Saturday, February 29 2020


We have been slapped. How do we turn the other cheek?

Update: November, 30/2018 - 10:06
Students at the Xuân Tầm Primary School in a mountainous Yên Bái Province's Văn Yên District of Việt Nam. — Photo

Thu Vân

One year go, to this day, I was shivering in fury, agony and disbelief as I wrote an editorial about three kindergarten caregivers slapping the faces of 3-5 years old toddlers, even throwing them up in the air in anger.

Today, those feelings are back in full force, and I still can’t control the shivering and the emotions. This time, it is a sixth grader in Quảng Bình Province at the receiving end of violence.

In some ways, this is even worse. It was not an adult beating up a child, this time, horrific as that is. This time, an adult got the kids to be violent. Yes, this bears emphasising. An adult, a teacher no less, got her students, sixth graders, to engage in violence on their friend and classmate.

The teacher forced the sixth graders to slap one of their classmates 10 times each, and the kid was slapped a total of 231 times for allegedly using foul language in class.

Why 231? Because the crime had been “upgraded” to a higher level. The teacher also told the students that if they refused to slap their friend and classmate, their refusal would earn them ten slaps instead.

The most imaginative scriptwriter for Hollywood horror movies could not think this one up.

After receiving 230 slaps, the kid broke down and said, “I hate you, teacher.” And received another slap from the teacher.

The poor boy, his face swollen, was rushed to the hospital by his family.

I fear that he has sustained deeper, traumatic injuries that will never heal.

And I fear that it is not just the boy who’s injured, it is all of us, as individuals, a community and a nation who are wounded, not by the violence per se, but by the mirror the incident holds up to us.

Make no mistake, this kind of violence indicates a deeper social, psychological malaise that is rooted in fear.

And that fear is ugly and destructive.

Misplaced premium

My first thought about the teacher came by very quick – she was just another monster in this world. But I also kept wondering about the kids who followed the teacher’s order and hit their friend.

Where did such an awful obedience come from?

It came from our society, long influenced profoundly by the Confucian notion of obedience, particularly to teachers, members of the most honourable profession.

As parents, as adults, as teachers and as people who wield power, we value, praise and reward obedience to a fault.

Our homes, classrooms and institutions are all geared to demand and expect almost unquestioning obedience, to reward it, and to punish disobedience.

We are seeing some ugly manifestations of this phenomenon, and we have to think seriously about the implications of persisting with notions that are not just outdated now, but were always outdated. Think Galileo. Think Socrates. And think Hồ Chí Minh, for it was his “disobedience” and that of millions of others, which won us our freedom from the Chinese, the French and the Americans.

Even in our day to day life, the way our students are taught to memorise and then rewarded for their ability to reproduce that memory can stifle creativity and critical thinking, critics have been pointing out for sometime.

It’s not that Vietnamese education system does not have its own strengths. Our schools excel in knowledge-based teaching, in subjects like math and natural sciences. But when it comes to teaching critical thinking, we lag behind the liberal arts approach of most Western schools (who have their own obedience problems).

A survey by Nguyễn Khánh Trung of the Institute for Research on Educational Development (IRED) in 2016 found that Vietnamese parents highlight obedience when educating their children. Questioning is not a habit they encourage or emphasise.

Something needs to change.

How are the parents of the 23 students who hit their friend going to deal with the situation?

I don`t know, but I would have a serious talk with my child, about violence, about why it is wrong, and why it is also wrong to blindly obey orders all the time. About why it is important to question, to listen to one’s inner voice.

Deputy Prime Minister Vũ Đức Đam, attending a meeting at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in September this year, actually called on Vietnamese schools to change their old-school style of teaching.

“The traditional education method of Việt Nam was that we teach our young people to be obedient; now we need to change it,” he said.


Stop faking it

Media reports said the teacher in the case has admitted to school leaders that her actions were wrong. She attributed them to the pressure of educational achievements demanded by the school.

According to the school protocol, any student who curses would make the class lose five points in the internal award system, and the math teacher counted on harsh punishments to ensure she would not lose those precious points.

She lost. Her students lost. The school lost. We lost.

And we did not lose points, we lost our humanity, our creativity, our compassion, our kindness, all in the pursuit of a fake excellence.

If you think I am exaggerating, think of the “achievement disease” phrase that has gained currency in recent years. This “disease” has been blamed for the serious problem in which schools try to ‘fabricate’ achievements and do everything they can to gain high positions in emulation movements.

Teachers in Vietnamese schools are often evaluated on criteria that includes how many students under his or her management do not violate school regulations.

The Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has acknowledged the achievement disease and released many legal documents to cure it. Clearly, they have not worked.

No one can argue that we now need young people with the strength, intelligence and … key word coming up… audacity, to compete and advance.

To foster such qualities, we cannot ignore the fundamentals of what it means to be human. Kindness, compassion and fairness are not dreamy, romantic qualities. The sad state of our world today is testament to what happens when these qualities are lacking. If our children and our youth are not taught to question unfairness and injustice, we are destroying our present and their future. —VNS

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