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28th May 2022

Column

We need Xi Jinping's 'thoughts' in our schools too

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China wants its students to recite Xi Jinping's so-called 'thoughts'. These thoughts are about loyalty to him, the Party, and the country. But it is too easy for us in the West to criticise Xi for indoctrinating children when we do not teach ours to resist the dangers of dictatorship.

If we seek to counter propaganda and prevent democracy from losing more ground against authoritarian countries such as China, it will be vital to explain to our citizens better what democracy and dictatorship are.

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  • We must train youngsters to think critically, to see through the slogans, the advertisements, and the propaganda, says Jonathan Holslag

Classrooms are a crucial battle-ground in Western democracy's struggle for survival.

Being democrats, we might not like the idea of teaching ideology in school. Even politics and philosophy are becoming less fashionable. We increasingly want our schools to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - to make children into competitive producers.

And when it comes to ethics, schools, it is often said, must embrace diversity and relativism.

If anyone teaches an actual code to live by, it often happens in the sidelines, by a lone idealist professor.

But let's be clear: from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill and contemporary pedagogues, it's been forcefully said that no republic or democracy survives without citizens being taught what it means to be a citizen, to emancipate the mind, to balance freedom with responsibility.

But how can this happen? Should we do our own pro-democracy propaganda?

We can look for inspiration in other ages of crumbling liberties.

Isocrates, an orator in ancient Greece, for instance, lived in a time of advancing tyranny. He argued that rebuilding the democratic spirit did not require to impose morals, but to emancipate the mind so that it tries to refine the moral sentiment.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and teacher of emperor Caligula, said: "Why then do we give our sons liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral values."

For him, it was the intrinsic motivation that mattered.

Resilient citizens

Emancipation also means resilience. It does not suffice that we teach about dead critical thinkers. We must train youngsters to think critically themselves, to see through the slogans, the advertisements, and the propaganda.

It requires that that we do not close our mind and settle defensively into dogmas when we are uncertain, but continue to read, debate, and think.

Training, inevitably, requires investment in good coaches and tutoring in small groups, not the kind of mass-education that becomes standard in most Western schools.

History too prepares the mind for recognising good and bad. The more distant our own experiences of oppression, the more it matters to make students understand and feel almost what it means to lose your freedom - and what sacrifices we made to regain it.

So, let students read and think about the discourses of some of the strongmen of the past, alongside some of the 'thoughts' of Xi Jinping and his like today.

Ethics and aesthetics

Ethics remains, of course, indispensable. Democracy is about liberty, indeed, but also about responsibility as a citizen - to live life to the full, to develop your talents, and to make personal achievement support the flourishing of your society.

The ethical thinking that underpins Western democracy is humanism. It offers a path between the servility of tyranny and the excess of individualism that can bring down a society.

We could add to this one final aspect: aesthetics.

The German writer and thinker Friedrich Schiller wrote that the appreciation of beauty, in poetry, music, architecture, nature, helps make young citizens receptive for what is good and noble, that it triggers the curiosity to pioneer, the desire to aim for better, the recognition also that beauty lies in both the result and the trying.

In its most basic form, aesthetics means that our youngsters are taught in attractive school buildings, surrounded if possible by nature and inspiring artworks.

Xi too makes a case for building beautiful schools. It shows that he does not take the education of the next generation of citizens lightly. He is certainly right about that.

And let's also consider this: not all Xi's thoughts are nonsense. His call for civic responsibility, care for nature, and solidarity is justified, also for democracies. But the additional challenge for a democracy, is that the motivation to behave a certain way is supposed to come from an inner voice, and not to be imposed from the outside.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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