for two months and it is quite possible that he may have himself experienced doubts during the preparations. His intention was to encourage his students to challenge authority and the privileged, but what will the students really glean from the experience of stepping over their professor--a respected teacher?

A well-known story dating back some 2,000 years describes how a young man named Han Xin swallowed the insult of being forced to crawl between a bully's legs and later developed into a high-ranking general. The story means to extol this young man's stoicism and command of his emotions and has very little indeed to do with notions of challenging the privileged.

What can the act of stepping over a teacher convey to the public? Is the professor really sure that it is an action analogous to that of challenging authority and the privileged, especially given that the students did so at the strong urging of the professor himself? Instead of challenging authority, the whole thing played out more like an undignified farce. While Zhang may be praised for his spirit of innovation, he should know a professor's dignity is not something to be trifled with.

Indeed, it takes a lot of nerve for students to step over their professor, and the key is, were it not for the professor's insistence, these students would not have dared to do so. It is also hard to know if this experience will encourage them to question authority in other arenas.

We suggest that Zhang exercise more caution next time he dreams up a similar exercise. He must be careful not to encourage his students to disrespect, for instance, senior citizens. In short, the professor would be well advised to use more acceptable methods in future.

Qing Chuan (www.rednet.cn): College students are adults who can think and make their own decisions independently. If you think the act will effect a change in their fundamental beliefs, you are underestimating today's young students. The professor could be said to have humiliated himself by asking his students to step over him. More importantly, some of the students did not want to partake in the activity, but at the request of the professor, had little other choice. In the final analysis, the students were, with no small degree of irony, taught to obey their teacher, instead of challenging him.

Some have described the activity as performance art, but the fact remains that it was a frivolous practice that not only undermined the teacher's dignity but also disrespected the students. Society today is tolerant of various belief systems. However, righteous ideals do not necessarily always lead to desirable behaviors and the realization of the former requires the implementation of proper methods.

If this professor were to employ a more appropriate method, his students might be able to understand all manner of social issues with greater clarity and find out what they can do about them. For example, the professor could spend more time discussing and even debating issues with his students within an open and relaxing atmosphere. Lying down and letting the students step over him cast aspersion not only upon the quality of his character but on his abilities as an educator.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

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