Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Wherein Our Hero Signs Up for a Struggle Session

I have five classes this year. Four of them have very similar official names, so to tell them apart, I assigned them each an economist, calling the sections Smith, Hayek, Coase, and Friedman. My fifth class has unique enough of a name that I didn't assign it an economist.

When that fifth class was meeting yesterday, I decided I'd be a fun teacher and allow them to pick a section economist, even though they don't need one. So I asked for suggestions. I said, "You can name your favorite economist, or you can agree with one that a classmate has already named."

The first student named Adam Smith. The second student named Isaac Newton. The third student named Warren Buffett. So far, one I'd already used and two non-economists.

We seemed stuck, so I added one of my own: Esther Duflo. The fourth student said, "Is John Nash an economist?" I said, "Well, no, but then he won the Nobel Prize for economics, so once you do that, you get to call yourself an economist no matter what, so sure." The fifth student said, "Can it be a Chinese economist?" I enthusiastically supported that idea, because I wanted to be more inclusive and allow them to have it be something they could relate to. He said, "Lín Yìfū." I wrote the name on the board. The sixth student bargained for more time to think. The seventh student named John Maynard Keynes. When I went back to the sixth student, she said, "Lì Yĭníng."

I wanted them to end up with maybe two or three to pick from, not eight. A student suggested we vote, but I said, "Don't you think everyone will vote for his own suggestion?" So to help focus our thinking, I eliminated Smith, Newton, Buffett (the student who suggested Buffett pushed back on the suggestion that Buffett wasn't an economist, citing a biography he'd read), Nash, Keynes, and Duflo. The students would have to choose between the two Chinese economists, Lín and Lì.

I asked for "candidate speeches." Each nominator could tell us a little about each economist. Lín's nominator said, "He worked for the World Bank." Lì's nominator said, "I don't know anything about him, just that I've heard his name." After those rousing bits of campaigning, I called for a vote. "All in favor of Lín Yìfū?" Four students raised their hands, including the girl who nominated Lì Yĭníng. I thought, "That's strange," but I didn't make anything of it. Then I called for votes for Lì Yĭníng. No one voted for him. So I said, "Okay, we have a winner. It's provisional, though. If I look this guy up and find out he's a mass-murderer or something, we'll have to go with someone else."

Class continued. When it ended, I went back to my desk and looked up our winner, Lín Yìfū. His Wikipedia page starts by noting that he was born in Taiwan. I thought, "That's interesting that my student nominated a Taiwanese economist." That could be a subtle bit of civil disobedience (supporting the ROC over the PRC), or it could be a result of strong nationalism (thinking of ROC citizens as really PRC citizens who just don't know it yet). But then I kept reading, and I got to the section entitled "Defection."

As a captain in the Republic of China Army in Taiwan, he defected to Mainland China on May 17, 1979, to the nearby island of Xiamen of Mainland China with sensitive materials. ... While an officer in the ROC Army, Lin was held up as a model soldier; after his desertion, the ROC originally listed him as missing but in 2000 issued an order for his arrest on charges of defection.
I began to suspect that I had stumbled into something I didn't want to deal with.

Then I looked up the Wikipedia page for Lì Yĭníng.

He has been a leading voice for the privatization of state-owned companies.... [He] was hired as a faculty member [of Peking University] after graduating in 1955. However, only two years later he was labeled as a "rightist" when Mao Zedong launched the Anti-Rightist Movement, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) he was again persecuted for his ideas and banished to a rural village where he performed manual labour for six years.
Yep, I didn't want to be involved in this at all.

I began to understand why Lì's nominator failed to support him in the election. If you have to choose between a Communist darling and a "rightist," you choose the Communist darling every time.

I went to a faculty meeting where, while we waited for stragglers, I asked for advice. As soon as I said "Cultural Revolution," my Chinese colleagues in the room started side conversations to keep themselves from hearing any more. Some of my colleagues told me I should tell them that Lín was disqualified. I feel I can't do that without having to explain why, and I don't think I should do that. One of my colleagues said, "If the students wanted to be named the Hitler group, you'd stop that." I said, "If you were teaching in Germany in 1943 and your students wanted to be named the Hitler group, you'd stop that?" He said he would. I don't doubt him, but I think he'd be dead by 1944.

Anyway, a lot of talking, most of it telling me that if I'm uncomfortable with having a group named after Lín I should stop it from happening, but not much advice on how to present that to the kids after Lín very publicly won an election. (It would be ironic to have kids from China telling the American that he should respect election results, right? If I was an English teacher, I might do it just for the good teaching example of irony.)

And so I give you my fifth section's economist: Esther Duflo. Because women are under-represented in economics and whatnot.

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