Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mao quotes: another indictment of U.S. education

On Friday, the Kids' Zone of the U.S. Department of Education put up a quote that was quickly criticized and ultimately yanked. Buzzfeed had the scoop:

It's "The Quote of the Day" box that's highlighted. What it says:
"Our attitude towards ourselves should be 'to be satiable in learning' and towards others 'to be tireless in teaching'"--Mao Zedong
After the choice began to be roundly mocked and criticized, the Department of Education removed it, then replaced it with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, as Buzzfeed details. Still, the criticism didn't stop. Slate rightly predicted--in a piece with a sarcastic title--this reaction. Right-leaning blogs and media sources jumped on the use of the quote as evidence of "communist" leanings at the Department of Education at worst, or simple ignorance at best. The argument in the latter regard is as follows: Mao was responsible for millions upon millions of deaths; he shouldn't be a source of quotes for kids, period.

The Department responded to the situation with the following statement:
The Kids' Zone website hosted by the National Center of Education Statistics earlier today featured a poorly chosen quote, intended to highlight the importance of teaching and learning, in the 'Quote of the Day' feature. This feature, which automatically generates one education-related quote per day from a database of quotes last updated in 2007, has been temporarily suspended pending a review of the database's contents.
Frankly, that's very fair and likely very true. That said, there's a lot more to all of this. Read the comments section at Buzzfeed. It's a little scary in my opinion. There are people justifying Mao and communism, people talking about all the good Mao did and the like, but most significantly arguing that there's nothing wrong with the quote in general. Of course there is. It's wrong.

The  quote as given has Mao saying we should be "satiable in learning," which means we should limit out learning. That's not a pro-learning quote in the least. Exactly the opposite. Slate notes the quote has likely been mangled; The Weekly Standard corrects it, sort of:
The “Kids’ Zone,” of course, was channeling Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (or more likely one of the thousands of “quotable quotes” websites on the Internet that mistakenly render insatiable as satiable.
A Google search of the quote does indeed render all sorts of quote pages listing it in the form given by the Department of Education, illustrating the problem with web-based quotations once again. But the quote is not from the Little Red Book, it's from The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War. Here's an actual source and the actual quote in context, kind of:
What are the characteristics of the present movement [Communism in China]? What are its laws? How is it to be directed? These are all practical questions. To this day we do not yet understand everything about Japanese imperialism, or about China. The movement is developing, new things have yet to emerge, and they are emerging in an endless stream. To study this movement in its entirety and in its development is a great task claiming our constant attention. Whoever refuses to study these problems seriously and carefully is no Marxist.

Complacency is the enemy of study. We cannot really learn anything until we rid ourselves of complacency. Our attitude towards ourselves should be "to be insatiable in learning" and towards others "to be tireless in teaching".
Very clearly, the quote in context is about studying for the sake of propelling the movement, not for the sake of knowledge in it's own right. And the teaching bit is about teaching others in order to bring them into the same movement. It's cult-speak, plain and simple.

Older translations of the same bit are more revealing. This is how it is written in the collected works of Mao that are in my library:
The enemy of our study is self-complacency; anyone who wants really to learn something must first of all get rid of self-complacency. "To learn without satiety" in regard to ourselves and "to teach without weariness" in regard to others--that is the attitude we should adopt.
Note how very different this reads from the one used by the Department of Education, the one permeating the internet. Mao is not speaking in general; the "we" at the end makes this clear. He is speaking to other communists, to his followers alone. But more importantly, the two bits he quotes--"to learn without satiety" and "to teach without weariness"--point to what is really going on here: Mao is twisting traditional Confucian doctrines to his own use. From The Book of Mencius (my boldface):
Mencius said, 'Oh! what words are these? Formerly Tsze-kung asked Confucius, saying, "Master, are you a Sage?" Confucius answered him, "A Sage is what I cannot rise to. I learn without satiety, and teach without being tired." Tsze-kung said, "You learn without satiety:-- that shows your wisdom. You teach without being tired:-- that shows your benevolence. Benevolent and wise:-- Master, you ARE a Sage." Now, since Confucius would not allow himself to be regarded as a Sage, what words were those?'
Some of the responses with regard to the Mao quote claim a good quote is a good quote, no matter who said it. The Slate piece says Mao is "extremely quotable." Maybe, but this quote--even when correctly rendered--is not evidence of either claim, for it is from Confucius, not Mao. And in its original form--that I have now given--it is a most excellent quote, one of humility and goodness.

But no one, it seems, is aware of either point: where the real quote actually comes from and that the origin of the quote is Confucius. Nor could they be bothered to discover these things, before spouting off about the incident in one way or another. The lesson here seems to be that the serious lack of critical thinking abilities on display may very well be the U.S. education system's epithet.

Cheers, all.


  1. Well said.
    Also, in Mao's quote, there are quotation marks around "to be insatiable in learning" and "to be tireless in teaching". This is a clear sign that these two phrases are quoted from other sources. It is a shame that people fail to notice that.

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