On language, academia, and ‘legitimate’ knowledge

Last post, I talked about different ways of gaining knowledge of impacts of treatments and interventions, in clinical and social care contexts. Over the past week, I was faced again with the question of considering different types of knowledge, and how those types of knowledge are legitimized, in an altogether different setting: my Mandarin class. I’ve been taking Mandarin language classes this year as a way to formally bolster what little of the language I’ve picked up during my childhood: somehow, listening to my mom talk to me in her native language while I obstinately replied in English and overhearing arguments between her and my grandmother over the phone didn’t provide me with quite the fluency or range of vocabulary that I would have hoped (though I do know about five different ways to sound exasperated). The classes are not for any credit, just personal interest, and so you can imagine the makeup of the students splits pretty evenly into two categories: 1) the children of Chinese immigrants who have grown up in a majority non-Mandarin speaking country, and 2) white folks who are interested in working/studying/living in China. The latter are the majority, and while I initially had some hesitation about sharing the class with people who, combined, have spent upwards of 6 years “teaching English in China” and who occasionally veer into “loving Chinese culture” territory, it largely hasn’t been too difficult.

I guess I should have known that couldn’t last. In class this past week, two of the white students – both of whom studied some combination of Chinese history and politics – were talking with the teacher – a woman who had immigrated from China more than a decade ago – about the nature of the Chinese government both historically and in the modern day, and particularly in comparison to the “democratic” government of the country we were in. Our teacher was making a point about the government’s role in China’s economic progress, and the student’s were challenging what that progress meant. This post isn’t really about the content of that argument. I honestly don’t feel informed enough to really comment on that discussion, and so I’m going to stay out of it.

What this post is mainly about is the differing legitimacy that people feel entering into such an argument in the first place. My sense was that these students, being in the middle of rigorous academic study about China, felt a sense of authority in being able to comment on the nature of its government and what it was doing to its people. The way they spoke, clarifying terms and trying to refute our teacher’s references, made it seem to me as if they felt that their advanced studies in a prestigious academic institution afforded them a level of objectivity and intellectual removal that our teacher would not have been able to claim, as she was drawing her arguments largely from her personal experiences. Of course, in reality biases run in both directions, and one of my classmates in particular showed his in seeming to be unable to grasp how a non-democratic system could be seen as beneficial by someone living in the country. What was so frustrating to me was that he, our other classmate, and all academics in Western institutions studying some curious part of the world have the privilege of having their biases taken as uncoloured fact, as the product of academic inquiry. Which it is, in a way, that doesn’t make it necessarily much less skewed than the personal history that our teacher was building her arguments from.

There were of course other factors at play here. The two students were both men and our teacher a woman; they were both pursuing postgraduate study and while I’m not certain of our teacher’s educational history I’m fairly certain that she hasn’t done the same; and of course, the entire discussion was taking place in English, a language that my classmates were clearly native speakers in and which our teacher, while quite fluent, still had a noticeable Chinese accent in and likely didn’t use too much in highly academic conversations. Each of these dimensions added to the perceived legitimacy and authority of my classmates relative to our teacher, and the sum of them all together was paralyzing and infuriating. I sat silent, watching them go back and forth, waiting for these unspoken balances of power that ran through our class all along to submerge again, so I could just go back to learning the language my family spoke. (We did eventually get back to our Mandarin lesson, and I couldn’t help but feel as a kick of satisfaction as the two students proceeded to struggle through the passage we were reading. Here, at last, the imbalance could serve as something of a corrective).

I don’t discount the fact that my classmates likely do know a lot about China and its sociopolitical history. In some ways they likely know much more than I do, could probably reference dates and names and events that I’ve barely heard of. Having spent the majority of my life in large academic institutions I have also become accustomed to respecting that type of knowledge, and in many other situations my inclination would likely be to rely it on quite heavily to shape and inform my opinions. But seeing it on display here, used by people so sure of their right-ness not just about the subject matter but about someone else’s personal experience, made me so aware of the ways that legitimacy is afforded to some kinds of knowledge over others, for reasons that have very little to do with the knowledge itself and very much to do with where it comes from. 

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2 thoughts on “On language, academia, and ‘legitimate’ knowledge

  1. The fact is, if those classmates of yours had to maintain the conversation in English, they haven’t spent much time in China, their Mandarin is not that great, and they probably don’t actually have the authority that they’re posturing. Moreover, any westerner who thinks the whole ‘democracy’ vs. China debate is a viable approach to understanding Chinese politics, or to demonstrating a nuanced grasp of Chinese politics, is really kind of a fool. Ouch.

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