Fear of anything foreign has again appeared in education. A Senator from Florida is railing against the Confucius Institutes. And the president of the conservative National Association of Scholars (NAS), fired his broadside “China’s Pernicious Presence on American Campuses” in the February 26 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The NAS charge is that these Institutes “...operate under a veil of secrecy in which they engage in dubious activities.”

So just what do Confucius Institutes do? With over 100 Confucius Institutes in the United States and over 400 more spread throughout the world, their aim is “...to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese language teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges.” Coordinated by the Office of Chinese Language Council International of their Ministry of Education, the most noticed value they provide is coordinating teachers for Chinese language classes. Their Confucius Classroom program partners with American high schools to provide Chinese teachers.

But the NAS suggests U.S. schools should be forced to lose “...the equivalent U.S. funding, especially in Title VI programs, which provide foreign-language and area-studies education.” Unfortunately, Title VI programs have no capacity to provide that education. Without the coordination of the Confucius Institutes to provide instructors for courses in Chinese language and culture in America, there would be little such education.

China also faced a shortage of teachers when Deng Xiao-ping established English rather than Russian as the official second-language-to-learn in China. To teach Chinese students English, China has recruited many American college students over these last decades to bolster their English teaching to a level where there are now more Chinese who have learned English than there are Americans. If we all learned Chinese, we could not match them!

But the NAS president also proposes that the folks working for the Confucius Institutes be required to register as foreign agents. Those planeloads of teachers we sent to China did not face any such requirements. But that influx of U.S. personnel teaching in K-12 and tertiary schools across China most certainly brought in the cultural and political attitudes of our language. You can call it our “soft power.” In learning English, Chinese students also learned of our individualism and emphasis on “rights” over responsibility.

And yes, learning the Chinese language in America also presents a different view of the world. Family names in Chinese are given first and prioritize family importance. Their word for respect is embedded in their word for teachers and the elderly. There is a major emphasis on responsibility to others and on group loyalty. They value living in harmony. They take the long view, working and sacrificing for distant gain. To learn another language is to understand another way of thinking. To understand is very important, but it does not command belief.

In addition, there are over 300,000 students from China currently studying in the U.S. with six out of seven now returning to China with an in-depth understanding of America. China understands us.

But despite those English teachers we sent, our flow of American students who study in China remains trivial. Americans’ superficial understanding is of a 1950s China that no longer exists. If all of the students studying Chinese in the U.S. became teachers of Chinese, and all of their students did as well, etc., it would still take us decades build up an understanding of modern China. 

In the Cold War era, Soviet schools taught the merits of Marxism and what was wrong with capitalism, while we taught the merits of Adam Smith and what was wrong with Marxism. Our opponent's efforts were always “propaganda.” But ours never were? There is an intellectual fairness in studying from those who live in a different culture and speak a different language.

Today, only the elderly and the historians recall the American intolerance during our McCarthy era inquisition, where it became legitimate to destroy livelihoods and command allegiance. Such intolerance to other languages, cultures and ideas is often the first drumbeat towards war.

Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.