My Vietnamese commentator makes an interesting point about the Confucian Ethic. Economists often use the Confucian Ethic (the Eastern version of the Protestant Ethic) to explain the economic success of countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently China. Basically, the argument is that Confucius in the East, like John Calvin in the West, taught the value of hard work, this lesson then became a part of the culture, and that hard work leads to prosperity. These economists would no doubt disagree with my assertion that it is this same cultural trait that hinders economic success by inhibiting innovation. So that’s good. Because if there’s one group of people out there who inhibit innovation by requiring unnecessary rigor, it’s economists, and social scientists in general. In the social sciences, like in China, interesting new ideas are effectively illegal. Because the peer review process forces new ideas to get past a group of people who all share the same assumptions (demonstrably false assumptions in the case of economists and Big Beijing), new ideas don’t get very far. There are two ways to get an idea past the peer review process: 1. show that its not new, in other words, cite it, or 2. do rigorous (and usually expensive) research. I’m glad I’m not in grad school anymore. Academics, like authoritarian regimes, are incredibly closed-minded and insular.
And that brings me to my next point. Insularity may be part of the reason that my least innovative students are also in the ethnic majority. In my experience teaching in the Denver Public Schools, and later at the University of Colorado, the white kids were always much less interesting than the African Americans, Mexican Americans or Asian Americans. When I tried to get white kids to think a little cynically, they often just couldn’t. When I tried to get them to see things from other perspectives, they sucked at it. This week, I met my first student from a Confucian culture who is also a minority in HK (he’s Korean). And man is this kid smart. And not in the way that my smartphone is smart (data storage and calculation). He’s quick witted, adaptable, and cynical. He didn’t know what the word eloquent meant, so I gave him a definition, and used the example of Barack Obama’s eloquence vs. George Bush’s lack of it. This prompted him to ask me if I was a Democrat or a Republican. I told him neither, but that I voted for Obama. He asked what I though of Obama, and I told him that I was disappointed that his policies resembled Bush’s way too much for my liking. He then told me that he hated Bush, but didn’t really like Obama much either, and said he thought Obama was a puppet of corporate power. He’s 14 years old, and has never been to the US! We then had a fairly nuanced discussion about politics, something my Chinese students seem completely incapable of. I’m beginning to think that the reason I like my Indian students so much here is simply because they’re minorities. There’s something about not being from the dominant ethnic group that makes you question established wisdom more. So maybe it’s not hard work that kills creative thinking, but just being a member of the group that’s in power.
Throughout history, the cities that have been economic, social and cultural innovators have often been places where cultures collide. New York, London, ancient Rome, Alexandria in Egypt, and Byzantium are just a few examples. That’s one of the benefits of colonialism; both the colony and the colonizer can’t help but be exposed to different ways of thinking. There’s nothing like a clash of cultures to shake things up, and get you thinking differently. Lord knows I’m experiencing that these days. And on that note, I’ll return to my gas bladder issues shortly. Stay tuned.