Tonight was my first night teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China.
Last spring, I made the decision to petition The Ayn Rand Institute for support via their free books program. At considerable expense to the Institute, they shipped me several hundred copies of Anthem, free for my students. I think they were as excited as I was to introduce Ayn Rand’s ideas to China in a systematic way for the very first time. I handed the books out three weeks ago in my graduate-level course on American Literature.
It’s a slightly risky move, teaching any work by Ayn Rand here in China. China is still a country with censorship — for example, the Ayn Rand Institute’s website is blocked by the government. Professors have been expelled from the country for teaching ideas critical of the government, and what could be more critical of the government than a radical assault on collectivism?
On the other hand, I’ve been told that all ideas, per se, are more or less tolerated here: censorship is directed mainly at direct criticism of the Party, especially with regard to tender issues in the provinces. Those professors who have gotten in trouble, I’m told, were using the classroom for open advocacy, and/or were very unpopular jerk-professors of the sort we’ve all experienced once or twice.
The edge of uncertainty about Anthem was heightened slightly last week, when some students told me they had read the book, with a little shock in their voices. One asked what the real message was, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was reading individualism in a Chinese government-university classroom. “It is too radical,” whispered another.
Last week, the students watched “Freedom Writers,” a good movie in the “great teacher shapes up hopeless misfit students” genre. The students loved the film, and I used it to set up Anthem by emphasizing the theme of individualism versus racism. I talked at some length about the “melting pot” idea, and how that is only possible if individuals are judged as individuals, not as members of their racial or other collectives.
Then, tonight, I introduced our discussion of Anthem by asking for initial gut-reactions. That’s often a very useful barometer of students’ context and understanding of a text. If they respond to a trivial or superficial element (“I don’t like red hair, so The Fountainhead is no good”), I know they’re going to need a lot of remedial concept-formation. If they respond to the right things, but with ill-formed judgment (“Locke’s argument for individual rights condones immoral selfishness”), I know they are going to need help expanding their philosophical context in order to understand the possibility of arguments for the other side.
Teaching Anthem in China, I got a little of both. When I asked for initial reactions, one brusque-faced student dressed in black faux leather jumped in immediately with: “I do not like this book, because Ayn Rand is Russian.” I expected some sort of anti-Russian nationalism to follow (and there is strong anti-Russian sentiment here), but instead he followed up: “She chose to move to America, so she betrayed her country. Why she must betray her country?” Um… “Her country?” Why must IT betray HER?!
While I was attempting to process this, like a 1970′s calculator trying to plumb pi to too many digits, his woman-friend jumped in with a wickedly calculated “I-gotcha” look on her face. “This book is wrong. Socialism does not mean what she says. She presents collectivism nai-ga-tively, yet she calls her fur-losofee Objectivism, as if it is objective. It is not right. It is too radical.”
Then a grinning guy in the back row, wearing a military-green wool coat, jumped in. “Our China requires collectivism for its moral survival. We cannot have individualism.” (Corrupting the Morals of China, by the way, is a crime that carries the death penalty, so Grinning-Guy had thereby issued what amounts to an oblique and distant death threat. Not that it would likely be carried out, but still… everyone knows it’s there as the ultimate punishment. That has a funny way of shutting people down.)
I was attempting not to literally reel. The plurality of non-aligned students were avoiding my eyes, as Chinese students will do. I looked to my support group, the three or four students in the class who clearly and profoundly love me, my class, and all things American. They smiled exaggerated, disarmed smiles of attempted support, but they were obviously folding up inside. I was on my own.
A woman in the front-right raised her hand to say: “My Marxism professor in undergraduate university told us that all Western thinks is metaphysical. Westerner wants to find the one, and maybe it’s a little radical, but makes sense logical. China understand that there is other side, maybe not just one side. Maybe this book like that.” It’s possible was trying to throw me a lifeline, saying “this book isn’t evil, it’s just too extreme.” Not much of a lifeline, I have to say.
I asked the students how they had responded to the writing style. One support-group woman finally jumped in to say, with a bold smile but a timid voice, that she’d found the book exciting. “I thought the Equality character was changing much through the story, so I could not stop reading to find out how he would think and change each time.” I explained the concept of a “page-turner,” which seemed to return some portion of the class to learning mode.
It was time for a ten-minute break, and damned if I wasn’t ready for that break!
After break, I decided to launch into a substantive lecture on individualism versus collectivism. I hit the issue as straight-on philosophy, not trying too hard to tie my entire discussion to Anthem. I drew examples from the movie they’d watched, I laid out a grid of premises, such as “collectivism: Individual has no value. Individualism: happiness is the purpose of life.” Collectivism: The good is service to society. Individualism: The good is to promote your own well-being. I talked about how collectivism implies the metaphysical premise that the individual is nothing, and society is everything.
This time, I thought the students really understood and were enthralled. They hopped with examples and questions. The same students who had earlier disparaged individualism, now leapt to its defense.
Chinese students are fun.