Democracy fighter attacks iron rule ethos for 'nerds'

8th October 1999 at 01:00
Methods of the maths guru described on his business cards as "one of the most excellent teachers in Beijing" are proving to be controversial

AS CHINA reforms its education system, traditional methods of strict discipline and control over students' lives have been challenged by a leading dissident, Wang Dan.

A debate is raging in China's newspapers on the teaching style of the country's most famous maths teacher, Professor Sun Weigang, who Mr Wang accused of training "nerds".

"In China education is a control tool for the government. They are educating new socialists," he said in an interview from the United States.

Professor Sun's students may get top grades, but at the expense of their personal development, he claimed.

Mr Wang, student leader of the 1989 democracy movement, was released from prison last year and exiled to the United States, where he now studies at Harvard University.

In contrast, Professor Sun, who admits to being one of China's most disciplinarian teachers, is a member of the National People's Congress (China's parliament). Among the many other titles on his name card are "One of the Most Excellent Teachers in Beijing".

During his 40-year career, more than 10,000 teachers have made the pilgrimage to Number 22 Middle School in Beijing to learn his methods.

Mr Wang said Professor Sun's teaching style typified the education system in China. "In Sun Weigang's class, those students lost their rights to enjoy youth. The only two words they had in front of them were 'Xue Xi' (studying). How cruel a living environment that was!"

Sun Weigang's rules included: No long hair; no leather shoes; no vulgar, trendy songs; no talking between the sexes in public; no birthday parties; no New Year's cards. "All these 'noes' paint an image of a dictatorial head of the household in an old Chinese feudal family," Mr Wang said.

Professor Sun, aged 60 and about to retire, presented himself meekly in a tightly controlled interview with The TES, accompanied by foreign ministry officials. He hit the headlines after 55 per cent of his students were accepted to China's two top universities - Beijing and Qing Hua - an historic record. Students have also won gold medals in international maths competitions and been offered places in top American universities. But he said that this success was just a by-product of his teaching. "My ultimate goal is to cultivate wise thinking," he said.

Young people should be wise enough to be studying hard enough now and reaping the rewards later.

Other seeds should not be sown: "If students in school try to find girl and boyfriends none will be successful and it will end in tragedy," he said.

Young people have many desires but are also ignorant. "Teachers must provide guidelines as to what is right and wrong and to control their students' desires." Beyond the classroom, he encouraged them to enjoy sports and classical music that is "optimistic and happy". Pop music should be avoided because it creates negative moods.

Classes should be disciplined so students can realise the beauty and logic of maths. It was also his duty to cultivate their moral integrity, refined thinking and eagerness to devote themselves to


Professor Sun preferred to talk about maths rather than discipline. He is against rote-learning, wants students to be inventive and creative and believes all can do well. He insisted his classes were not selected and started off with average abilities.

Beijing is trialling reforms designed to end the force-feeding of students with facts. One third of teaching time must be devoted to student activities, such as discussion or research. Even pop music will be allowed in teaching English, but history teaching will remain tightly controlled.

While Professor Sun says he supports the current education reforms, he fears that the quality of teachers is declining. In the early years of the communist revolution, top students were assigned to train as teachers. But today's students make their own choices and most opt for courses that lead to lucrative careers in China's new economy.

"I am sorry that none of my students will become teachers because their scores are too high. Only the lowest students go into teacher training. They won't use their brains to be inventive,"

Professor Sun said.

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