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Brian D. Cohen

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The Chinese Are Coming: Another Perspective

Posted: 12/15/11 11:00 AM ET

Much has been written lately about the recent influx of Chinese students to U.S. colleges, universities, and boarding schools. Both a recent Bloomberg article and New York Times article look at this question closely, and a bit skeptically.

It's happened very quickly. The number of Chinese students at U.S. independent secondary schools has increased over 10,000% from 65 in 2005-06 to 6,725 in 2010-11. (I remember a time 20 years ago when getting an entry visa for each Chinese student in the summer school I directed took months and required the intercession of an elected official; the easing of political restrictions, as well as China's greatly increased economic power, has made a difference). This unprecedentedly rapid increase in the number of students from any single country to U.S. educational institutions has caught many schools unprepared. Currently, Chinese students comprise a little over 27% of international students in U.S. boarding schools, and international students comprise about 30% of overall student enrollment. (International Student Diversity at TABS Member Schools)

I'd like to reflect on my experience at Idyllwild Arts Academy, a school that has actively welcomed international enrollment, including Chinese students, for over twenty years. We recently invited Liang Wang, an Idyllwild Arts alum and principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic, to campus to perform and offer master classes. Liang studied at Idyllwild Arts for nearly four years, leaving in 1999 to study at the Curtis Institute. Liang suggested reasons that U.S. schools have become a popular choice among Chinese families: "America has the best system overall for music education. Europe is a bit more rigid, but America is the land of imagination and individualism." Of his time at the Academy, Liang said, "The environment I felt was extremely friendly and highly individual. The teachers there lead you on how to think, not what to think."

I recently also spoke with Shen, a twelfth-grade clarinetist at Idyllwild Arts from China. Shen arrived at Idyllwild in 2007 as Chinese enrollment began its crescendo at U.S. boarding schools. Shen cited the depth and richness of musical tradition in the United States (China, too, has a long tradition of veneration of Western music, interrupted only by the Cultural Revolution. The Communist Party now considers classical music the centerpiece of the "advanced culture" a great power must possess). Many Chinese families feel they can learn more here than in China. According to Shen, teachers in China tell students exactly what to do, but American teachers encourage students to think more critically about what they are doing, to ask questions, and to discover how they can perform with more personal expression. Shen also implied that there is a prestige factor for families sending students to the U.S.; an American education is socially and professionally empowering. Another key reason secondary education in the U.S. is attractive is that it offers a direct path to higher education and to a professional career in the U.S., and many families think it is best to get started early. Shen expects a career in the U.S. to be less stressful and less competitive than in China. In the U.S., he says, you're competing with yourself to improve, not constantly comparing yourself to others. Shen is not sure whether he will return to China to pursue his musical career. His clarinet teacher from China has asked Shen to return home to take his own teaching position when Shen completes his education in the U.S. Shen doesn't want to do that; he sees more opportunity and greater challenges pursuing his musical career right here.

Shen's experience has been very positive, but there are problems at many secondary schools, colleges, and universities. Application fraud is rampant. It can be skirted by in-person interviews and auditions; a practice boarding schools have adopted for almost every applicant. Expectations can be unclear; parents don't always know what they're getting in a U.S. school. Schools must communicate realistic and accurate expectations and be entirely up front about what they can promise. An Idyllwild Arts instructor, a native Mandarin speaker, calls parents of current students in China to field questions and address concerns, allowing parents direct access to a school official in their native language. Another area of potential misunderstanding is students' language acquisition. Chinese parents want their children to learn English. Responsible schools offer highly structured programs in English-as-a-Second-Language, and progressively transition non-native English speakers into regular academic classes. The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 3, 2011) reports: "Once in the classroom, students with limited English labor to keep up with discussions. And though they're excelling, struggling and failing at the same rate as their American counterparts, some professors say they have had to alter how they teach." This is no doubt true, but looked at another way, teaching differently to students who learn differently benefits all students. The classroom is only part of effective English acquisition - learning language in context outside of an academic setting remains essential. Arts classes at Idyllwild Arts are offered in English only, so students begin to learn and use the language of each discipline from the start. International students living with native English-speaking roommates have a distinct advantage in developing conversational skills. Other forms of informal social exchange are essential for language development, from parties, to meals, to extracurricular activities and cultural events. A virtuous cycle is formed -- the more social interactions with English speakers, the more easily non-native speakers acquire the language, and the more readily other social opportunities within the host culture open up.

Curricular and staffing changes are called for. Standardized testing is not altogether helpful -- the omnipotence of standardized testing works subtly against contextual language learning; students study to pass the test, not to learn English. The Chinese fascination with Western arts and culture does not obviate the pressing need for expanded curricula that explore non-western and multicultural music, art, literature, and history. Classes in Mandarin language (with nearly a billion speakers worldwide) are increasingly popular in U.S. schools and should be encouraged. International advising needs to be stepped up. Teachers from Asian backgrounds should be hired into schools. Finally, a genuine commitment to global education implies opportunities for reciprocal travel and overseas study, an expensive option, but Western students would gain a great deal from directly experiencing the culture of so many of their classmates.

We all have much to gain -- the influx of Chinese students enhances the diversity of all viewpoints at schools, producing interculturally aware young people, and enhancing the compatibility and appreciation of difference among all students. Cultural fluency - comfort living and working in a diverse community; an understanding of international perspectives and political and economic interdependence; and acquisition of a second language - is an essential element of a strong secondary education. The arts are the perfect avenue for engaging students from very different backgrounds in a collaborative endeavor that builds mutual respect, healthy competition, and joyful cooperation towards a shared goal.

While orchestras in Philadelphia and Dallas approach bankruptcy, hundreds of concert halls are going up across China. The job market in the arts in China is expanding. Students from the West and the East will need the cultural and language skills to succeed in both settings. In the arts, the world is rapidly shrinking.

I think of all that Shen has shared with the Idyllwild Arts school community -- his talent, his leadership, and his friendship -- and I admire how he has expanded his own cultural perspective. I asked him if he felt torn by living across two cultures: "No I don't, I knew my life was going to change in some way before I came here, so I knew I must learn to change myself and fit into a new culture. I feel really comfortable, too, because Americans patiently help me understand their culture. When I go back to China I can feel a difference between me and my Chinese friends. However, I am still Chinese, so I still feel at home when I go back, and I really feel good about that."