Public Shame in Education: Some Cultures Use It

This¬†article¬†about a teacher being terminated for supposedly “bullying” a bully made me think about an amusing incident when I was living in Vietnam.

I know nothing about the situation in the article, so I cannot comment whether the school administrators were right or not. However, the contrast in the educational philosophies between the United States and Vietnam are quick stark when you hear what happened to me.

When we were living in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam back in the late 1990s, we enrolled our eldest daughter in a Vietnamese grammar school. (I will have to post photos another day) My blonde-haired daughter was the only foreigner in the whole school. She learned all her subjects in Vietnamese, making lots of friends and becoming proficient in the language.

After several months of daily school activities, we received a note from the teacher that she would be holding a parent-teacher conference and that all parents, with their students were expected to attend.

I showed up to the classroom on a Saturday morning to find everyone there at the same time. We each filed into the room and were asked to sit down in the small desks as the teacher came to the teaching platform and greeted everyone.

Then to my amazement, the conference began. In Vietnam, everyone has a parent-teacher conference at the same time in front of everyone else.

The teacher began going down her list, talking about various students and their strengths and weaknesses. Let me reiterate: IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!

It was fascinating.

And then she came upon the name of one particularly naughty boy. She began to scold his parents because of his lazy attitude and how he wasn’t working hard enough.

This was getting good!

And then she added this: “And Mr. —, your son is doing poorly with his math. Look at Brittany. She is a foreigner. And she is only learning the Vietnamese language, but she is doing better work than your son!”

I gulped. I looked at the father’s face and he beaming with a grin from ear to ear. The other parents were laughing and looking at him, and I just had this awkward feeling in the back of my throat.

Talk about peer pressure! The father kept smiling, and left the scene without making a fuss. But I am sure that that little boy had the whipping of his life when he got home. I’m also sure that his grades and effort dramatically increased from there on out.

Public shame and humiliation is a powerful weapon that a Vietnamese teacher will use. Why? Because a Vietnamese teacher has the power. The teacher has status. The teacher is revered and respected. When the teacher calls someone out, behavior changes will be made.

I’m not sure public shame in America would do any good, but the underlying values and philosophy of the two systems at least should give us reason to think.


Your Highness, Walt Disney, and other words we don’t think about

How often have you come across words that we use everyday only to finally realize how strange they are or what type of hidden meaning lurks deep inside the etymology of the word?

I’ve often been struck by how a person’s name becomes something completely different. ‘Walt Disney’ is a perfect example of it. It has become some common place and ubiquitous that the term signifies an entertainment conglomerate, but once upon a time there was a Mrs. Disney who named her son Walter. Walt was a boy who eventually ‘lost’ his name to colloquial English. That was one of the things I enjoyed most about the recent movie “Saving Mr. Banks” because it once again put a face to the common words we hear so often.

There are many other example of words that become so commonly used that they may lose their meaning. Or possibly they don’t lose their meaning but a normal person wouldn’t think about what it actually means.

The example that struck me the other day was “highness” such as “Your Highness.” I’ve been writing a short play called “The Last Princess” and one of the princess’ attendants used the words “your highness” to refer to her.

I stopped and pondered on the word “highness.” What the meaning of that?

It wasn’t hard to surmise that this is about status. A prince, princess, or any royalty has a status above everyone else. They have a “highness” about them. Everyone else bows in their presence. They sit on a throne high and above the common man. They have an ancestry that is revered, a lineage that is esteemed above all others, they may even have the Mandate of Heaven, a blessing from God upon their heads.

As an American who grew up without a monarchy, I have a heard time understanding the lure of status. A monarch is a person just like any other and yet we confer on them a high status – a highness. It seems to be a status that, to me, belongs in storybooks and fairy tales, but I understand the modern allure of keeping a country’s past monarchy alive. It is part of their culture and history and I respect that.

But “your highness” is not just a term that we use for a monarch, it is a special delineation that says that person is set apart, higher than myself, special, deserving of praise and adoration. I guess it takes someone like me to write about “The Last Princess” – an equalizing of society where everyone is of the same status and everyone has the same opportunities to live their lives how they please.

It may just be a word, but it is definitely packed full of meaning.

And those were the ramblings inside my brain about the small phrase “your highness.”