Surprise Encounters: Ten Thousand To One
Praise for Surprise Encounters:
“If there is one feeling that underlies religious belief, of whatever kind, perhaps it is the wonder that human beings feel at the irrefutable fact that something exists. It could, after all, have been the case that nothing exists. Scott McVay, more than anyone I know, has journeyed through life as if always in the company of that sense of wonder, and it affects the way he sees things. Some things everyone looks at—whales are slaughtered, Americans don’t know Chinese, poetry wants attention—but Scott sees what he looks at. Then he taps the rest of us on the shoulder to wake us up.”
-Perry Link, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature & Foreign Languages at University of California Riverside
Ink Drawing “Cliff on the River Li” by Tom George, who was the first American visual artist invited to China after the thaw, from collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Geddes.
It began with a note from Fritz Mote, who wrote it might be a good time to approach Ta-Tuan Ch’en, who taught Chinese at Princeton and was on sabbatical. For a quarter century, T. T’s course in Chinese 101 and 102 had been ranked by students among the top four courses at the university. Professor Ch’en also directed the summer program in Mandarin at Middlebury that set the bar for the country. Professor Frederick Mote, ever a twinkle in his eye, was the renowned scholar of the Yuan and Ming dynasties—the golden eras of Chinese art, history, and literature—and a vital force among lead universities in building East Asian studies nationally.
Professor Ch’en’s response to my interest in creating an initiative to teach Chinese in high schools nationwide was immediate and encouraging.
I arranged a meeting in fall of 1982 for members of our board at the Dodge Foundation to explore whether we might undertake an initiative to teach less commonly taught languages at the high school level such as Japanese, promising since its economy was beginning to be cited as a model by business schools; Russian, since the Soviet Union was the object of the Cold War; or Chinese, the sleepiest of sleeping giants at that time. Eleanor Jordan, the lead exponent of Japanese language instruction and author of a four-volume set of teaching materials (Yale University Press), and Fred Starr, president of Oberlin College and an advocate of Russian language studies, were invited to make their cases as well. Stacking the deck slightly, Professor Ch’en brought Perry Link, a protégé and brilliant Chinese linguist, and Tim Light who headed Ohio State’s East Asian Studies program.
Our trustees decided on a modest investment in a Chinese language initiative. I secured a purloined list of the top 900 high schools, coast to coast, in the belief that as difficult and challenging as Chinese is to learn, it could be more readily potted in the soil of an otherwise rich curriculum. I wrote the 900 principals by name, inviting them to reply to eight questions to draw out the depth and nature of their commitment. Ads in educational journals invited other schools to apply, too.
In 1980, the Dodge Foundation made a grant to St. Ann’s Episcopal School in Brooklyn, which became a trigger three years later for a nationwide initiative to teach Mandarin well in high schools. Here Mrs. Bailing Yang is teaching an eager class.
The questions were crafted, but the key one was how would the principal support a lonely Chinese teacher when the French, German, and Latin teachers were, maybe, undermining her in attracting the better students? Also, to get the second half of the grant two years in, required Chinese be properly taught—getting the four tones right. In Mandarin they are: high level (first tone), rising (second tone), falling rising (third), and falling (fourth).
As Professor Ch’en stressed—with a broad grin—in the gathering of the first cohort of teachers at Middlebury, “Get the four tones right or it’s eternal perdition.”
Perry Link, Chinese linguist and scholar, and Weil-ling Wu, prominent Chinese language teacher and author of 16 Chinese textbooks, at our 50th wedding anniversary at Prospect, August 9, 2008.
The parents of the kids studying Chinese “got it” regarding the imperative of this undertaking more than the principals, who were sometimes smug about how well their schools were humming along.
A team of professors from universities across the country were invited to review the proposals on site, accompanied by a Dodge program officer. Eventually, twenty schools were chosen for funding in 1983. Another twenty were carefully vetted and supported in 1984. A third cohort was supported in 1987.
The four characters on the hanging scroll
(Gongcheng shentui) come from writings attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Laotzu. The calligraphy was done by Qin Yonglong, a famous artist and professor of calligraphy at Beijing Normal University.
The teachers gathered every summer, first at Middlebury, then Ohio State, and then China for a month at the Beijing Language University arranged and organized by Professor Light. When Professor Ch’en showed up and worked with the teachers in Beijng, the faculty there exclaimed that no one in China taught as well, as forcefully and effectively.
Early on, Perry Link made the seemingly outrageous claim that for every student in the United States studying Chinese, there were 10,000 students in China studying English. The assertion was accurate and as troubling as the fact that after September 11, 2001, we woke up to the fact that in the United States we had only 5,000 Arabic linguists. How shockingly insular and isolationist of us!
Two independent studies of our Chinese language initiative were reassuring. The first was conducted by Dr. Rose Hayden, president of the National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies. She also wrote an article for Foundation News (November/December, 1987). The second study, a 139-page document titled “Introducing Chinese into High Schools: The Dodge Initiative” was completed in 1992 after the foundation had invested $2.7 million. Written by Sarah Jane Moore with Ronald Walton and Richard Lambert for the National Foreign Language Center, it offers many ideas for other foundations wanting to promote successful language studies.
A crucial element was bringing the high school teachers together every year for the conference for college Chinese language teachers. This happened through the good offices of Professor C. P. Chou, another Ch’en protégé, and a professor at Princeton who became T. T’s successor in directing the Middlebury summer Chinese language program. He was ably assisted by Dr. Wei-ling Wu, a master teacher in the West Windsor, New Jersey, schools and creator of sixteen textbooks for learning Chinese in a conversational way, from kindergarten to grade 12.
Today over 2,000 US schools offer Chinese. The group in the vanguard is the Asia Society, where regular newsletters have valuable updates on curricular strategies, educational exchanges, and conferences. It is estimated that 100,000 primary, secondary, and college students are studying Mandarin today in the United States.
Years ago I asked Ralph Nader why he had studied Chinese in college, learning 3,500 characters. He replied, “I’m good at arithmetic—China is one-fourth of the planet.”
Professors Tim Light of Ohio State University and Ta Tuan Ch’en of Princeton provided critical leadership in the early years of the Dodge nationwide initiative to have Mandarin taught well in high schools, 1984.
Scott McVay was founding executive director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He was the sixteenth president of the Chautauqua Institution. He is fascinated by the songs of nature, propelled by the six-octave humpback whale’s song, and the songs of humanity, driven by poetry of the planet throughout history and today.