An Issue of Equity
Chinese immersion must be done carefully
by Edwin Way
In Eugene Weekly’s balanced and generally persuasive reporting on stalled plans to start a Chinese immersion school (cover essay, 6/11), one subject that wasn’t given much attention was equity. Is there a way to ensure that a disproportionate share of the benefits of an immersion program don’t go to children of the upper middle class? What steps are being taken to ensure that a new immersion school is a vehicle for social justice, rather than inequity? It is no secret that inequality has soared over the last 30 years. A Chinese immersion program could provide a magnificent vehicle for either offsetting or exacerbating class differences.
In the short term however, we should be under no illusions that such a program will not directly diminish the American middle class. Across the nation, teachers are being laid off because of budget cuts. The expansion of immersion programs will further reduce the numbers of teaching jobs available to American citizens. Teaching is one of the few middle-class careers left in our moribund economy, and most if not all of the teachers at an immersion school will be citizens of the People’s Republic of China or Taiwan.
On this point, the experience of the UO’s Chinese Flagship program is illuminating. I was one of the only non-Chinese nationals in the program. Since it was started in 2006, a majority and sometimes an overwhelming majority of the program’s undergraduates — offered college scholarships courtesy of the American taxpayers — were passport-holding citizens of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan or Singapore. Almost all of the professors were Chinese or Taiwanese nationals as well. What was originally designed with good intentions to help American students master Mandarin, was instead a way to pay Chinese citizens to teach Mandarin to other Chinese nationals.
The American people (apart from myself and a few others) were a party to this exchange largely in their capacity as paymaster. The program did help me pass level 10 of the official Chinese government Mandarin exam (level seven is needed to do graduate work at Beijing University). I am immensely grateful for this help. Nevertheless, to a great extent U.S. national resources were directed to the purpose of teaching Mandarin to Chinese passport holders.
As someone with tremendous affection and respect for Chinese culture, I hope that Eugene succeeds in establishing an immersion school. However, the people of Eugene should consider implementing quotas to ensure that most (ideally, all) of the benefits are directed to the children of low-income parents.
In the short run, implementing an immersion school will inevitably push more members of the middle class into unemployment and poverty. Only with strict quotas that largely restrict participation to children of low-income families is it even conceivable that an immersion school will help reduce socially inequality rather than simply entrenching it.
With almost one in seven Lane county workers unemployed, there are more than enough working class students to fill a Chinese immersion school beyond capacity. The last 30 years have seen rising inequality and a hollowing of the middle class — why should a progressive city like Eugene help accelerate such morally questionable trends?
Edwin Way is a graduate student at the UO, studying political science and Chinese through the Chinese Flagship program.