Martha Franks’ Books without Borders: Homer, Aeschylus, Galileo, Melville and Madison Go to China is an account, a vivid narrative, of education actually taking place in the classroom day by day, month by month. Ms. Franks steadfastly and unpretentiously brings to her students a form of education directed not at passing standardized tests but at considering timeless questions such as, ‘What is the best life?’ ‘Does human suffering have any meaning?’ ‘What is justice and how can it be realized?’ At the same time, Ms. Franks portrays her own education through her reading of Chinese classics and travels to sites such as the Forbidden City, the Palace of Heaven, the Great Wall, and the Lecture Hall and Grave of Confucius.
Ms. Franks brings her narrative to a close with these words:
“There would be no wrapping up into a neat bundle of certainty — that’s not what the liberal arts are about. Instead, I hoped that in some future I could not imagine these students would carry a memory of our time together and hear, always, all their lives, that it matters what they feel, think, and believe.”
I interview her here about her new book.
What sorts of ancient Western concepts did the Chinese students relate to, and which were mystifying to them?
The students related to all matters of our common humanity, which was wonderful for all of us. It was great to feel that we were people together, trying to figure out how to live in this bewildering world. We could converse and understand each other.
Some of our cultural prejudices were different. In America, there is a saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In the East, there is a saying “it is the nail that sticks up that gets hammered.” So the students were more reluctant to talk than their American counterparts (although some of this was due to second language issues), and disliked disagreement more.
Religion was mystifying to them. They had no experience of it and did not know how to understand what it was in the West. When we read the Iliad they wondered if the gods of Greece were what religion still looked like. When we tried to read some of the texts of early Christianity they were simply bewildered and did not talk at all.
What would you say you learned from Chinese culture and history? What do they emphasize that the Western world could learn from?
As I gave my Chinese students Western classics to read, I also read Eastern classics as a way of empathizing from the other direction with their exploration of an entirely different culture. The picture in China is complicated, in that Marxism is a Western idea, and the desire to catch up with the West technologically is a powerful force in China, which means that Western ideas can generate a mix of desire and resentment. Many of my students did not know very much about their own cultural past, although they were proud of China’s five thousand years of civilization.
The chief thing that I learned, or at least meditated on a great deal, was this picture of Chinese identity arising somehow from those five thousand years, even though governments and cultural sensibilities evolved and changed enormously in that length of time. It is a vision of identity that has less to do with particular ideals and ideologies, and more to do with a sense of living within deep time.
I also came to appreciate and admire the combination of delicacy and strength in Chinese art and poetry. Classic Eastern texts like The Dream of the Red Chamber are gentle and sensitive to a degree that a person can feel lost in fragile beauty. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by contrast, is a warrior tale of relentless war, although it too contains moments of gentleness and sensitivity. I think the West, and perhaps all of us humans, could spend more time seeing beauty.
What makes a literary work a classic? Why should we still teach the traditional canon? What about efforts to update or diversify it?
A classic work is one that can be read again and again and never be exhausted of meaning and engagement. As member of the faculty of St. John’s College, a school that reads great books as the center of the curriculum, I have read Homer and Plato and Augustine and Shakespeare many times. Every time I read these books I find more in them that speaks to my present life as well as to my mind and heart.
We need to teach these books because of that experience of how inexhaustible they are. As I watch college students reading them, I am glad — sometimes thinking of my Chinese students — to offer them the proud, compelling gifts of their human heritage.
Greatness is certainly not confined to any particular culture, gender or any such false separations of the human experience. Sadly, the practical reality of the dominating tendency of our species is that women and many cultures were not allowed to produce the works of profound beauty that we needed from them. When such works are found, either in the past or the present, they become part of the canon.
Do you feel that modern Chinese people are still influenced by the values in their classic literature? What about modern Americans, is our culture and literary world still influenced by thinking in the traditional Western ‘great books?’
Yes to both questions. Even when people are not aware of how these deep structures to their culture influence them, the influence is there. Part of the value of reading the canon is to notice those influences working. A reader discovers in their original form as new ideas things that the reader realizes s/he had previously unthinkingly accepted as if obviously true. From that changed relationship with these ideas, the ideas can be reassessed. The reader may continue to think them true, but now they feel true in a fuller, surer way.
In my class on American law in China, for example, we discussed the line in the American Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal… .” The conversation ranged fearlessly over questions of gender, creation and the definition of equality. By the end of that conversation there was both agreement and disagreement, but both were articulated and could be considered in the open. The conversation will undoubtedly continue for all of us.
Would you recommend teaching abroad in China? Do you feel that you grew through the experience?
Yes again. Physical distance and the change of culture has a similar effect of allowing a person to look carefully at themselves and notice the things that they might previously have accepted unthinkingly. Reading great books is like traveling to the past, while traveling more literally provides a different kind of dislocation. Both are valuable to understanding who you are.
Could you teach this way in the US? How much freedom do teachers have in other countries to create and influence curriculum?
I was very lucky to have gone to China exactly when I did, when there was a flowering of experiments in progressive education. We had a good deal of freedom to create a curriculum. Some of those experiments are still going on, but China, as I describe in my book, is conflicted about the value of a liberal arts education. For decades, China concentrated on a STEM education, that is, one focused on math and science. Recently that has changed, as some have argued that the liberal arts should be taught as a source of creativity for China. Others, however, are against that change, concerned that the liberal arts are foolish luxuries and can also be subversive politically.
The same conflict is going on in the United States, as many liberal arts colleges are struggling. It would be a shame if liberal arts declines in the United States just as it arises in China. For me, the liberal arts display the full range of what it is to be human. We all need that.